Dining Stops Worth Making Along I-95

By Anthony Ewing / Photography By Anthony Ewing | December 01, 2015
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exits with pit stops

Road Food
 

The 225-mile stretch of interstate highway that connects New York City to Washington, DC, is one of the most heavily traveled roadways in the country. So when Edible Jersey asked me to find the most memorable eats along I-95, I faced two dilemmas—picking the food and navigating the traffic.

Anyone who drives this particular portion of the I-95 corridor—which continues north to New England and south to Florida—knows how frustrating this highway can be. Sections have been “under construction” since it was designated an interstate in 1957. Traffic jams materialize out of nowhere, turning a four-hour trip into a six-hour odyssey, or worse on holiday weekends. Then there is an inexplicable gap where I-95 disappears entirely between Exit 7A on the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 1 in Mercer County before resurfacing to cross the Delaware in Ewing Township.

In fact, I-95 will not be officially completed until a planned interchange connects the Pennsylvania Turnpike with I-95 north of Philadelphia, extending I-95 to Exit 6 of the New Jersey Turnpike. I have traveled I-95 in both directions for years, from Jersey to Maine to Miami and back. In August, I made the pilgrimage to DC to drop my oldest daughter off for her first year of college.

I’ll be making the trip often in the next few years, so this assignment was a nice excuse to stop and eat along the way. But where are the worthy stops? How could anyone possibly narrow down the hundreds of food options along the route?

I set some rules. Eight of the ten local restaurants below are less than three miles from an I-95 exit. (Cranbury Pizza and Keren Restaurant are a little farther.) I avoided upscale, expensive places—this is a road trip after all. I picked eateries worth stopping for, because of either the quality of their food or the flavor of their local character, and I tried to choose a wide range of cuisines. Every restaurant is open for lunch, all but one (John’s) for dinner, and a few serve breakfast. Check online for current hours of operation before you pull off the highway.

This Edible road trip starts above the Hudson River in the middle of the George Washington Bridge. We have left Upper Manhattan behind and are heading west and then south.

so kong dong
plate lunch

1 SOFT TOFU RESTAURANT (SO KONG DONG) (Exit 72B)
130 Main St., Fort Lee, NJ
201.242.0026
Open for lunch and dinner

We have barely breached the New Jersey Palisades, but it is already time to eat. We take the exit into Fort Lee, the heart of Bergen County’s large Korean community. We need something cheap and fortifying for the journey ahead, so let’s stop for soft tofu stew (soondubu jjigae) and Korean BBQ short ribs (kalbi) at Soft Tofu Restaurant on Main Street. We place our order while waiting on line for a table at this very popular local restaurant. The stew varieties include beef, pork and seafood. Every bowl can be ordered “white” (mild), medium, spicy or very spicy. Spicy works for my bowl of beef and kimchi. For only $10 a bowl, we get traditional banchan (small plates of bean sprouts, kimchi and spicy pickles) and a heaping bowl of rice for the table. Then come the steaming, piping-hot porcelain pots of silken tofu. Crack a raw egg in the bowl to thicken the bubbling broth flavored with dried anchovies, sea kelp and Korean red pepper. We use the meat scissors to cut up our slab of sweet grilled short ribs.

potatoes in a cup

2 TOMMY’S ITALIAN SAUSAGE & HOT DOGS (Exit 13A)
900 Second Ave., Elizabeth, NJ
908.351.9831
Open for lunch and dinner

Our next stop is in Elizabeth, New Jersey’s fourth-largest city. During the Revolutionary War, British troops attacked “Elizabethtown” by crossing the ice from Staten Island. Our approach is much easier: All we need to do is drive past Newark Airport. We decide to stop at Tommy’s for a classic only-in-Jersey food, the Italian hot dog. They were first served in Newark in the 1930s—a half-round soft pizza roll slathered with spicy mustard and filled with a deep-fried hot dog (or two, or three, or a sausage if you’re hungry), grilled peppers, onions and sliced potatoes. At Tommy’s, a takeout-only window that has been serving dogs in the same location since 1969, the deep-fried potatoes are the main attraction. They are so good we can order “potatoes in a cup” by themselves. An Italian hot dog is much messier than your average hot dog. I suggest we stretch our legs and finish ours on one of the benches in the tiny triangular park across the street.

