“It’s a bigger crowd than ever,” said Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, winding his way through the room full of enthusiastic gourmands. “Enormous.”
“It was a huge success this year,” added Holly Pizzuta, director of operations and administration for the Weehawken Public Library. So successful was the event that at one point the organizers had to stop selling tickets at the door because of the turnout.
“But we changed our mind,” said Pizzuta. “We were able to let more people in and accommodate everybody.”
Altogether 470 tickets were sold, bringing in approximately $19,250 for charity. Taste of Weehawken, now in its 16th year, is held in the food court at Lincoln Harbor to raise funds for the historic library so they can continue to expand their programs with thing like art exhibits, guest lecturers, and technology enhancements.
And it’s done in the most enjoyable way possible: with a feast of grand proportions. This year more than 30 of the area’s top eateries showcased their cuisine at the event on Tuesday, April 26. Attendees savored delicacies from local restaurants, caterers, bakers, and food specialty shops, along with more than 150 varieties of wine, beer, and cordials supplied by Giannone Wine and Liquor in Hoboken.
“The community really comes out and helps the library,” said Pizzuta, who has attended since inception 16 years ago. “Winter is over, spring coming, and everybody’s happy.”
“We’re regular Taste of Weehawken junkies,” said Liz Grecco, attending for the ninth time. “It’s so good.”
Joining her was Christine Mantineo, an English teacher at Weehawken High School. The two friends enthusiastically recommended the blackened shrimp scampi over herb couscous as well as the chocolate covered strawberries. And while the pair may have been just a teensy bit biased – the items were prepared and served by the students in the school’s culinary arts program, taught by Mantineo’s husband, Joe – the delectable treats were a huge favorite with the crowd.
“We’re regular Taste of Weehawken junkies. It’s so good.” – Liz Grecco
Weehawken resident Kathryn Marlow, who describes herself as “like a mad scientist” creating new and interesting chocolate confections, brought several varieties of her Kathryn’s Confections to the event. Despite bringing record amounts of treats, “We’re running low,” she said toward the end of the evening. “There’s a lot of people here.”
High end cuisine
Several of the area’s powerhouse restaurants offered superb dishes in support of the library. Waterside Restaurant in North Bergen dished out penne vodka and chicken francese from their catering menu. Amanda’s in Hoboken served a marvelous quinoa salad on roasted beets with spring peas, mint, and goat cheese. Jack Austin’s, a new addition to Lincoln Harbor, served a spicy chili and mouth-watering breakfast burgers with fried egg and Taylor ham on and English muffin.
“This is a Sriracha marinated grilled salmon with a cucumber and tzatziki sauce,” said Chart House Sous Chef Jose Gonzalez. “You get the coolness, the heat, and the crunch.” The item was actually on tryout to see how patrons liked it. “Every season we’re looking for new things to put on the menu just to keep it vibrant and fresh. Obviously the new trend now is Sriracha. About five years ago it was all about bacon. Bacon was like the duct tape of the culinary world. Everybody was doing bacon. It shifted to an Asian culture-infused system where everybody was doing something with Asian cuisine.”
And what was the response to the new item? “It’s definitely going on the menu. Probably next month.”
McLoone’s Pier House in Hoboken was represented for the second year in a row with their exquisite crab cakes. “We’ve been in Hoboken two years but we have 12 other locations down the shore, like Asbury Park, Long Branch,” said Executive Chef Juan Gonzalez. “All in Jersey except for one. This is our signature dish. It’s in all our locations.
The original location in Sea Bright, destroyed in Superstorm Sandy, is scheduled to reopen next week.
Food from around the world
Local favorite Charrito’s, with locations in Weehawken and Hoboken, was kept busy handing out both chilaquiles and taquitos. “They’re Charrito’s classics,” said Amara Arias, manager of the Hoboken branches. “There were a lot of people this year, but luckily we lasted. Everything ran out about 8:30.”
An area mainstay, Charrito’s opened in Union City 23 years ago before relocating to Boulevard East. But remnants of the original hole-in-the-wall location, with its memorable mural, remain. “The owner didn’t want to lose that wall so he has pieces of it hung in the office,” said Arias.
A third Charrito’s is scheduled to open at Fifth Street and Washington in Hoboken shortly, while the one on First and Washington is switching to an all-vegetarian/vegan menu.
El Unico de Elena in Union City returned to Taste of Weehawken this year with an even bigger selection of Hispanic delights. “We planned a little better this year because we always used to bring really big trays of food,” said Adrian Rivero. “Now we bring smaller but a variety.”
