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A Guide to the Ironbound: Newark's Culinary Gem

Where to find old school and modern takes on Portuguese, Spanish, and Brazilian dining

Deep in the heart of New Jersey's largest city, surrounded by a network of railroad tracks that enclose its four square miles and give the area its name, is a small enclave known as the Ironbound. The area was rural until the 1820s, when German and Irish immigrants came in, comprising a much-needed workforce that allowed the city to become more industrialized.

A decade later, the completion of the first railroads created a boom in industry, resulting in large factories for flourishing iron, brewing, and leather businesses. As work opportunities grew, so did the wave of European immigrants who came to the area in search of jobs. They settled down, making a home away from home for themselves in the semi-isolated East Ward of Newark and infusing the area with restaurants, bakeries, and markets that evoked the culinary traditions they had left behind. Ironbound is now a hub for authentic European cuisine made by the hardworking immigrants who transported themselves back to their much longed-for homeland through food.

Ironbound's convenient location and proximity to Manhattan made it attractive to many immigrants who worked in the nearby factories or were able to find higher-paying jobs in New York. One such example is Frank Nasto, who came to the area from Italy with his wife Angelina. He purchased a local bar named Kreuger's Brewery in 1939 and turned it into Nasto's Old World Desserts.

While the small shop started out selling only candy and lemon ices, today it offers a variety of homemade ice cream and Italian desserts, which are sold at its Jefferson Street location and at over 700 other New Jersey restaurants. Now an Ironbound staple, it still remains in the family, with Frank Nasto III serving as president and his brother and father still involved in the company.

Ironbound will always be a sanctuary, a passport back to the culture the Portuguese are so proud of.

Following the Italian migration, waves of Portuguese immigrants began to join the Ironbound population in the 1960s and quickly surpassed the number of immigrants from almost every other country. Those coming to the United States from Portugal, without relatives or friends to welcome them, found comfort in the city's already-established Portuguese community, who would help them find jobs and a place for their families to stay. Most weren’t able to afford cars, but supermarkets, trains, and restaurants were all within walking distance, another appealing part of living in the area.

Marco Oliveira, long time general manager of popular Ferry Street restaurant Adega Grill, was first introduced to the neighborhood in 1989 when he moved to the Ironbound from Portugal with his parents. He describes the attraction of many immigrant groups to the streets of Ironbound. "It's the ability to get to wherever you need to go without a car — everything is so close," he says. "You have everything you need within a three-mile radius."

Today, those same factors are what keep the Portuguese — and the newer population of Brazilians that began to arrive in the late eighties — in the city. For Portuguese immigrants like the Oliveira family, Ironbound will always be their sanctuary, a passport back to the culture they are so proud of. While some may have left the area, they always find their way back from time to time.

"On the weekends, even the Portuguese people that moved out of the area come into Seabra's [a popular Portuguese market], the pastry shops, or come in for dinner," says Oliveira. The tight-knit faction is also fostered by dozens of social clubs, like Prospect Street's Sport Club Portuguese, founded in 1921, that are committed to maintaining cultural ties. Due to this dedication to tradition, the local community continues to remain as close as ever, having created a little piece of home inside of New Jersey’s most notorious city.

Restaurants, sandwich shops, and bakeries are brick-and-mortar homages to the locals' unforgotten culture

Often also referred to as "Down Neck" — due to its location on the neck of the Passaic River — Ironbound is currently home to forty different ethnic groups but is still known for its Brazilian, Portuguese, and Spanish populations that have infused their way of life into every nook of the quaint district. While Newark has never been decreed an epicurean destination, these inhabitants have given the area a reputation for serving authentic cuisine reminiscent of the homelands of its residents. When Oliveira is asked what brings people to the neighborhood, he answers without hesitation. "Definitely the food," he says. "It used to be only Brazilian and Portuguese restaurants, but now you come down here and you can get pretty much any kind of food."

Eater food critic Robert Sietsema describes the area as "a picturesque 19th-century neighborhood [that] will make you feel like you're strolling the streets of Lisbon." As a current resident, I find it to be the perfect combination: fast-paced urbanity balanced by a hometown sense of community.