cranbury pizza

3 CRANBURY PIZZA (Exit 8A)
63 N. Main St., Cranbury, NJ
609.409.9930
Open for lunch and dinner

At Exit 8A, former site of the turnpike’s infamous car- and trucklane merge, we escape the traffic to visit one of New Jersey’s oldest towns for New Jersey-style pizza. Cranbury Pizza occupies a small storefront on Main Street in the historic 19th-century village center. Quintessential New Jersey-style pizza, for me, is a straightforward round pie with a flavorful, chewy crust, thick at the edges, that holds its shape when you fold a slice—nothing too fancy, too saucy or too floppy. The pies that emerge from Cranbury’s brick oven are excellent examples. The crust, neither too thin nor too thick, has nice chewiness around the edge with good flavor. Like the charming town, the brick oven behind the counter looks pretty old, always a good sign for producing a flavorful crust. The plain cheese pie has a nice sauceto- cheese balance. The tomato sauce is on the salty side, just the way I like it. We can buy a pie, or pizza by the slice.

restaurant on i95

4 RESTAURANTE EL MARIACHI (Exit 7A)
762 Roebling Ave., Trenton, NJ
609.393.0035
Open for lunch and dinner

At Exit 7A, we confront the infamous and often confounding Interstate 95 Gap. Here the New Jersey Turnpike continues, but it is no longer called Interstate 95. To get back on 95, we will need to head west toward Trenton, which gives us a great excuse to stop for some good tacos. We take I-195 west and Route 29 (Exit 60B) along the Delaware straight into Trenton’s historic Chambersburg neighborhood for authentic Guatemalan fare at Restaurante El Mariachi. This part of the city used to be filled with Italian food. A few Trenton institutions, like De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies (2350 Rte. 33, Robbinsville, NJ), have moved out of the city into the Mercer County suburbs. Immigrant entrepreneurs are filling the gaps.

The unmarked corner building housing El Mariachi used to be the Italian restaurant La Gondola, which explains the mural of Venice that remains on one wall of the dining room. Look for the neon “Open” sign under an orange tile roof. Inside, delicious handmade corn tortillas are bigger and thicker than your average Mexican tortilla. An order of grilled steak, tongue, pork or chicken tacos is easily dinner—served with a roasted scallion, sliced cucumbers, salad and avocado. A plate of three cheese-filled pupusas (stuffed tortillas) covered with shredded cabbage slaw is the equivalent of four grilled cheese sandwiches at most diners, and tastes better.

On our way back to I-95 over the Delaware on Route 1, look right to see the lettering on the Lower Trenton Bridge, “TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES,” the slogan that has proclaimed Trenton’s manufacturing prowess since 1911.

5 JOHN’S ROAST PORK (Exit 20)
14 East Snyder Avenue, Philadelphia, PA
215.463.1951
Open for breakfast and lunch

We hop back on I-95 in Pennsylvania and head south to Philadelphia. You can eat very well in the City of Brotherly Love. For our purposes, the perfect taste of Philly is the roast pork sandwich at John’s, an iconic cash-only food stand next to the railroad tracks within sight of the highway overpass. We get here around lunchtime (John’s closes at 3pm weekdays, 4pm on Saturdays, closed Sunday) and line up with the locals—firefighters, retirees, teenage couples, truckers, bikers and a few tourists. There are two lines: Order cheesesteaks at the first station. Order pork, roast beef and meatball sandwiches at the second. The system works well in the tiny space with dozens of sandwiches flying off the grill.

Order a roast pork, half or whole, with spinach and sharp provolone for one of the best sandwiches around, served here since 1930. The pork is roasted until falling apart, and kept moist in a hotel pan on the grill. After loading up an Italian hoagie roll, the servers shake the sandwich a few times to drain off the pork juices. We dig into them at the picnic tables outside.

two stones pub
lobster

6 TWOSTONES PUB (Exit 1B)
2 Chesmar Plz., Newark, DE
302.294.1890
Open for lunch and dinner

We won’t be in Delaware for long, but we can stop for some comforting pub grub while we’re here. Hidden in a highway strip mall between the interstate and the University of Delaware, Two Stones Pub, or 2SP, is known for its extensive draft beer selection, which includes local brews from Victory (Downingtown, Pennsylvania), Yards (Philadelphia) and plenty of Dogfish Head (Milton, Delaware). Our designated driver (me) isn’t drinking, so I focus on the food menu that includes soup specials like truffled mushroom; meatloaf; mac and cheese; burgers; and spicy fries served with hot sauce, melted cheese, bacon and scallions. Pass the mints and we are on to Maryland.