Joining Rivero at the event was restaurant owner Maria Montes, manager Jesus Aquilar, and the restaurant’s founder, 92-year-old Juan Montes. By the end of the evening, patrons had scooped up every last morsel of their food.
Founded in 2009, A Touch of Spice has been bringing their enticing Indian delights to Taste of Weehawken for five years. “We live in Weehawken,” said owner Praveen Nair. “I grew up here. My sister and I went to school here. So I always wanted to start something in my own hometown. I love this place. I love the people.”
Taste of Weehawken not only offers them a chance to give back to the community, it provides a boost for local establishments as well. “A small business like us, compared with Ruth’s Chris and Houlihan’s and everything, we need publicity as much as possible,” said Nair. “We always meet new people here, and our current customers come up with their friends and rave about us”
A full bar
Food fans were not the only ones to enjoy a smorgasbord at this year’s Taste of Weehawken. Giannone Wine and Liquor once again provided 12 tables of wine, beer, and spirits, bringing local distributors with a wide variety of offerings to sample.
“We wanted to get a good assortment of styles so we did an IPA and a porter, some light, some dark,” said Nicholas Melissari, proud bearer of the job title “Craft Beer Ambassador” for Kohler Distributing Company. “We also picked what’s selling well in the area and what’s doing well with Giannone’s.”
That included relatively exotic offerings like Scofferhoffer grapefruit beer and Sweet Baby Jesus Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter. Elsewhere, attendees could get their first taste of New Belgium Fat Tire Beer, just approved for sale in New Jersey a couple of months ago.
Other tables offered everything from Guyanese rum to single-village mezcals. “These two mezcals are both made from the same variety of agave, but they’re from different locations and it affects the end result in much the same way it would in a wine,” said Chelsea Kaiser, from Skurnik Wines. “You’re really getting a markedly different product from essentially the same ingredients.”
Giannone was also among the contributors to the raffle drawing for those attendees who paid extra to show up early. Their entry was a free wine tasting for 50 people.
A great community
Martha Thomas from Jersey City Heights was attending the event for the fourth time, after a hiatus of three years. “I enjoy going and it’s for a wonderful, worthy cause,” she said. Her favorite items? “The steak and the sweet potatoes with walnuts from Ruth’s Chris. Excellent, excellent, excellent. And the strawberries made by the high school culinary students.”
Joining her for the first time was her friend and neighbor Julie Gebhardt. “I would definitely come back,” she said. “It was like a reunion. You bump into people from high school, grammar school. It was so nice.”
Weehawken resident Sandra Gail Frayna is an old hand at the event, having attended for the past four years. “I love it,” she gushed. “I love my food. I love my food.”
With her was her boyfriend, Rodrigo Gazali, at the event for the first time. A former resident of Clifton, he remembers Weehawken from another era. “The waterfront used to be a dump,” he said. “Weehawken is so nice now. The waterfront is beautiful. Where we live is so quiet, so peaceful and safe. It’s really a great community.”
Weehawken resident Pedram Mirhaji concurred. A library employee and substitute teacher at the school, he volunteered at Taste of Weehawken to be a “runner,” keeping the tables stocked with knives, forks, napkins, ice, and whatever else they needed.
“I work for the township and I owe the town a lot so I’m more than happy to help anytime they ask me to,” he said. “Weehawken’s a very tight-knit community. That’s what I love about it.”
This was his third year as a runner. The big question: Does a runner get to stop and eat? “Yeah, for like five minutes,” he said. “But it’s definitely worth it for those five minutes.”
Participants in this year’s Taste of Weehawken included Amanda’s Restaurant, Ben & Jerry’s, The Cake Lounge Restaurant/Palermo’s Bakery, Los Charritos, Chart House Restaurant, Cucharamama/Ultramarino’s/Zafra , Del Frisco’s Grille, Flaming Burritos, G.P.’s, Gladis Homemade Cakes, Haven Riverfront Restaurant & Bar, Houlihan’s Weehawken, Jack Austin’s, The Jamming Cupcakes, Karma Kafe, Kathryn’s Confections, Lorraine’s Table, McLoone’s Pier House, Molos Restaurant, McLoone’s Pier House, Pier 115 Bar & Grill, Porto Leggero, Robongi, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Shakin’ Café Juice Bar, Son Cubano, Sunday Gravy NYC, Touch of Spice, El Unico de Elena, Waterside Restaurant and Catering, Weehawken High School Culinary Arts Program, and more.
The venue was donated by Hartz Mountain.