Editor’s note: the story has been edited to add a detail about the ownership of Weedman’s Joint.
The popular Taste Trenton returns to the capital city for three tasty days — Friday through Sunday, June 7, 8, and 9.
Designed to showcase the variety of Trenton cuisine, coordinators have devised a small-plate, restaurant-crawl-styled event that offers participants the opportunity to sample special deals at the 20 or more participating restaurants.
Participants pay $7 and receive a wristband, map, and guidebook of the downtown and Chambersburg restaurants that will offer small sampling plates ranging in price from $3 to $5 to those wearing bands.
The restaurants range from Latino to soul to pure Trenton character — as you’ll see with the following brief profiles of some popular Trenton restaurants.
Taken from the Downtowner archives, they give a glimpse to the people serving up Trenton cuisine.
The Weedman is Ed Forchion. Now a Trenton resident, the Sicklerville, New Jersey, native is also former cross-country truck driver, candidate for public office, cannabis rights and free speech activist, and, as he writes, “a columnist for the Trentonian for two years, voicing my opinions — Jersey Style — on the war on pot, government policies, drug war actions, and most importantly I criticized city and state officials. For that I was politically imprisoned for 447 days on: phony/bogus/fake charges by the Mercer County prosecutor’s office.”
The Joint is the restaurant he opened in 2015. Forchion owns the restaurant with Deborah Madaio. A place far different from its institutional neighbors — Trenton City Hall across the street and the U.S. Federal Building a few blocks away — the Joint offers a menu with munchies named for different marijuana strains and things and people close to Forchion’s heart. There’s the Jack Herer (a barbecued chicken wrap sandwich) named for the legendary cannabis activist, and the Reggie (a veggie burger on a bun or a wrap) named for that familiar garden variety weed. Then there’s the Cheryl Miller Special Chicken Tenders named for the late New Jersey multiple sclerosis patient and cannabis advocate, and breakfast items like Snoop’s Dream, a fish and grits dish, and Freedom Leaf, a plantain, black bean, and avocado egg wrap. There are also fresh juices sold in the summer and smaller snacks on the menu.
The most outrageous menu item is the Christie Burger — a nod to former governor Chris Christie who was against ratifying the 2010 Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act. It’s a double turkey burger with mac and cheese all served inside a sliced glazed donut.
Folks visit the Joint for breakfast and lunch, yet Forchion’s bread and butter are nighttime events.
“The events make this place happen. Besides lunch, it’s about the events and the late-night food business,” says Forchion, the son of a diesel mechanic.
At the Joint there is an outdoor garden with a fire pit and heat lamps for cooler nights and even space inside for committee meetings if any group needs a conference-style room to plan out their next business moves.
NJ Weedman’s Joint, 322 East State Street. 609-437-0898.
The 1911 Smokehouse Barbecue restaurant on Front Street occupies a building that has seen many incarnations. Many recall it as Tony Kall’s, the longtime martini and gimlet watering hole for the State House crowd, then as the more sedate Eleven, a bastion of modern American cuisine in the 1990s.
“I like to barbecue, and I like to drink. Put them together and this is what we got,” owner Maurice Hallett says about the makings of his popular restaurant.
There is a lot more than smoke to Hallett, raised in Ewing by a U.S. Steel employee father and an Estee Lauder quality control worker mother. He attended The Pennington School, majored in international business and public administration at Lehigh University, and has an MBA. He has also traveled the United States and Europe for General Motors.
With no experience running a restaurant, the married West Windsor resident took the plunge. “I’ve enjoyed barbecue most of my life, and in my travels I learned I could do it better than the places I was going to,” says Hallett. “I’ve managed people pretty much all my life, so I figured learning how to run a restaurant couldn’t be that hard. I hired good people, and my brother has been in the industry for 20-some years.”
Hallett also learned to tailor his menu to accommodate the palates of discerning barbecue aficionados, placing the Smokehouse between North Carolina and Memphis on the taste continuum, where a North Carolina barbecue sauce is more vinegary and Memphis barbecue involves long, slow cooking with smoke generated by hickory coals.
