January 2, 2011

I’ve noticed a few things scouring the state for New Jersey’s best ethnic food. No matter the cuisine, the best ethnic restaurants tend to share some common features. Here are 10 things to look for:

Las Banderas – Summit, NJ

1.  A wall mural

After gazing at Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano on the wall of The Banderas in Summit, NJ, contemplating Macchu Picchu at Misty’s in West Orange, and avoiding Pancho Villa’s stare at El Rancho in Orange, it dawned on me that floor to ceiling, hand-painted murals are a reliable sign of good ethnic food, especially Latin American food.

2.  Large families

Large groups with grandparents and young children are always a good sign at an ethnic restaurant. If you bring the whole family, the food must be good.

Sunny Palace – East Brunswick, NJ

3.  A fish tank

Without fail, my favorite Asian restaurants feature impressive fish tanks. I’m not sure why, but it’s a good sign for good food.

4.  A foreign language

A no-brainer, but authentic ethnic food usually means owners, chefs, servers and many customers speak the language. If no one at your favorite Szechuan spot understands Mandarin, you’re probably not eating the best Dan Dan Noodles. If the chef speaks Spanish and the family at the next table is speaking Spanish, you’re off to a good start for Peruvian food. If all you hear is English, hopefully there’s a foreign language on the menu. Not speaking the language can make ordering an adventure, but isn’t that part of the fun?

Chengdu 1 – Cedar Grove, NJ

5.  Strange things on the menu

If there are things on the menu you never thought you’d eat, you’re usually in for a treat. Go ahead, order the tripe, or the pig’s feet, or the  jellyfish. You’ll be glad you did.

6.  Television

Whether it’s a Filipino game show, Mexican telenovelas, or a European football match, there’s often a TV on at the best ethnic restaurants. A community gathering place means good food.

Try the Hot Sauce!

7.  Mysterious condiments

Mexican “salsa” outsells ketchup, mustard and mayo in the United States, but our taste for sauces is incredibly narrow compared to the world’s cuisines. Put a squirt of Sriracha on your fried rice, add some piri piri to your shrimp, or spoon on some of that unnamed mixture from the glass jar in the middle of the table. If you like the food, try the sauce.

8.  Owners who talk to customers

The best ethnic restaurants are family-owned. If the food is good, the owner, who might also be the chef, will work the dining room with pride.

9.  A strip mall location

New Jersey’s best ethnic restaurants are found all over – in downtown storefronts and in residential neighborhoods, but nothing signals good, cheap ethnic eats more than a highway strip mall location. You might drive right by Jimmy Buff’s (Route 10) or Abhiruchi (Route 27) without noticing them, but ethnic food fans know where they are.

Jimmy Buff’s – East Hanover, NJ

10.  A New Jersey address

If you’re eating the best food you’ve ever tasted, you’re probably at an ethnic restaurant in New Jersey. How do you find New Jersey’s best ethnic food? Use the map at EthnicNJ.com, of course.