During the warmer months, you can hear the screams of kids playing soccer and watch families gathered around a smoking backyard barbecue. Meanwhile, the intoxicating smell of chorizo will waft toward you from every block. From traditional family-owned restaurants that roast staggering amounts of meat on huge barbecue pits to late-night sandwich and pastry shops that are always packed with the post-bar crowd, Ironbound is a food haven for both the traditional diner and the new-age food enthusiast.

FIVE CLASSIC IRONBOUND RESTAURANTS TO TRY

One of the most popular old-school spots is Iberia Peninsula. Known more for its atmosphere than for its food, it has been a Ferry Street staple since 1926. Locals and visitors alike can be seen devouring plates of its signature clams and parrilhada, a grilled seafood combination platter, under its cathedral-esque ceilings. Tip: Cross the street and watch a soccer game — preferably one featuring Spain, Portugal, or Brazil — on the outdoor patio of its sister restaurant, Iberia Tavern, easily recognizable by its castle-like structure. Order the sangria, served in big plastic jugs almost too big to fit in your hand. 69 Ferry Street, 973-344-5611; iberiarestaurants.com


Located a little further down Ferry Street is Fornos of Spain, one of the pricier and fancier spots in the area. The paella Valenciana, an array of shellfish, chicken, and sausage, is served over saffron-infused rice. While deemed overpriced by some locals, it's a popular choice for many coming into the area looking for an upscale dining experience. Expect a wide selection of wines — including one of the rarest selection of Spanish wines in the US — in a restaurant whose American influences have not affected the authenticity of its Spanish cuisine. Tip: On crowded nights, go through the back and grab a seat at the bar for faster service. 47 Ferry Street, 973-589-4767; fornosrestaurant.com


Slightly east of the main strip is Brasilia Grill, a restaurant whose menu serves as evidence of the large Brazilian population in town. This is the place to feast on rodizio — an unending parade of meats brought out on skewers by waiters eager to slice off a piece of your choosing. The carnivorous buffet is offered at many restaurants in the area, but Brasilia is one of the best to do it. Tip: Splurge and add the salad bar to your entree, or for lunch, order the salad bar alone. It's a smorgasbord of salads, side dishes, meat-stuffed breads, and more. 99 Monroe St, 973-589-8682; brasiliagrill.com


A short walk from Fornos, in the heart of the Ironbound, is a favorite spot for after-work drinks, Adega Grill. The lot is divided into three distinct venues, making it a one-stop shop for a drink, a bite, and a dance party. Stop by the long and narrow bar, open since 1997, for a pitcher of some of the best red sangria in town. At Adega, the burgundy drink flows from wooden barrels behind the bar. Share a quick appetizer of the famous camarão á guilho, or shrimp in garlic sauce, or try the seasoned king crab legs. For a more formal meal, visit the dining room next door, where the decor evokes the ancient romanticism of the Middle Ages and the gambas grelhadas, or grilled prawns, are hard to beat. Tip: On Fridays and Saturdays, grab a bite at the bar, then make your way to the lounge where a DJ blasts a Top 40 mix until 2 a.m. 130 Ferry Street, 973-589-8830; adegagrill.com


Seafood lovers can't visit the Ironbound without stopping at Seabra's Marisqueira — a no-frills restaurant open since 1989 and a must-try for delicacies of the sea. Located off of a less populated section of Ferry Street, the bar area is great for a casual meal. The food is totally authentic Portuguese, and the seafood is fresh and cooked to perfection. Order a decadent seafood dish called açorda de mariscos (assorted shellfish and cubes of Portuguese bread in a rich sauce) and watch your server slowly stir in a poached egg by the table. Tip: The octopus is the best in town and is cut into thick chunks tossed with sweet onions and olive oil. 87 Madison Street, 973-465-1250; seabras-marisqueira.com


As you near the end of Ironbound, you'll find another area staple, Fernandes Steakhouse. While its location may be on the outskirts of town, the traditional menu makes it a destination spot for out-of-towners as well as a favorite among locals. Made up of a combination of Brazilian and Spanish cuisine, the menu includes fresh seafood and a vast selection of meats, including rodizio. Casual meals can be enjoyed on the first-floor bar area, while the upstairs dining room is great for large groups. Tip: Try the filet mignon served sizzling on a round stone and make sure to help yourself to the complimentary salad bar. 158 Fleming Ave., 973-589-4344; fernandessteakhouse.com


Iconic St. Stephan's United Church at the corner of Ferry Street and Wilson Avenue.

