Ung: Why You Should be Dining in Fort Lee Now

asian-food

The sleek City Perch Kitchen + Bar and its related movie theater will open next month in Fort Lee’s Hudson Lights development with much fanfare, with Wolfgang Puck’s former executive partner in charge of the seasonal New American fare.

But anyone headed there shouldn’t skip the other captivating dining scene that’s been unfolding on the streets of Fort Lee, where a spirited and diverse collection of ethnic eats includes trends migrating over from Manhattan – Japanese rice-flour crêpes, anyone?

The town has long been known in foodie circles for its broad and deep array of Korean restaurants, which the food magazine Saveur this spring proclaimed superior to that of Manhattan. “For the best Korean food in New York, you gotta leave the city for a quiet town across the GW Bridge,” the headline said.

But Fort Lee is also home to two of North Jersey’s best ramen spots, a new Cantonese restaurant rolling carts of dim sum every day, and more varieties of bubble tea and shaved ice desserts than I knew existed. As of the last several months alone, you can also find Cuban sandwiches, Dominican pollo guisado, and deep-fried hot dogs at a new branch of the Callahan’s hot-dog emporium (the original was in Fort Lee until 2006).

“I love the diversity, and I’m excited to see what’s coming,” says Manhattan chef Justin Smillie. He cooks nationally acclaimed food at the Park Avenue restaurant Upland, but on his days off, Smillie and his family can be found dining all over the town they moved to two years ago. You may run into them eating soft tofu stew at So Kong Dong, which they dine in at least twice a month, or knife-cut Korean noodles at Myung Dong Noodle House, Vietnamese food at Saigon Kitchen or soup at Batten Ramen.

Earlier this month, I slurped freshly made Japanese soba noodles at one of Fort Lee’s newer restaurants, Soba Noodle Azuma, with a friend of a friend who routinely takes a bus ride from Washington Heights to eat in Fort Lee. Sure, Esther Eunbyul Lee told me, she could take the subway down to Koreatown instead, but the 27-year-old says her favorite Fort Lee spots, Masil House and Sa Rit Gol, are cheaper and better than anything in the city.

Along Main Street, where some of these spots are concentrated, new, wider sidewalks and newly renovated restaurants replacing older ones have made for a much more pleasant strolling experience. Instead of a piecemeal collection of businesses, it’s starting to feel more like a cohesive downtown area.

“Main Street used to be so outdated,” said David Weng, who ran a Malaysian restaurant there until recently. After some personnel problems, Weng closed House of Malaysia and turned to a trend that hit Manhattan a few years ago and is tailor-made for an area where people stroll – Japanese crêpes made from rice flour.

His new T-Swirl serves those gluten-free crêpes stuffed with savory ingredients such as steak or smoked salmon, or sweet ingredients such as matcha custard crème or chocolate truffles. As pop music blasts, young workers artfully wrap them in cone shapes that make memorable social media photos. Next door, Weng has opened an adjoining dessert spot hawking a broad array of shaved-cream desserts as well as smoothies and bubble teas.

“Come on, we cannot let the New Yorkers have all the fun. We need to have some fun, too,” said Weng, who said his new customer base was much younger than his previous one.

T-Swirl has a fan in celebrity chef David Burke, who has lived in the town since 2001 and recently moved into The Modern rental tower, occasionally walking over for a crêpe.

“I’m very excited about what is happening in Fort Lee,” said Burke, who praises the town’s revitalization efforts and says he wants to open a restaurant there, as he has been talking about for several years. “The demographic of the people living in The Modern are people that will eat out frequently,” Burke said. “Fort Lee needs a great flagship restaurant that can represent the state of New Jersey and I think I can do that, I just need to find the right space.”

In the meantime? There’s no shortage of things to chew on there.

Email: ung@northjersey.com Twitter: @elisaung

Where to eat in Fort Lee: A sampling of the area’s dining scene

Opened in the last year

Aquarius, daily dim sum and Cantonese fare from the owner of Joyce Chinese in Fort Lee and River Edge. 230-234 Main Street, 201-592-8338, aquariusrestaurantnj.com

Babalu Cuban Cafe, Cuban. 302-304 Main St., 201-482-4989, facebook.com/babalucubancafe

The Beer Spot and Grill, craft beer and American food, 2027 Lemoine Ave., 201-461-9740, thebeerspotandgrill.com

Callahan’s the Original, resurrected hot dog emporium that was in Fort Lee until 2006. 1400 Anderson Ave., 201-947-3213, callahans-theoriginal.com

Ko Ryeo Grill, the longtime Plaza Diner given a Korean makeover. 2045 Lemoine Ave., 201-944-8681, fortleeplazadiner.com/koryeogrill

Kung Fu Tea, part of a chain of bubble tea and slushes and other drinks. 2151 Lemoine Ave., 201-461-0398, kfteausa.com

Prost, bar with Korean and American foods. 1638 Schlosser St. 201-461-1600, facebook.com/prostnj/

Punta Cana, small Dominican eatery. 2151 Lemoine Ave., 201-849-5556, facebook.com/puntacanarestaurante

Soba Noodle Azuma, fresh Japanese buckwheat noodles. 246 Main St., 201-585-1319.

Soup Dumpling Plus, Xiaolongbao soup dumplings and other Shanghaiese fare. 1550 Lemoine Ave #109, 201-944-0901, soupdumplingplus.com

T-Swirl and Q Tea Tapas, Japanese crepes, plus shaved ice desserts and bubble tea. 244 Main St., 201-363-8838, http://t-swirlcrepe.com/

Korean standouts

Busan Gukbap, tiny spot for soups and stews. 2444 Lemoine Ave., Fort Lee, 201-944-0300

Caffé Bene, part of a large South Korean-based coffeehouse chain. 1636 Palisade Ave. 201-779-5422, caffebeneusa.com

Dong Bang Grill, popular barbecue spot. 1616 Palisade Ave., 201-242-4485, dongbanggrill.com

Masil House, specializes in stews and soups. 400 Main St., 201-592-7390

Myung Dong Noodle House, specializes in kalguksu, a noodle soup. 2013 Lemoine Ave., 201-592-6900

Sa Rit Gol, soups and stews. 166 Main St., 201-944-1201

So Dong Kong, specializes in soft tofu soups. 130 Main St., 201-585-1122.

Other notables

Batten Ramen, longtime ramen standout. 2024 Center Ave., 201-461-5465.

D’s Steak Pit and The Boiling Pot, longtime steak spot with barbecue; on its second floor, Cajun-style seafood boils are served. 124 Main St., 201-461-0444, jdssteak.com

Khloe Bistrot, stylish French bistro. 200 Main St., 201-461-9700, khloebistrot.com

Menya Sandaime, outstanding made-from-scratch ramen and gyoza. 1638 Parker Ave., Fort Lee; 201-482-4141.

Mood ’wiches and Tast Eatery, sister fast-casual eateries that emphasize clean ingredients. Mood ’wiches is at 2448 Lemoine Ave., 201-944-1404, Tast Eatery is at 1224 Anderson Ave., 201-313-8278, tast.us

Prime & Beyond Meat House, acclaimed steakhouse. 501 Main St., 201-461-0033, primeandbeyond.com

Saigon Kitchen, Vietnamese. 2024 Center Ave., 201-592-8890.

Yamagata, sushi and Japanese food. 1636 Palisade Ave., 201-585-0469.

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