Road Trip


By / Photography By Cathy Miller | February 23, 2018
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Fresh, creative energy permeates this historic city

Fresh fig jam pizza at The Vault

Slices of cheese bread at Mastoris Diner

An HOB Tavern bar favorite—buffalo-Parm-garlic wings with celery and carrots

Three of Neelma’s unique cupcake flavors

In Bordentown, history’s echo is inescapable. Red-brick buildings date back centuries and harbor stories. The city has housed rabble rousers, inventors and exiled kings, including Joseph Bonaparte, big brother to Napoleon. If you are of a certain temperament, you might say it feels a bit haunted, right down to the rambling millworks by the railroad tracks and the Revolutionary-era tombstones in Christ Church Graveyard. Yet to spend time here is to sense an upswell of new energy. Downtown, colonial-style lampposts juxtapose with upstart boutiques. People of all walks mingle, from long-time residents to creative types who appreciate the draw of riverside life. Though downtown can feel crisp quiet on certain evenings, one only has to open the door to any restaurant or shop to encounter a tumble of warm conversation. It’s like the best of a city and small town rolled into one: Home to just under 4,000 souls, the city feels primed for its next chapter.

And this creative revival is luring young natives back home.

“A lot of younger people are moving in,” says Aubrie Evans of Properly Fueled, who also sees friends she grew up with coming back home. Sarah McEwan of Mimosa Goods concurs. “I grew up here and moved back when we had kids,” she says. “Bordentown City is one square mile. We’re proud of that—that we pack so much into such a tiny little space. We have a lot of artists that live in town. A lot of history of artists who lived in Bordentown. I feel like there is something rolling, something new.”

This includes new options on the plate. Throughout this compact downtown that hugs the Delaware River’s banks, a buzzing food scene hums just below the radar. Talk to the locals, and you get the sense that this is just how they like it.

Tartine Sampler at Properly Fueled

Matthew Harris, chef at Properly Fueled, and Aubrie Evans, owner

9am: A Healthy Start

Given its highway proximity, Bordentown is deep in diner country. There’s Mastoris and its cheese bread, a bready riff on a cream-cheese Danish. There’s tiny Wisdom Diner and Angie’s Luncheonette, where local intel suggests that the Mexican menu is the true draw. Yet to limit one’s experiences to greasy spoons would be to miss out. The new game in town is Properly Fueled, the mantra for which serves as a rallying cry: “Be clean. Go green. Be cool. Eat fuel.” Guided by mother-daughter duo Denise and Aubrie Evans—who look like sisters—part one of that mission is achieved by way of Princeton’s Small World Coffee, which supplies Crispy Hippie beans. Small World Coffee is one of a number of local partners, from Fernbrook Farms to Nature’s Own, who power an organic, seasonal menu with a whole-foods spin. “When we travel or go to big cities, there are all of these great healthy options,” Aubrie says. “We felt like it wasn’t here yet.” So, behind a kitchen door papered in vegetable print, they decided to do something about it.

Enlisting Johnson & Wales-trained chef Matthew Harris, the cafe turns out vegetable-forward dishes that showcase local growers. Sip a tea elixir and order the tartine sampler. It brings together three sourdough or gluten-free toasts: Avocado Smash (with lime, sea salt and microgreens), The Nutty Money (banana, peanut butter, honey and coconut) and a seasonal riff. “When you have healthy food, there’s a connection to the produce,” Aubrie says. Above her, a vintage Raleigh bicycle hangs from the wall. Originally owned by her maternal grandfather, who used it for his paper route, it’s a testament to the power of hard work. “You can start from something really small.”

10am: History Walk

Properly . . . well . . . fueled, it’s time to delve into Bordentown’s backstory. Packed with buildings dating as far back as the mid- 1700s, the compact city makes for an evocative walk. It’s like time-traveling, which turns out to be appropriate: Railroad engineer (and then-Bordentown resident) William F. Allen created standard time in the US, adopted in 1883. He’s in good company. Clara Barton launched her free schoolhouse here in the 1850s, validating the public-school system. (She later founded the American Red Cross.) Patience Lovell Wright is known as America’s first sculptor. Then there’s hometown hero Thomas Paine, author of the 1776 political tract “Common Sense,” which helped launch the Revolutionary War. You can properly toast your independence at Common Sense Brewing, which opened in September. Try the German wheat “Hessianweizen.” Hessians occupied Bordentown the same year Paine’s pamphlet was published.

entrance to Mimosa Goods

Christ Church Cemetery on Prince Street

Randy Now’s Man Cave

12pm: Pizza, Pizza

If you squint and imagine parlors of days past, you might envision Anthony’s Pizza Town. Vintage globe lights burn with a throwback ‘70s glow. Burnt-orange arches match the tomato pie’s sauce. The first thing one notices, however—lured in by the vintage highway sign bearing a mustachioed Anthony—is the velvet Elvis and Marilyn portraits staring down. Anthony will know you’re new, and ask if you’re from town. Expect a quip: “What? Did you get lost or something?” Cheesesteaks are simple and satisfying, the product of a man who has been at his trade for decades. Order that or a slice and pair it with a Birra Italia. (It’s not the best lager you’ll taste in your life, but it fits the scene.) As you leave, Anthony may lament your exit with a slight grin: “Well, I’ll never see you again.” He knows from experience that you’ll return.

