Andrew Dudich, chef-founder of Mama Dude’s, serving food at his new Yardville restaurant. (Photo by Javier Aguiar.)

The dining scene at Yardville’s Dover Park Plaza has enjoyed a welcome revitalization in the last couple of years.

First came the grand opening of Yogi’s Diner at the end of 2019. Then in August, long-time Chinese food favorite Sun Lok Garden reopened after several months of renovation.

The latest shot in the arm involves a young chef who grew up in Yardville, went away to culinary school, then returned home to start up his own food truck business, called Mama Dude’s, in 2016.

On Dec. 3, that chef — Steinert High grad Andrew Dudich — opened a bricks-and-mortar restaurant with the same name, serving up dishes that will remind his loyal followers of the meals they have enjoyed from his truck.

With the restaurant, Dudich is introducing an intriguing, seasonal, build-your-own-bowl concept that marries his kitchen skills with a commitment to sourcing ingredients and products locally whenever possible.

Fans who have come to look forward to seeing the Mama Dude’s truck at the West Windsor and Bordentown farmers markets need not despair. Though the truck is in the garage for the winter, Dudich has every intention of turning up regularly at the markets in the spring.

But now that he’s opened a storefront, Dudich will be able to offer his dishes all winter long — pandemic or no pandemic. And he’s excited to utilize his skills in a kitchen of his own, and win over a whole new legion of fans right there in his hometown.

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Local artist Leon Rainbow did the art for the wrap on Mama Dude’s food trucks, and he has illustrated the bricks-and-mortar store as well.

When Dudich was a culinary arts student at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, he often imagined that he would find a job in a Los Angeles or New York City restaurant upon graduation.

But after his mother, Donna, died in 2015, he decided that maybe Yardville was not such a bad place to be after all. His younger brother, Jared, was still a student at Steinert, and Dudich wanted to be here for him. So in 2016, he returned home to figure out his next move.

Donna Dudich was herself a chef. When Andrew was growing up, she would sometimes bring him with her to her job at Rutgers University, where she ran one of the dining departments.

“I would spend a lot of my summers up there, hanging out in the kitchens or in her office, doing side catering jobs with her and stuff like that,” Dudich says. “I wouldn’t say it was something I was super excited to do. I just happened to fall in love with it.”

Dudich, a star hockey player in his Steinert days, began his formal culinary training as a student at Mercer County Technical Schools’ Sypek Center, in Hopewell, before moving on to Johnson and Wales, which his mother had also attended.

After spending four years in Providence getting trained in classical and international cooking techniques, Dudich hoped to get a job in fine dining, perhaps at a restaurant specializing in French or Asian cuisine. But once he decided to come back home, he started thinking about other options that would still enable him to take advantage of his training. “New Jersey is not exactly a hotbed of fine dining,” he says.

His mind was open enough that when he spotted a food truck for sale one day on the streets near Grice Middle School, he immediately began to see possibilities, although not of a typical burgers-and-fries kind of truck.

“A lot of people assume it’s a ‘roach coach’ when we pull up, but there are plenty of food trucks in New Jersey that do high quality food,” he says. “You can serve a higher standard of food without sacrificing quality or cleanliness. When we pull up and there’s stuff like housemade gravlax (cured fresh salmon) on the menu, it kind of changes the impression.”

He named the truck Mama Dude’s in honor of Donna, and set about putting his classical cooking training to good use. When he rolled out his first menu in October 2016, it featured items like pork belly steamed buns, smoked gouda macaroni and cheese, and carbonated ice cream.

“The idea was that there was no set standard in terms of what cuisine I was making,” Dudich says. “The last thing I wanted to be was held to the parameters of just making Italian or French food. I wanted to do what we wanted to do and see if it worked.”

Since the beginning, he has been committed to seasonal cuisine, changing the menu according to what is available locally. He highlights the local farms and food purveyors that provide him with ingredients and products on each menu. Setting up his truck at farmers markets for several years has enabled Dudich to establish relationships with a number of local providers.

“You can get better products when supporting someone local,” Dudich says. “Whatever our farms have is what’s on the menu. Sometimes people will be upset when their favorites are not available, but hopefully they will be able to understand why.”

Over the past four years he has served a wide variety of dishes from the truck, ranging from Italian sausage biscuits with apple cranberry slaw to kielbasa and white bean stew to braised short rib tacos with poblano pepper jam to cassoulet to Thai root vegetable curry.

For the launch of the restaurant, Dudich has hit upon an interesting build-your-own-bowl approach that he says will help keep down the cost of his dishes while staying true to his farm-to-table philosophy. Mama Dude’s customers can choose a base — jasmine rice or local greens — and top it with mains like tarragon chicken, Thai beef and basil, and grilled avocado.

The real fun comes in mixing and matching toppings and sauces to compliment customers’ choices. Recent toppings have included sweet corn salsa, burnt carrots, spicy cucumbers and crispy chickpeas with lime. Sauces include maple sugar vinaigrette, citrus dijonette and truffle aioli. A bowl costs $9.38 ($5.38 for a kids bowl) and there is no limit to the number of toppings you can add.

In the refrigerated case at the restaurant, Dudich also has various sides, condiments and treats available, including jams, peanut butter, applesauce, rice pudding and hummus.

Dudich does not plan to use the build-your-own model at his truck when he returns to the farmers markets in spring. “(At) the markets, we stick to dishes, because it lets us stretch our culinary wings a little while experimenting with new techniques. We look at the market as a tester to what we can put on the build-your-own menu,” he says.

Dudich signed his lease on the Dover Park Plaza spot in February, less than a week before Gov. Phil Murphy issued his lockdown order. If he had any thoughts of opening the restaurant then, the pandemic put an end to that.

Once farmers markets started up in late spring, he was able to get his truck back on the road as per usual. By the time the markets shut down for winter at the end of November, the restaurant was ready to go, and Dudich opened at the start of December.

At least he could count on his family to help him control the costs associated with starting a new restaurant. His dad, also named Andrew, is a retired union carpenter and handyman. He has always been available to help his son fix the truck when something on it breaks down, and when it came to the restaurant, he was able to use a load of reclaimed wood to craft an inviting interior for the shop.

“Without him, I definitely would not have been able to get half as far as I am,” Dudich says. “My brother has also been a huge support system through all this.”

Trenton artist Leon Rainbow, who painted the wrap for the Mama Dude’s truck, also provided additional decorative touches inside the restaurant.

While Dudich no longer plays hockey, he is still involved in the game — as a coach. He is in his third year as head coach of the Lawrence High School hockey team. He hopes the team will be able to have a season this year, but says it’s wait-and-see right now in terms of whether indoor winter sports will be possible because of COVID-19.

As for how the restaurant is doing since the opening, Dudich says he expected things to get off to a slow start, but he’s optimistic for the future.

“I think it will take a little bit of time for people to realize we’re here and jump into what we’re doing,” he says. “I’m not a patient person, and the whole pandemic on top of it is a little hurdle, but I think we’ll be fine once our name gets out there.”

Mama Dude’s, 11 Sunnybrae Boulevard, Hamilton NJ 08620. Phone: (609) 954-8926. Web: mamadudes.com.