While many neighborhoods in Newark have been on the decline for several decades, Ironbound has remained virtually unaffected by years of deindustrialization that have negatively impacted the rest of the city. Recently, with nearby towns like Hoboken, Montclair, and Jersey City becoming more and more expensive, many young North Jerseyans are looking to Ironbound when investing in homes. As a result, investors have poured money into the city's real estate, and multi-family homes are being remodeled at the same pace that new luxury condos are being erected.

In an interview with the New York Times, Arthur Rosa, president of local real estate company Rosa Agency, said property values have tripled in the last decade. New, remodeled, and spacious apartments available for affordable prices have also attracted many twenty-something renters to Ironbound's convenient location.

Ironbound has remained unaffected by deindustrialization that has negatively impacted the rest of the city.

As the area continues to grow in popularity, the blueprint of the neighborhood has quickly started to change, morphing it into a modernized community with a more contemporary vibe — the direct result of a spike in redevelopment in the area. Red Bulls Arena and an improved PATH station in nearby Harrison, along with Newark's state-of-the-art Prudential Center, bring hundreds of people into the Ironbound as visitors. For locals, one of the most eye-catching improvements is the creation of Riverbank Park — a bright orange boardwalk along the Passaic River dotted with playing fields. These changes have created a buzz that has brought with in younger, trendier residents and visitors in search of a more eclectic variety of food.

Ruben Dominguez, son of Spanish Sangria's owner of 30 years and current owner of Catas Restaurant, grew up in Ironbound's restaurant scene. He's been in the kitchen since he was seven years old, and in 2011, he saw a demand for Spanish cuisine that stayed true to its traditional roots but also followed the food trends that the new Ironbound crowds were in search for.

"With the stadium located just outside of the Ironbound, the area has seen new visitors with a passion for soccer, good food, and good times," he says. "Catas, with its tapas-style cuisine and large selection of beer, has become a hot spot for soccer fans on game day." To meet the demand of this younger and hipper crowd, new eateries, like Catas, are sprouting up all over the neighborhood, serving everything from sushi to late-night snacks and transforming the dining scene into an amalgam of old and new.

FIVE MODERN TAKES ON TRADITIONAL CUISINE

Catas Restaurant is a relatively new eatery on Market Street that's slightly removed from the main drag. Iberian-inspired appetizers like the pequillo peppers stuffed with bacon and manchego cheese in a béchamel sauce keep it packed before soccer games and bring in a decent crowd on Thursday and Sunday nights. It also offers a brunch menu that includes two drinks and a selection of items like eggs "bendicto" — made with chorizo instead of Canadian bacon. Tip: Stop in before heading to the nearby soccer stadium for a Red Bulls game. 538 Market St., 973-491-5400; precatas.com


One of the first contemporary eateries to become a success was Mompou Tapas Bar & Lounge, opened almost 10 years ago on the most populated stretch of Ferry Street. Textured copper ceilings and exposed brick give the spot an industrial look, and the Spanish-inspired menu puts a modern spin on the classic dishes Ironbound is known for. The selection of tapas includes tortillas topped with a Cabrales blue cheese, albondigas (a must-try), and patatas bravas. The menu also offers a charcuterie and cheese board and a few entrees like charred Iberian octopus. Tip: Reserve a seat at the monthly wine-paired menu tasting for $65-$75 per person. 77 Ferry St., 973-578-8114; mompoutapas.com