In the evenings, locals also head to The Vault for Gian Belardo’s wood-fired Neapolitan pies. Old-world types should opt for the D.O.C., an homage to tradition, which arrives simply dressed with stellar ingredients: imported mozzarella di bufala, San Marzano tomatoes, basil and olive oil. Fig-jam pizza crowned with prosciutto di Parma also draws raves. Belardo’s chewy crust features a star-scape of char, courtesy of a 900-degree oven imported from Naples. Wielding a broom-length pizza peel, he chats up customers as he teases flame from oak and cherry wood to impart flavor to the dough.

1:30pm: For the Records

You need not be a man to enjoy Randy Now’s Man Cave, where vinyl, CDs and comic books fill every inch. Look for the ceramic bust of Elvis in the window. (America’s king still reigns here.) There are treasures to uncover, such as the original 1957 pressing of Odetta’s At the Gate of Horn that I picked up for $5.99. Down the road, The Record Collector is another haven of analog sound and looks the part, with a hot-pink neon sign and pastel exterior. Both spots offer intimate concerts, from funk and garage rock to blues.

2:30pm: Turmeric and Cupcakes

In a downtown café, banker-turned-baker Neelma Patel rotates through 320 cupcake varieties at her namesake Cake Box by Neelma. Some are eyebrow-raising, such as a pork roll and apple version. “We will experiment with anything,” Patel says. “We’ll do some of the most bizarre things.” Indian by way of Tanzania, Patel also finds inspiration in childhood flavors. “There’s no such thing as an original cupcake,” she says. Yet a few come mighty close. The kulfi cupcake evokes Indian ice cream, flavored with cardamom, saffron and pistachio. Seductive mango-coconut uses Alphonso mango pulp. “It’s harvested in India only one time a year.” Don’t miss the golden latte, a pick-me-up with a ginger-chili kick that comes stained canary yellow with turmeric. “Whole milk protein brings out the most potency in the curcumin in the turmeric,” Patel says. “That’s how we grew up drinking it. It’s a cure for everything in our culture.”

Customers enjoy conversation, wings and a beer at HOB Tavern

a large selection of fair-trade chocolate at Mimosa Goods

John Bull (an early, steam-driven locomotive) mural over counter

Under The Moon on Farnsworth Avenue

4pm: Main Street Shop Hop

At Solider 58, shoppers benefit from Paul Duffy and Johanna Schwab’s impeccable style. Cocktail enthusiasts will appreciate the deep collection of vintage barware. From curved carts with original brass fittings to sexy decanters, everything one needs to recreate the Mad Men experience is here. Cheeky, all-natural cocktail mixes from Wilmington, NC—based White Whale make fast work of mixing up a drink back home. “Auntie’s Old-Fashioned” offers a twist in the form of rosemary oil, pear juice and youngberry puree.

Mimosa Goods focuses on wares that do good, from plant-based homecare and organic make-up to fair-trade Theo Chocolate. Owner Sarah McEwan, who opened the shop in 2016, seeks out companies like The Shine Project, an Arizona jewelry brand that gives scholarships to first-generation college students. Look for wind chimes fashioned from cutlery by jewelry artist Pamela Dahl and handy tiffin lunch pails.

5:30pm: Stop for a Drink

The softly lit bar at Toscano Ristorante & Steakhouse is a sophisticated place to begin your evening over a glass of wine—but be sure to get there early. Even on weeknights, it fills up fast. Craft-draft seekers should head to neighborhood spot HOB Tavern. That stands for “Heart of Bordentown,” and rumor has it, the black-bean burger is a standout. (Ditto on the burger accolades for Mattew McElmoyl’s Oliver—A Bistro. They’re served at lunch and on weeknights, and the Bacon Jam Burger features Cherry Grove Farm’s Buttercup Brie.)

7pm: Dinner to Share

Bewitched by the city’s glow as the old-fashioned streetlights come on, it seems fitting to end at Under the Moon, where Argentinian and North American influences dance on the plate. Owned by mother-and-son duo Estela (Mama) Buontempo Orosco and Santiago Orosco, the space is eclectically romantic. Converted Singer sewing machines serve as tables, and sawed-off vintage suitcases form shelves. Mismatched plates make it feel like you’re at a friend’s home. The soundtrack: jazz, both American and Latin. The perfume: roasted garlic, intense and heavenly. The memory that will linger, however, is the vinegar-laced chimichurri, which is made with Argentinian spices and served with both the bread course and a proper Argentinian beef empanada. The restaurant serves a $30 prix-fixe dinner during the week, but with a group, tapas are more fun. It will be difficult but necessary to save room for Mama’s homemade desserts. As you dig into a Nutella-chocolate crepe cake with near-endless layers, you can watch her chat with the wait staff from her table up front. They clearly view her as family.

The Cake Box by Neelma

mid-century decor at Soldier 58

at Properly Fueled, a 1950s-era Raleigh bicycle hangs on the wall

eight craft beers on tap, part of an always-changing selection at HOB Tavern

Angie’s Luncheonette
15 Park St.

Anthony’s Pizza Town
252 US Route 130

Cake Box by Neelma
222 Farnsworth Ave.

Common Sense Brewing
102 Farnsworth Ave.

HOB Tavern
146 Second St.

Routes 130 &
206 609.298.4650

Mimosa Goods
117 Farnsworth Ave.

Properly Fueled
1½ Crosswicks St.

Randy Now’s Man Cave
134 Farnsworth Ave.

The Record Collector
358 Farnsworth Ave.

Soldier 58
225 Farnsworth Ave.

Toscano Ristorante
136 Farnsworth Ave.

Under the Moon
210 Farnsworth Ave.

The Vault (BYOB)
300 Farnsworth Ave.

Wisdom Diner
1024 Rt. 206

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