"You'll never find anyone to go with you," my girlfriend said, making plans to spend a recent Saturday hiking the hills of Connecticut. I despise hiking. My ideal nature excursion is tromping through weeds in an abandoned lot abutting an unsung taquería in a subway-less quadrant of Queens.
Hence, my girlfriend was headed to Connecticut with a friend and our dog. That left me free to do whatever I damned. I decided to visit Newark. Why Newark? In my decade of New York living, I’ve never set foot in Newark, nor Hoboken. I’ve begun to feel like one of those terrible Manhattanites who think of Brooklyn as a distant, mythical land, only glimpsed from a cab’s windows while speeding to the airport.
Like a modern-day Columbus, I tried assembling an expedition team. The response was as tepid as hours-old tea. Folks begged off with back problems, plans to drive upstate and house-cleaning duties. Was visiting Newark less appealing than scrubbing a stained-brown toilet? I resigned myself to a solo Jersey journey when, at the 11th hour, my friends Julie and Aaron joined the gang.
“Adventure!” Julie said, as we convened at the World Trade Center PATH station and took a lickety-split train to Newark. The trip took 22 minutes, a snap compared to my 90-minute journey to Flushing earlier that week to dine on spicy fish heads, crispy frog and sour green beans at Hunan House. While there’s little exotic Asian cookery in Newark, the city is a culinary destination in its own right—namely, the working-class Ironbound neighborhood.
It’s home to a thriving Portuguese and Brazilian community, centered on bustling Ferry Street. A charcoal scent perfumes the air, courtesy of the BBQ-slinging churrascaria restaurants stuffed into the storefronts. “Maybe we can grab a bite there?” Aaron said, pointing to a churrascaria joint plastered in pictures of crisp, burnished-brown rotisserie chicken.
“No,” I said, quelling the potential culinary mutiny. “We need to save space for Altas Horas.” The 24-hour restaurant (266 Ferry St., 973-465-5200; altashoraslanches. com) specializes in gob-stuffing sandwiches seemingly designed in a stoner’s wet dream. Typical toppings include corn, mayo, bacon, potato sticks, lettuce, tomato, fried eggs and ham all stacked on top of one another, in some kind of gravity-defying, heart-slowing magic.
“No wonder the burgers come inside little plastic bags,” Julie said, as we sat in the small, sunny corner restaurant. Around us, families were nose-deep in their sandwich bags. All that was missing was a strap around their necks to replicate feeding time at the horse farm. It was disturbing to watch. But it was delicious to experience, I discovered, as I stuffed my face into the X Tudo Frango, a mouth-stuffer made with grilled chicken.
It was a smidgen dry, as was Aaron’s egg-bacon burger, but nothing that a squirt of mayo—provided in bottles as a big as my forearm—couldn’t solve. The best of the bunch was Julie’s X Tudo Lombino, starring pork steak so juicy that she rooted around her feedbag in search of fallen bits. “What are you looking at?” she said, caught in the greasy-fingered act. “These are all the goodies.”
We waddled from Altas Horas, our wallets only $6 lighter, our stomachs seemingly lined with concrete. More food was our furthest thought, but on the corner of Ferry and Market Street sat a vendor selling fresh-fried churros. Aaron ordered one, rolled in cinnamon sugar. “Carrrramelllll?” the vendor asked, rolling his Rs as his lips curling into a grin. Aaron nodded. The vendor inserted the churro into a hand pump’s nozzle and filled it with sweet, gooey caramel—a Twinkie, lost in translation. I took a hot, oozy bite. Readers, I cannot tell a lie: This was the best churro I’ve ever eaten, a sweet so superb I’ll never buy another cold, greasy churro sold in the subway.
We pondered purchasing a second, and a third, but we decided to save a few centimeters of stomach space for beer from Port 44 (44 Commerce St., 973-642-4330). This has little in common with Manhattan’s bikini bar Port 41; instead, the brewpub serves the carbonated pleasures of brewer Chris Sheehan, formerly of the Chelsea Brewing Company.
We settled our fattened haunches onto stools and ordered a beer sampler. The (New Jersey) Devils Red was caramel-sweet and crazy grapefruit-hoppy, while the Sirens Wheat had a crisp twang. The Goldfinch Ale was a bit too prickly and zesty, but the Catskill Harvest fresh-hop ale was my jam: aromatic, nutty and faintly sweet. We emptied our glasses. I felt mildly drunk, yet mostly stupid. Why did it take me a decade to discover that Newark was so scrumptious?
“Another round?” the bubbly bartender asked. “We can play Jenga!” She pulled out the game and started setting up the wooden tower. I looked at my compatriots. They nodded. “I guess we’re in for another round,” I said, passing my glass forward. “We’re in no rush to leave.”