Also, rather than serving barbecue slathered in sauce, the Smokehouse serves it dry with the sauce on the side.
Hallett counts state workers as his loyal customers, but his clientele includes professionals who live in Trenton and who regularly seek nightlife options downtown.
Hallett identifies three secrets to success so far at the Smokehouse: “Consistent food, tender meat, and great service.”
Another may be his fried rib tips. “We’re probably the only place where you can get those,” he says. The recipe is proprietary, he insists. “I can’t tell you that because I’d be telling you our secret,” he says.
“I would say we’re middle of the road,” he says of the menu prices. “The average meal is 15 to 20 bucks. It’s casual dining.”
By the way the 1911 in the name comes from the year that his college fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, was formed.
1911 Smokehouse Bar-B-Que Restaurant, 11 Front Street, Trenton, Monday to Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., Saturdays and Sundays, 1:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. 609-695-1911.
Terrance Carlin Nelson — better known as T.C. — runs Trenton Social, the oasis of creative expression and urbane flavors at 449 South Broad Street.
Across from the CURE Insurance Arena, where Route 1 and South Broad give way to South Trenton, it is a place for events that bring together artists, musicians, cyclists, Trentonians, curious suburbanites, and more.
“There’s a lot going on in Trenton that people don’t know about,” says Nelson, a Trenton native who attended Mercer County Community College and the College of New Jersey. He lived in Mill Hill before moving to Ewing.
Those who once fueled up at Trenton Bagel at South Broad and Front streets would have seen Nelson tending the ovens of the popular eatery, where he was partner with his brother and sister until it was sold in 2002. He also ran the cafe at the New Jersey State Museum on West State Street.
Nelson says his father, a 28-year Trenton police officer, wasn’t happy about his son’s decision to open a Trenton restaurant.
“He thought I was crazy,” Nelson said. “He said, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ He would pick up the Trentonian and Trenton Times every morning and read nothing but bad news. He didn’t know what kind of help or support I would have in a city that had a lot of trouble. But I showed him the numbers made sense. It was a good location, pretty much turnkey, and just needed a little love.”
The layout of the place has not changed much over the years, except for the bar, which Nelson expanded right away into a social hub all its own.
Trenton Social still has the large windows looking out onto South Broad. It promotes First Fridays in the city and art displays have always been a constant in the restaurant, as has a regular lineup of musicians.
As with any gathering spot, food and drink are essential. Trenton Social is open until 2 a.m. most nights, and the kitchen is open until midnight. Nelson calls the menu modern American grill.
“Trenton Social’s destiny is in the hands of the team that’s here, and this team can accomplish anything at Trenton Social. Over half the team has been here since the opening and over half live in the city of Trenton. They want to see this place become bigger than them.
“A business has to be successful on its own merit,” he says. “That’s how I want people to think of Trenton Social, that there is a great team running it.”
Trenton Social, 449 South Broad Street, Trenton, 609-989-7777.
Other eateries participating include Braulio’s Bakery, 19 North Anderson Street; Casa Blanca Bar & Restaurant, 140 Washington Street; Casdeluna Bar & Restaurant, 800 Chestnut Avenue; El Potrillo Restaurant, 541 Roebling Avenue; Health Is Wealth Restaurant & Juice Bar, 242 East State Street; Hummingbird, 29 South Warren Street; Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon, 300 South Broad Street.
Also pledged to take part are La Cabaña Bakeshop & Restaurant, 3 Dayton Street; La Chapinita, 804 Chambers Street; La Parrilla Steakhouse, 1007 Hamilton Avenue; Mama D’s Soul Food 2, 312 South Broad Street; Mi Tierra Restaurant, 550 South Clinton Avenue; Puerto Barrios Restaurant, 845 Chambers Street; Pura Vida Restaurant & Bar, 228 Cummings Avenue; Sabor Latino Bar & Restaurant, 293 Ashmore Avenue; El Tikal, 501 Morris Avenue; Trenton Prime Seafood, 439 South Broad Street; and more.