Talking to: JC Eats

logo.jpgFor several years now, blogger JC Eats has been covering the evolving Jersey City food scene, traveling all over the city to sample and report on the diversity of cuisine available here. Her blog is essential reading for anyone interested in really exploring JC and all of our neighborhoods. She also has great Instagram and Twitter accounts that document her visits to various establishments, food trucks, and markets.

JC Eats presents a totally anonymous identity online to ensure the highest ethical standards – she doesn’t want freebies, special attention, or anything other than to report on the food scene and to experience it as anyone else would. Her anonymity has only added to the intrigue. I was recently at an event where I ran into her, chatted for a bit, and moved on to talk to some other folks. When I ran into a friend who I knew was a fan of her blog, I mentioned that she had just been there, and my friend freaked out. “JC Eats is here??? JC Eats is a she??!? Where is she? You have to introduce me!!!” But nope – just like that, JCE disappeared into the ether, off to catch a bus to sample some great new mom and pop corner restaurant somewhere (or so I like to assume).

I sent her some questions about the current state of the food business here in JC. Below is our email interview, which concludes with her suggestions for some great cheap, local meals.

— Amy


Q: In talking to restaurant owners in JC, what are some of the common complaints you hear about doing business in the city?

JCE: There’s really only one really prevalent universal complaint I hear which is dealing with HHS [Health & Human Services] especially during the final inspection/permit process.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of issues/problems food businesses and restaurants face in New Jersey in general – New Jersey has pretty high regulatory standards, but for the most part, that’s just a matter of understanding and following all the guidelines. Frustrating, but necessary. Then there are further regulations and more specific laws and processes that come at the county and city level, especially any time you’re dealing with construction, making improvements etc. While these aren’t unexpected and I will say, not usually something I hear a lot of complaints about as far as inefficiency, it can be confusing and time-consuming. If you’re doing extensive renovations, you have to submit plans several times over, often to neighborhood associations, planning committees, etc. There’s a whole host of licensing requirements and costs add up quickly which is tough for an aspiring business or an existing small business that wants to make changes or expand. I’ve heard that the Office of Innovation has been pretty helpful in helping small businesses wade through a lot of the regulations and figure out exactly what they need to do, but I’m not sure how many restaurants are aware of that or feel secure in using their services and regardless, it’s still a pretty convoluted system.

And then of course, once all that’s resolved, there’s still the final inspection process that any new or renovated restaurant has to go through in order to get their CO (Certificate of Occupancy) in order to open for business which as I mentioned is what I hear the most about as far as complaints and frustration. According to a lot of older restaurant owners, it used to be much much worse which is HORRIFYING because it’s really bad currently (I gather some heavy-duty bribery used to be the only way to get things done) and it can be a big drain financially. I can think of only a couple of places that have opened in the past few years that didn’t face delays to open while waiting to get their CO – I hear stories about inspectors showing up hours late or just not showing up, notes left at the door while the business owner was in the building saying no one was there, coming in with the wrong paperwork……and not just once or twice, but repeatedly.

Beyond that, there’s not much I hear about – l’m starting to hear more about really high rents especially in new or renewing leases and overly ambitious or difficult landlords and I suspect that will continue to increase as an area of concern over the next couple of years.

How would you assess the vitality of the food scene here?

In some ways, Jersey City far outpaces a lot of other similar cities and areas – the community and the city are fairly invested in it, there’s a lot entreprenuership, and overall, we’re quite supportive of small businesses. Given the development boom and population increase, especially over the past four years or so, there has been a lot more interest in restaurants opening here but we’ve also got a number of long-standing restaurants that have survived and thrived for years which indicates the possibility of long-term stability and success – generally a rare thing in the restaurant world. A lot of restaurant development groups that already have one restaurant open here continue to open second or third restaurants which is a positive sign. We have a thriving food truck scene that might actually be at the point of oversaturation, but still seems to hold pretty strong.

However, as much growth as we’ve had, I still don’t think we’re at the point of having as competitive of an industry as we probably should. A lot of average restaurants are able to survive and even do well. It’s good and even necessary to have a few just totally “fine” restaurants, but it shouldn’t be the case that four new restaurants in a row are simply “fine.” I’m not referencing any time and/or group of restaurants here btw, just trying to illustrate the point.
People are just so excited to see new stuff, especially people under 40, that they rush to it and make it popular via social media without really thinking about if it’s worth it. So not only does that add more pressure and one more thing for restaurants to have to manage (how to make themselves visually appealing and developing a following online), it often means they can coast on those initial impressions for quite a while. Now, this is an effect that’s happening all over the world and is in fact reshaping how people open and run restaurants, but I think it can be especially visible here in Jersey City. The growth in our restaurant and food industry has also not been developed equally throughout the city (again, not unusual), and while that is starting to change and we’re seeing or hearing more restaurants in neighborhoods beyond downtown, we’ve definitely limited ourselves as far as diversity and variety. A lot of the newer restaurants have tended to follow a formula or what seems like a popular and successful trend/menu/aesthetic which I understand – the idea is to be solvent – but it does tend to reduce innovation.
Too often, the Jersey City food scene is often either compared to Brooklyn/New York or the assumption is made that we can support the same kind of pricing/trend level that they can, but that’s absolutely not the case. Our demographics are very different in everything from population size and ethnic breakdown to available commercial space and I think those expectations and comparisons do a lot of damage. We need to see more restaurants that are built to meet the needs of Jersey City as it is.

 

“Food deserts” were an early focus of the Fulop administration. What changes have you seen? 

