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Eating Through the Middle Eastern Streets of Paterson, NJ

The Northern New Jersey suburb offers Syrian and other Levantine delights

Paterson, New Jersey, is our Dearborn, Michigan: a nearby city with a large, concentrated, and long-established Middle Eastern community, mainly Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Turks. In South Paterson — the area below Interstate Highway 80 — you’ll find 30 or so Arab and Turkish restaurants, supermarkets, and bakeries, some spilling into adjacent Clifton. The core establishments are Syrian and Lebanese, with the earliest dating to the 1960s.

Many restaurants and bakeries lie along a six-block stretch of Paterson’s Main Street, a pleasant, tree-shaded thoroughfare with two-story brick buildings and frame houses with broad front porches. The smell of charcoal smoke wafts down the street, which bustles with shoppers. Cafes feature kebabs grilling in the windows as a come-on to passersby.

Paterson makes a great day trip, with delicious, inexpensive food and a chance to buy baked goods, cheeses, and produce sometimes difficult to find in New York City’s Middle Eastern neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Eastern Astoria, and Atlantic Avenue. Here is Eater’s guide to the best places to visit in Paterson. Jitney buses run 24 hours a day from Port Authority Gates 51 and 56 to Paterson, making local stops along Main Street. The cost is $4 to $6 each way, depending on bus company and number of stops on the way to downtown Paterson (which is also worth visiting for its picturesque Great Falls).

Robert Sietsema
Robert Sietsema
Robert Sietsema

Above: Fattal's interior and breads. Below: Pastries from Nablus Sweets and pomegranate lahmacun at Nouri's Restaurant.

Fattal’s Bakery — Established in 1968 by the Fattal family from Aleppo, Syria, and now run by the second and third generations, the bakery poises at the rear of a parking lot, a gleaming brick structure with a prominent red sign. Inside at the back is a mammoth brick oven, one of the first to turn out pitas in New Jersey. Spread out across two counters are snacks made from several sizes of pita, topped with things like ground lamb, cheese and egg, tomatoes and cracked wheat, the earthy herb mixture known as za’atar, and a fiery chile paste made from famous Aleppo peppers. A seating area is provided. Also available are a full range of Middle Eastern pastries; chicken and lamb shawarma; potato, cheese, and spinach pies; and daily specials. Additionally, the complex sells jewelry, groceries, and imported produce, such as green-husked fresh almonds. 975 Main Street, Paterson, NJ, 973-742-7125

Nouri Brothers — Originally another pita bakery in 1978, this complex of several storefronts is the largest supermarket and department store in Paterson’s Middle Eastern neighborhood, purveying a dozen kinds of freshly baked bread, halal meat, boxed and canned goods from several nations. It also offers religious artifacts both Muslim and Christian, 14 kinds of olives, books, candies and other sweets, and recorded music and electronics. To a newcomer, it constitutes a contemporary museum of Middle Eastern culture. 999 Main St, Paterson, NJ, (973) 279-2388

Nouri’s Family Restaurant — This recent offshoot of the nearby market replaced a Turkish restaurant in the same corner location. A brick hearth is once again the focus of the enterprise, which specializes in Lebanese fare. One of the best dishes is a fascinating pomegranate lahmacun, a flatbread slathered with finely ground lamb and fruit syrup. A garlicky chickpea stew and plate of miniature makanek sausages were other hits at our table, but none quite beat the pita sandwich stuffed with french fries and dressed with dill pickle spears and a searing garlic mayonnaise. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 1003 Main St, Paterson, NJ, (973) 881-8819

Above: Aleppo peppers and kibbeh. Below: Al-Kumah exterior and the sigara bureka at Toros.

Nablus Sweets — Named after a city on the West Bank, this airy Palestinian bakery is decorated with color photos of Levantine landmarks and filigreed brassware. It confines itself to pastries (no coffee most times of the day), but provides comfortable tables to eat them. The pride of Nablus Sweets is knafeh, a round orange pie with a sprinkling of pistachios and a crust of gooey white cheese. Other pastries are custard-filled, honey-drenched, and flaky with filo dough. Baklava is only the beginning. Open until 11 p.m., seven days. 1050 Main St, Paterson, NJ, (973) 881-8003

Aleppo Restaurant — The most elegant of Paterson’s sit-down restaurants, Aleppo specializes in the Aleppo kebab, a ground meat affair laced with onions and Aleppo peppers, which are also served in pickled form at the table along with green olives. Of the three types of kibbeh (the signature dish of Syria) offered, one is a raw lamb tartare, another a pastry with a cracked-wheat crusted shaped like a submarine, while a third, rarely seen in the New York area, resembles a small pie and is grilled over charcoal. The restaurant is decorated with photos of the Citadel, a fortified palace of medieval vintage that overlooks the city of Aleppo. 939 Main St, Paterson, NJ, (973) 977-2244

Toros — During the period of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey disseminated its foodways thoughout the Middle East, so that Turkish fare became part of other Middle Eastern cuisines. Yet it retains many unique dishes of its own, the profusion of kebabs and the things done with them being a case in point. Order the Iskandar kebab and get slices of lamb or chicken doner kebab and toasted pita inundated with tomato sauce and yogurt. It makes a supremely delectable gutbomb. For more delicate eaters and vegetarians, there are salads and bread dips galore, and sigara bureka — thin pastry flutes oozing gooey white cheese. 1083 Main St, Paterson, NJ, (973) 742-6877

Al-Kumah — Another of Paterson’s great restaurants offering the cuisine of Syria's largest city, Al-Kumah is less formal than Aleppo Restaurant and constitutes a combination snack bar, coffee shop, and lunch counter. All kebabs are cooked over charcoal, and this is another good place to check out the Aleppo kebab. One delight is arayes with meat, a pita blanket wrapped around garlicky lamb patties. The baba ganoush here is also top notch. Open late (10 p.m. weekdays, 11 p.m. weekends). 970 Main St, Paterson, NJ, (973) 977-4888

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