A more recent opening is Manu's Kitchen Bar & Sushi Lounge — the first sushi restaurant to make a name for itself on Ferry Street. The fusion menu is mainly Japanese cuisine, punctuated by a few Mediterranean dishes, including pistachio-encrusted lamb and charred octopus. The menu features more than 50 hand and specialty rolls. Standouts include the Ironbound Roll (lobster tempura, spicy crab, avocado, asparagus, and eel sauce) and Spice Girl Roll (spicy salmon, avocado, cucumber, and spicy tuna). Tip: While the fusion touches are nice, skip to the sushi. 90 Ferry St., 973-465-5600; manusushilounge.com


Van Buren's Burger Bound brings organic burgers to the area. Options include grass-fed beef, salmon, turkey, black bean, and mushroom varieties. Do yourself a favor and add the signature avocado aioli. There's also a variety of sides and items like hot dogs, salads, milkshakes, espresso drinks, and more. Burger joints are a rarity in Ironbound, and this one is making a name for itself. Tip: Don't leave without ordering the crispy fried onion rings. 62 Van Buren St., 973-732-9750; burgerbound.com


Boasting a sign that reads "Newark's First Gastro Pub," Bello's Pub recently got a facelift that gave its facade a more appealing and modern look. The after-work hotspot, located a block from Newark Penn Station and around the corner from Ferry Street, offers a plethora of beers from 20 different countries and a menu of traditional pub fare with some twists like veggie marsala sliders, Caribbean jerk shrimp salad, and a creme brulee cheesecake. Tip: Join The Century Club as a fun way to try the 180 beers that the two-floor bar offers on tap 376 Market St., 973-465-0052; bellospub.com


One thing every buzzing neighborhood needs is somewhere for the late-night crowd to get their munchies. Altas Horas Lanches is open twenty-four hours and serves anything you can think to eat at 4 a.m. Its biggest seller is its famed Cariocan sandwich, called an X Tudo, meaning it includes everything. The behemoth of a sandwich comes with either a grilled chicken or beef patty, smothered with mayo and topped with mozzarella, bacon, ham, potato sticks, lettuce, tomato, corn, and — because that's clearly not enough accoutrement — a fried egg. For those whose post-bar appetite is not as grand, the restaurant also has kebabs, salads, mini pizzas, crepes, and a pastry counter. Tip: Save room for the bite-size dessert known as brigadiero — a decadent chocolate ball coated with chocolate sprinkles. 266 Ferry St., 973-465-5200; altashoraslanches.com

six OTHER spots TO TRY IN IRONBOUND

Krug's Tavern (118 Wilson Ave., 973-465-9795) — Recently bestowed the honor of serving the best burger in New Jersey by nj.com, this small, family-owned spot has been serving up no-nonsense pub fare since 1932. krugstavern.com

Tony Da Caneca Restaurant (72 Elm Rd., 973-589-6882) — One of the original restaurants in the Ironbound, Tony Da Caneca has been open since 1965. Chef Jose Dantas was trained at the Lisbon Culinary School before bringing authentic Portuguese cuisine to Newark. tonydecaneca.com

Spanish Tavern (103 McWhorter St., 973-589-4959) — This is a great choice for traditional Spanish dishes — and the restaurant offers complimentary kale soup with every meal. spanishtavernnewark.com

Sol-Mar Restaurant (267 Ferry St., 973-344-3041) — Simplicty is key at this restaurant, made up of a bar area for an informal bite alongside a separate dining room. Wherever you sit, try the grilled veal chops smothered in a mushroom sauce for flavors that are spot on. solmar-restaurant.com

Teixeira's Bakery (184 Ferry St., 973-344-0103) — With four Ironbound locations, Teixeira's Bakery is hard to miss when walking around town. Stop in for a quick dessert of creamy custard tarts known as pasteis de nata.

Nasto's Old World Desserts (236 Jefferson St., 973-589-333) — There's good reason why this famed spot has been selling traditional Italian desserts like spumoni, tartufo, and gourmet cakes to Ironbound for more than 75 years. Not to be missed is the homemade ice cream in rotating flavors like holy canoli, sweet potato pie, and creamed corn. nastosicecream.com


Cynthia Correa is a freelance writer, an Ironbound resident, and an intern at Eater.
Editor: Sonia Chopra
Photographer: Matt Messina

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