Few retail sectors are as dynamic as the restaurant business, but even accepting that as a given, the scene in and around Mercer County has been changing in dramatic fashion over the past year.
In is international cuisine: as I wrote several months ago, the area has seen an rapid influx of restaurants whose main attraction is Asian noodles. No fewer than five restaurants have opened in the area in 2018 with “ramen” in the name.
Usually that means a focus on Japanese cuisine, ramen being Japan’s traditional dish of noodles and protein in broth. But not always: recently I circled back to try the food at Lan Ramen (4 Hulfish St., Princeton; 609-356-0383), which I missed the first time around.
Despite the name, Lan Ramen is a Chinese restaurant. It does serve a dish called ramen, but many of the dishes feature the restaurant’s hand-pulled noodles, which are made in house.
Many Yelpers have highlighted the crispy spicy chicken and the soup dumplings, but I had to try the noodles, and went for the shredded chicken with noodles ($13), which comes with an array of raw vegetables and is served cold, without broth.
The noodles were unlike anything I’ve had in the area: to say they are “chewy” doesn’t do them justice. Taking a bite is to immediately understand a dish in which the noodles are the heart of the dish, and not just a conveyance for a sauce. Mixing the chicken and vegetables in with the noodles gave each bite a pleasing variety of flavor and texture.
A week later I went back for the Lanzhou beef noodles ($14), which I also enjoyed. These do come in broth with daikon and leeks. The noodles remained the star of the dish, but now had to contend with the broth for primacy. I like noodles in broth, so probably slightly favored the second dish, but I don’t think you could go wrong with either choice.
It looks like the next wave for Asian noodles will be pho, a Vietnamese take on noodles and protein in broth. For a few years, the only real pho option in the area was Pho Friendly (originally known as Pho Tan; 729 Brunswick Ave., Trenton; 609-599-8727), which I wrote about in June. But this year it has been joined by two competitors: Baguette Bistro (319 U.S. 130 N., East Windsor; 609-490-0839), which opened in February and whose menu features Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches as well as pho; and The Pho Spot (301 N. Harrison St., Princeton; 609-356-0064), which opened last month in Princeton Shopping Center.
I stopped into Baguette Bistro recently to order the beef combo (brisket and eye round, $8.50). It was good, although I did not feel like the flavor of the beef broth had as much depth as that of Pho Friendly. The beef was tender and the rice noodles plentiful. I had to ask for cilantro, which had been left out of my bowl, but they cheerfully provided it upon request. I haven’t been back for the sandwiches or their other Vietnamese dishes, but they are well reviewed on Yelp.
I was surprised last month when I heard that The Pho Spot had opened in Princeton. I had driven by only a few days before and seen the sign above the storefront, but all looked dark inside.
If only I had tried the door: it turns out owner Tom Le was in soft-opening mode as he looked to test his recipes and the palates of the locals before making a splash with any kind of grand opening.
The Pho Spot, like many restaurants in Asia, is focused almost totally on pho. The only other thing on the menu is three kinds of Vietnamese spring rolls (salmon, shrimp or tofu, $2.50 for one with dipping sauce). Le, a native of Vietnam who grew up in Tinton Falls, has traveled extensively in his native country, sampling pho on every trip.
The Pho Spot offers both beef and veggie broth with a variety of protein options, some traditional, some not. I went with brisket and flank steak in beef broth ($10 small bowl, $13 large), but I could have ordered tofu, chicken, shrimp, beef balls or for a $3 upcharge, oxtails, filet mignon or short ribs.
The broth was probably the best I’ve had in the area so far. It reminded me of the broth at Pho 75 in South Philadelphia, and I enjoyed it all the more when Le told me that he makes it without MSG. As someone who is sodium sensitive, I can say it was the least salty Asian noodle dish that I’ve had this year.
The Pho Spot is tiny, with only 19 seats—so small that Le doesn’t even have room to serve his steaming bowls with the traditional dish of condiments. He includes the basil and mung bean sprouts in the broth, leaving only the lime wedge and jalapeños off to the side.
An Asian restaurant that I haven’t yet had a chance to try is Liu Yi Shou Hotpot (3349 Brunswick Pike, Lawrence; 609-917-9433), which opened last year next to Mercer Mall. Hot pot is a Chongqing phenomenon in which diners dip their own ingredients into a shared simmering pot of broth to cook and eat.
I’ve also written recently about the growth of the Mexican food scene in the area, and since I wrote about tacos earlier in the year, another restaurant has opened featuring Mexican favorites: La Taqueria (1143 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrence; 609-882-2273).
La Taqueria is a tiny little spot between Mexico Linda grocery and Tastee Sub Shop. My measure of a Mexican restaurant is the tacos, and La Taqueria had some of the best that I’ve tried so far. I opted for tacos al pastor ($8), three doubled-up corn tortillas full of tender marinated pork, onions and cilantro, with sliced radishes and lime wedges on the side—the traditional way. The smooth corn tortillas could be the best gateway I’ve seen so far for people who think they only like flour tortillas.
I also have to make mention of La Taqueria’s salsas, both the smoky red and the brightly flavored verde, which are served with complimentary house-fried tortilla chips. They were both among the best salsa I’ve had in the area.
I have also heard that they have excellent flautas, but I have not tried them myself.
And finally, even the traditional American restaurants that have opened recently are going for something different. I was struck by the similarities between Old Town Pub (135 Farnsworth Ave., Bordentown; 609-291-9232), which opened in January, and Hamilton Tap and Grill (557 U.S. 130 N.; 609-905-0925), which opened in the Shoppes at Hamilton in August.
Each features your typical pub fare ranging from burgers and fries to steak and a multitude of TVs in the bar areas. I enjoyed the Philly-style pork sandwich I had at Old Town Pub, but it appears to have been taken off the menu since. I can also recommend the short rib sandwich with beer battered onion rings ($12.99 with fries) at Hamilton Tap and Grill.
But perhaps more interesting than the menus is the heavy emphasis both restaurants place on having local craft beer on tap. They join the likes of Blend Bar, Uno’s and Jojo’s in Hamilton, Firkin Tavern in Ewing, Brick Farm Tavern in Hopewell, and the HOB Tavern in Bordentown in trying to draw people in with their beer menus.
That’s a trend I can only imagine will pick up speed in the coming year as craft beer goes more mainstream.