Not enough. The West Side has had a couple of grocery stores open although I think it’s still pretty slim access, but Bergen Lafayette and Greenville are really stuck without options and having easy access to a grocery store is one of the basic building blocks of a happier, healthier community. A lot of it stems from the lack of development in these neighborhoods compared to downtown, but it also clearly hasn’t been a focus of the administration to make it economically advantageous for grocery stores or more food businesses to move in or thrive in these areas.

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Riverview Farmer’s Market. All pics courtesy JC Eats.

About three years ago, it seemed that there was a farmer’s market opening up in every neighborhood in JC. Today, many of them have either stopped completely, or shrunk down to just a couple of vendors. Any reflections on this?

There are still quite a few that are doing pretty well although agreed, the market scene hasn’t stayed as strong as it was when it was at its peak, but I do love that we have do have a lot of farmers markets in Jersey City. When I first moved here, it was basically only Hamilton Park sometimes with maybe three vendors and to see that kind of growth in a relatively short amount of time has been really thrilling. But it definitely went through a surge of oversaturation – a neighborhood or select area can really only support so many markets and so many vendors. If you have too many in too close an area and have them too frequently with the same vendors, which is what was happening, it becomes unsustainable.

Additionally, I think several weren’t as well-supported or well-publicized as they could have been. Don’t forget, a lot of what makes these markets happen is volunteerism. It’s a lot of work, usually managed by a neighborhood association, and if they aren’t receiving support from the neighborhood, it’s very difficult to make it work. Add in the construction in a lot of neighborhoods and changing demographics and it’s a challenging environment. I do think the SNAP Double Bucks program has been great and I suspect if the city were able to expand those kinds of programs or bring in similar programs, it would really help support the markets.

What about healthy eating options, in particular? What do we exceed at? Where do we fall short?

This is a tough question because I very firmly believe in the overall concept of health in food being subjective. I mean, there are some very basic tenets we can all agree on – more fruit and vegetables are better is a big one, for example. Beyond that, it gets extremely complex especially once you start bringing socioeconomics into it and quite frankly, I don’t think anyone should have a serious conversation about what food people should be eating or what there should be without bringing socioeconomics into it.

That said – I think Jersey City does an above average job in offering a healthy food scene. I don’t think it’s great and it’s undeniable that it’s slanted heavily towards the wealthier among us (which is unfortunately the case just about everywhere), but it is overall better than a lot of other similar cities. We’ve got population diversity and somewhat easy access to a wide variety of ingredients and cuisines in our favor plus a community that is growing to have higher expectations of healthier food and more businesses with an increasing awareness of food allergies, vegan and vegetarian interests, and so on – not as many as I’d expect, but they are there.

However, we really need more well-stocked, produce heavy grocery stores and dedicated health food stores in a lot of neighborhoods or at the very, very least, better public transit access to currently existing markets. Probably more publicizing and advertising of these options would be helpful too.  We really need more variety in the kinds of restaurants that are opening – ideally ones that offer more breakfast and lunch options which is admittedly hard to do because Jersey City is very much a commuter city – but I hear from so many people saying they want to grab breakfast and lunch and the only real, satisfying options (where they can even be found) are bagels or burgers. It’s limiting.

Outside of downtown and the waterfront, any neighborhoods you want to single out as having good food options?

The waterfront has a lot of showy, sort of very traditional restaurant restaurants, but truthfully, the majority of them are really just OK. The better restaurants throughout the city definitely show up more in the more residential, densely populated areas which I think is a very positive sign.

I’ve always loved India Square on Newark [Ave, between JSQ and Tonnele Ave]. It’s its own little world and there are a ton of options for exciting dining experiences. The Heights, particularly Central Ave, has really picked up steam over the past couple of years and has gotten very diverse in their dining options which is exciting although if you’re not relatively near that neighborhood, there aren’t that many places I would currently consider as destination-worthy (another example where easier transit would probably be a help), but there are a few. I think Lafayette is a neighborhood to watch in this regard, but I think it might be a little slow in happening.

I know it’s not Jersey City, but I’d also encourage people who are really interested in good food or in seeing food neighborhoods develop to keep an eye on Newark. There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening there that quite frankly, I’m not seeing here.

Any recommendations for best meal for one person under $10?

Actually, I think a lot of our best and most interesting meals are under $10. They won’t be fancy places with tablecloths and silverware, but they will be delicious. Some of my favorites:

  • Tacos. Always tacos. My favorites right now are from Taqueria Viva Mexico (chorizo
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    Always tacos. 

    and barbacoa) and Sol Azteca (carnitas and nopales – the grilled cactus).

  • Any of the huge sandwiches from Andrea Salumeria (Pete’s Special Tuna is my personal favorite) but really the majority of Italian delis in Jersey City won’t let you down.
  • Dosa and Idli from Chutneys.
  • The chicken shawafel sandwich from from Gypsy Grill – both the chicken shwarma and falafel sandwiches are great, but the combination of the two makes something special and is especially filling.
  • The onigiri (rice balls) from Koro Koro – these are the perfect cheap eats. Gluten-free, some vegan, some not, and all delicious. You can have at least three or mix and match them with the sides and still be under $10

What about for a family of four without breaking the bank? Is under $30 possible?

I really wanted to find an answer to this, but without relying on fast food, Chinese take-out, or something like a shared giant pizza, I think it’s pretty difficult. Some of the best family-friendly, affordable options though are places like Prato Bakery, Roman Nose, O’Leary’s Publik House (a bar but with very friendly staff and great outdoor space), Churrasqueira Europa and Left Bank Burger Bar.

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Sandwich from Prato Bakery