7 L. P . STEAMERS (Exit 55)
1100 E. Fort Ave., Baltimore, MD
410.576.9294
Open for lunch and dinner

We can’t drive through Baltimore without sampling some of the city’s best local seafood—steamed crabs fresh out of the Chesapeake Bay. Right off I-95 on the road to Fort McHenry, which famously defended Baltimore from British bombardment in the War of 1812, Locust Point Steamers serves up crabs by the dozen (priced by size—small, medium, large, jumbo—subject to availability) in a three-story, corner row house with a rooftop deck. The crabs are steamed in the basement, which means the college-age servers have to climb multiple flights of stairs to deliver the trays of whole crabs, dumping them directly onto the butcher paper covering our table. Picking and eating steamed crabs is a learned skill involving a wooden mallet, a butter knife and patience. Liberally covered with Old Bay Seasoning, the succulent crabmeat is a satisfying reward. We also order a bowl of Maryland crab soup while we wait for the steamers.

8 TASTE OF ALOHA (Exit 50A)
1405 Sulphur Spring Rd., Arbutus, MD
410.501.3030
Open for lunch and dinner

Robert Alcain, born on the island of Molokai, traveled the world while in the U.S. military. Then in 2013, he opened Taste of Aloha in a part of the country that is home to some 35,000 Polynesians, many of whom serve in the armed forces and are stationed nearby. Taste of Aloha serves the typical dishes you find at a Hawaiian roadside food shack. Spam, eggs and “spicy Hawaiian sauce” are prominent, and taste better than they sound. The menu includes Spam musubi (a slice of grilled Spam on pressed sushi-style rice), and traditional “plate lunches” with white rice; macaroni salad; and roast pork, chicken katsu, or teriyaki beef. Consider the loco moco—a hamburger, fried egg and brown mushroom sauce over rice—Hawaii’s version of disco fries.

9 COLLEGE PARK DINER (Exit 25A)
9206 Baltimore Ave., College Park, MD
301.441.8888
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner

After all that Spam, we are back in the right mood for classic diner fare. After I-95 hits the Capital Beltway (I-495), we take Route 1 south toward the University of Maryland. College Park Diner, open 24 hours, is the place for a hearty breakfast day or night. We can’t go wrong with the eggs, bacon, pancakes (all of the above for $3.95!) or the excellent hash browns. Now that we are south of the Mason-Dixon line, try the biscuits and gravy that delivers a peppery kick. This diner is not quite as shiny as the one director Barry Levinson rented and moved from New Jersey to Baltimore for his 1982 film Diner, but it hits all the right notes for any Jersey native.

keren restaurant

10 KEREN RESTAURANT & COFFEE SHOP (Exit 2B)
1780 Florida Ave. NW, Washington, DC
202.265.5764
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner

I-95 follows the beltway east around Washington, briefly entering the southernmost corner of the district for barely a tenth of a mile before turning south into Virginia. We have reached Washington, DC, our destination and home to all kinds of delicious food. For our final stop, let’s try something completely different: Eritrean cuisine at Keren, a small restaurant and café serving Washington’s East African community in the trendy, culturally diverse Adams Morgan neighborhood. Eritrea shares a culinary and cultural history with its southern neighbor Ethiopia, the country from which Eritrea gained its independence in 1993.

A Keren breakfast specialty is ful, mashed fava beans topped with yogurt, oil, chopped onions, and jalapeño slices. Order it with scrambled or hard-boiled eggs on top. Kitcha fit-fit, another typical Eritrean and Ethiopian breakfast, features shredded pieces of unleavened bread and dried beef bathed in a spicy sauce of red berbere spice mixture and clarified butter. Keren’s menu includes common Ethiopian stewed meat and vegetarian dishes, like tsebhi, served on injera flatbread and eaten without utensils. After the meal, we can de-stress from our long drive while sipping strong, freshly roasted Ethiopian coffee.

Article from Edible Jersey at http://ediblejersey.ediblecommunities.com/eat/dining-stops-along-i-95
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