South Jersey features an eclectic blend of culinary delights from off-the-beaten-track diners to exotic, high-end cuisine. Here are a few of my favorites.
El Mariachi Loco, 101 Bellevue Avenue, Hammonton, 609-270-7224
Hammonton, whose claim to fame is being the “Blueberry Capital of the World,” is also home to a few great Mexican restaurants, and as such is one of the best places to enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine. If you haven’t been to El Mariachi Loco in a while, you may be in for a surprise—the restaurant has undergone significant renovations and is now housed in the highly ornate building formerly known as Godfrey’s Drug Store in the center of Hammonton’s shopping district. Their Mole, a traditional savory sauce blending rich chocolate with Mexican spices, is a delicious accompaniment to their house-made enchiladas. Finish off your meal with a tall glass of Horchata or a slice of tres leches cake.
Illiano’s Ristorante, 705 12th Street, Hammonton, 609-561-3444
If Hammonton is known for its Mexican food and blueberry crops, it is every bit as characterized by a large Italian population. And like many Italians, Hammontonians love their pizza, and locals know that Illiano’s is one of the best places to grab a slice or to enjoy family-style cuisine. Like El Mariachi Loco, Illiano’s is situated along a recently revitalized street featuring small, local shops and eateries. When entering Illiano’s one of the first things you’ll notice is that you’ll feel more like you’re sitting in your grandmother’s kitchen than in a restaurant, and the food tastes every bit as homemade as the atmosphere feels authentic.
Vincentown Diner, At the intersection of Routes 206 & 38, near Vincentown, 609-267-3033
At first glance, the Vincentown Diner looks a lot like your classic Americana diner. But a closer look at its menu reveals a modern take on traditional American cuisine, which boasts organic, locally sourced eggs, meat, dairy, and vegetables on many of its dishes. The diner’s rural location amidst local farms is the perfect place to offer such cuisine, which often changes seasonally. Perhaps the place where the chef’s creativity shines most is on the grass-fed burger menu, which features several new and inventive takes on the classic burger. Even the coffee is locally roasted, and the diner also contains a bar serving locally made wines and beers. Come hungry and don’t forget to sample the house-made flavored butters that come with dinner.
Zeppoli, 618 Collings Avenue, Collingswood, 856-854-2670
Perhaps nowhere in South Jersey does the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” apply more than at Collingswood’s Zeppoli, where a small strip mall’s lack of aesthetic appeal leaves much to be desired. The food, on the other hand, leaves little room for improvement. Chef Joey Baldino, who has trained in both the U.S. and Italy, has truly perfected the art of Sicilian cooking, so much so that visitors won’t mind the small, noisy atmosphere. Quench your thirst with refreshing Sicilian blossom lemonade as you dine on the multi-course options Zeppoli offers on its small-but-fulfilling menu. Come hungry and bring your wallet—Zeppoli isn’t cheap, but it is well worth the money.
Zinc Cafe, 679 Stokes Road, Medford, 609-953-9462
Nestled in a shopping center in historic Medford, Zinc Cafe is a small, cozy establishment with a rustic but elegant atmosphere. Sunday brunch always begins with a freshly baked, warm muffin of the day beside a slice of fresh melon, and it’s so popular at Zinc that you’ll want to be sure to call ahead for reservations. The menu hasn’t changed much in the few years since Zinc opened its doors, but the chef does feature daily specials that offer variety. Vegetarians and carnivores alike can dine happily together at Zinc, where the menu features creative vegan and vegetarian options that move beyond bland veggie burgers, like the vegan plantain burrito with a side of tomatillo sauce.