Why am I just now discovering the food culture of tiny ethnic delis in central New Jersey? (Remember, the term “delicatessen” originally meant a place where food delicacies are sold – not processed cold cuts.) First there was La Costeñita in Hillsborough, the wonderful Mexican place I reviewed last winter. Over the years, they transitioned from being a Mexican grocery with some prepared foods, to today’s Mexican restaurant with some groceries. Now in full bloom, it’s my favorite place around for that cuisine.
Then, more recently, my food writing colleague, Pat Tanner, discovered Kusina Pilipina up Route 27 in Franklin Park. She let me tag along when she visited, her post about that is here. There are just a few grocery items here (I especially noticed the breads), so the focus is on freshly prepared home style Filipino food, mostly to go, although there are a couple of stools which let us enjoy our lunches on the spot and visit with the personable owner, Mae Morales. She does a good business in catering trays for family events, but if you show up hungry with a curious mind, and ask about the hot foods of the day, they are totally accommodating to helping you put together a combo plate so you can try a number of things. We ate everything in front of us, plus took more home to sample later! Like Pat, I thought maybe I didn’t care for Filipino food based on what I’d tried in the past, which I found heavy, salty, etc. But Ms. Morales has lightened up the cuisine for today’s more health-conscious diners, and cut back on salt, too, so anyone can enjoy it.
Meanwhile, on my way back from trips to La Costeñita (and HomeGoods!), I’d noticed Halinka Polish Deli on Route 206 South, at the corner of Amwell Road, so I dragged Pat there the other day. This is another cuisine I’ve just never “gotten,” as what I’d occasionally tried over the years had seemed too heavy and rich. But this was, we both agreed, another revelation!
First, the stuffed cabbage. I’ve never cared much for stuffed vegetables, and when I’ve tried this dish in the past those rolls have been food bombs to me, like a heavy torpedo with unpleasantly strong flavors. But at Halinka Polish Deli, which is owned by Halina Herdzik, the rolls were as mild and tender as could be, filled with rice and finely ground pork. They fell apart under my fork, and even the tomato sauce was light, with a nice tartness, not a heavy rich sauce at all. The same was true of light-as-air pork meatballs in mushroom sauce (I usually find all kinds of meatballs too heavy). Potato pancakes were nice and thin, and potato-cheese perogies were better than what I’ve tried before, although I’ll always like them best fried to slight crispness.
We each had a short piece of kielbasa (smoked in house by husband Zbigniew Herdzik), and some delicious sauerkraut stew too. The former was salty and fatty, but that’s to be expected with kielbasa of course, and the sauerkraut stew was tender and briny, with flecks of ham and shredded carrot in it. That actually went especially well with the mild, plain, perogies, and I believe it is called bigos, after researching it on Wikipedia, where it says it’s often served with mashed potatoes or rye bread. Combination plates are $7.99, and Ms. Herdzik’s very obliging son behind the counter let us trade off some duplicate items between the #1 and #2 combos so we could try as many dishes as possible. Next time I’ll try the chicken or pork cutlets, and maybe a goulash. There’s lots more to explore here, just in hot foods alone.
Follow the signs to the back of the deli, where there is a bare-bones windowed dining area where you can eat – we had it to ourselves!
After that, we shopped in the extensive grocery section back up front, full of fascinating finds, like bottled sour rye starter for traditional sour soup, and stacks of large crisp wafers, a shortcut for preparing Polish tortes. The impeccably maintained shelves are packed with interesting foods. There were tons of pickled vegetables, lots of beets of course, and both dried and preserved Boletus mushrooms, in interesting jars and cellophane packages – think Porcini, only Polish. I bought home a package of cockscomb-shaped pasta (from a wonderful selection of all kinds of Polish egg noodles), a jar of shredded celery root “salad,” sour cherry preserves (a Polish specialty), and a pretty blue bottle of Perlage effervescent mineral water from Poland. We also each grabbed a small bag of delicate mushroom dumplings from the same freezer case that held many kinds of Halinka’s perogies. I later read online that these little mushroom dumplings are often served with borscht, although I’ll probably have mine in chicken broth, or maybe just boiled and then buttered. And I’ll definitely be back to bring some perogies home, as I’m curious about those lately. There are interesting sausages in a cold case to try sometime too, so someday I’ll go up and take home the ingredients for a dinner.
I also bought a piece of outrageous-looking triple-layer walnut-mocha cake that I couldn’t resist for dessert at home that evening – almost a challenge, as it really looked like the over-the-top too sweet desserts one sees in diners everywhere. But this was amazingly good – the layers were light sponge, two of mild chocolate and one of walnuts in the middle. (Back in Poland, Ms. Herdzik was a trained chef and baker.) In between layers and on top of the cake was pure whipped cream, barely (if at all) sweetened. Eating this cake was like eating air, so I let myself feel somewhat virtuous about it. In the photo below of the dessert case, that cake is on the bottom; on the top shelf, glazed to resemble watermelon, was a soft cheesecake, one of a couple varieties of “sernik” on offer, the other was a dryer cheesecake with a cake layer on the bottom.
Halinka Polish Deli has been around for three years, we were told. It serves a large Polish/Eastern European population in nearby Manville. On the way out, Pat commented that delis like this are the perfect solution for someone who doesn’t want to cook but wants flavorful freshly prepared food to take home. I second that notion, if you want inexpensive home style prepared food, pay a trip to your nearest ethnic deli and give it a try.
Read more about owner Halina Herdzik and her family business in the Asbury Park Press story here.