DIGinto New Brunswick: Fritz’s is a Total Eclipse of the (Artichoke) Heart

Crispy Buffalo Chicken Sandwich smothered in homemade buffalo sauce and topped with blue cheese, classic coleslaw, lettuce and pickles. Credits: Devin Healey
Fritz's on Easton Avenue in New Brunswick. Credits: Devin Healey
Fritz's welcoming front porch. Credits: Devin Healey
Fritz's. Credits: Devin Healey
Ghost peppers grow behind the restaurant. Credits: Devin Healey
Believe it or not, Fritz's maintains its own garden. Credits: Jack Murtha
Inside Fritz's. Credits: Devin Healey

Note: This column is part of a monthly series called DIGinto New Brunswick. The Hub City has a rich and diverse culinary scene, its menus constantly changing. I’ll be doing the leg work at your favorite spots and some hidden gems, sampling various dishes at one New Brunswick restaurant every month and reporting back on which food is worth your taste buds’ time. So sit back, relax, pour a glass of wine, and DIGinto New Brunswick.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Atop Fritz’s fairly succinct menu is the tagline “great food from fresh ingredients.” This is something that chefs and co-owners Jonathon Guarino and Robin Varga have already mastered in their Easton Avenue eatery’s two years of existence.

I had visited Fritz’s a few times before and was thoroughly impressed, but after visiting on the same day as the United States’ first total solar eclipse in over three decades, I finally understood just how important they’ve become to both New Brunswick and Rutgers University. Along with pastry chef Maggie Bavoso and front of house manager Rebecka Guarino, Varga and Guarino have created a classic American restaurant that is on pace to eclipse pretty much every other sandwich joint and fast-casual eatery in the Hub City.

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Both owners have New Brunswick roots. Guarino is a Rutgers graduate and Varga a lifelong resident. And they’re both committed to bringing elevated fast-casual cuisine to a side of the city that is typically deep-fried and dominated by late-night snacks and bar food.

Spinach and Artichoke Mac and Cheese. Credit: Devin Healey.

Following a lengthy renovation process, with the aim of preserving as much of the 19th-century Victorian house as possible, Fritz’s opened in November 2015. Guarino, Varga, and Bavoso had one goal: to make almost every single dish, sauce, and pastry from scratch, even going so far as starting their own urban garden behind the restaurant. Complete with sunflowers, tomatoes, peppers, and recently added ghost peppers for a future dish Guarino calls the “Jersey Devil Mac and Cheese,” the focus on fresh and organic ingredients is a welcome one.

Their clientele runs the gamut from Rutgers students and residents to university employees, hospital staff, and business people. One of their biggest challenges has been pricing their mostly organic menu to appeal to students, especially with a slew of takeout and delivery options from places like Hansel 'n Griddle, Giovanelli’s, Wings Over Rutgers, Diesel and Duke, and Sanctuary. But the price is right, the business is there, and the discerning New Brunswick palates have responded more than positively.

The catering side of the business, meanwhile, has been a part of their model since opening. But it has only since taken off, mostly thanks to local events and Rutgers sports clubs.

Fritz's. Credit: Devin Healey.

Guarino and Varga discussed some of their most popular items, as well as their personal favorites, which include basically every spinach artichoke concoction, the truffle fries, BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos (Guarino’s favorite, and one of mine as well), and the “Mix and Match” build-your-own sandwich section, especially the crispy chicken options. They’ve also noticed that health-conscious locals seem to love the “Power Corner,” which offers lighter fare, like zoodles, quinoa, and kale salads. The rotating specials, which currently include their hand-cut zucchini fries and a hangar steak sandwich, are also a big hit.

I’ve had the opportunity to try the Risotto Fritters, Hangar Steak Sandwich, and BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos on previous visits, so fellow TAPinto writer Jack Murtha and I opted for a few new menu selections. (Aside from the nachos, which are so good and so wildly popular that we had to devour them again).

We settled on the Spinach and Artichoke Mac and Cheese, BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos, Zucchini Fries with homemade chipotle ranch, and the Crispy Buffalo Chicken Sandwich. If you’re asking yourself why we chose such seemingly mundane items, do yourself a favor and compare any of them to what you might find at the local bar. Some of Fritz’s menu items may sound familiar, but the flavor profiles are certainly not.

BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos: fresh fried tortilla chips topped with Fritz's five-cheese-blend sauce and barbecue pulled pork, fresh pico de gallo, Fritz's aioli and jalapeños. Credit: Devin Healey.

The BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos are not just savory, but smoky and a little sweet thanks to the house-made barbecue sauce, with that familiar variety of textures that makes nachos a fan favorite on pretty much any menu. Just make sure to eat them fast. No one likes a soggy nacho. What sets these apart from your average sports bar nacho is the same thing that sets every single plate apart at Fritz’s: the ingredients. Even for something as mundane as nachos, Fritz’s sets a high bar.

Alongside the nachos, we tried one of their many mac and cheese options: the spinach and artichoke, one of the more popular creations. It’s not hard to see why. I don’t think I’ve ever met a mac and cheese I didn’t like, ranging from savory lobster to my mom’s homemade mac, all the way to takeout from Kentucky Fried Chicken. I ... love ... mac and cheese. Coincidentally, I also love spinach and artichoke dip. And this is a match made in heaven.

Jack and I were both surprised we had never seen this combination on a menu before. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the cheesy goodness, and the cavatappi (one of my favorite pastas for mac and cheese), works extremely well. I’ll be back to try out the Four Cheese and Buffalo Blue iterations at some point in the near future, but I will definitely return to the warm, cheesy embrace of their Spinach Artichoke Mac and Cheese sooner rather than later.

Crispy Buffalo Chicken Sandwich with a side of Zucchini Fries and homemade chipotle ranch. Credit: Devin Healey.

Selecting a sandwich for our main course was no easy task, but after a little input from our gracious hosts, we settled on one of the more popular selections: the Crispy Buffalo Chicken Sandwich with a side of zucchini fries (to keep it healthy). This ended up being a good middle ground, as I’m not a particularly big fan of buffalo anything (unless we’re talking Buffalo Wild Wings), while Jack professed to be quite the buff chick connoisseur.

This sandwich was so well balanced in flavor, texture, and—in my opinion, one of the most important elements of any dish—temperature that it might have not only changed my opinion of buffalo chicken in general, it might have staked its claim as the single greatest buffalo chicken sandwich in the Hub City.

Typically, you’ll find chicken sandwiches or wings slathered in a deluge of sauce (often to hide subpar ingredients), but Fritz’s had just the right amount to complement the crispiness of the fried chicken, the bright crunch of the coleslaw, chilled funkiness of the bleu cheese, and the snap of the pickles. This is what every buffalo chicken sandwich should aspire to be. Perfect balance.

The "Faux-del." Credit: Devin Healey.

And just as we thought we couldn’t eat any more, Guarino brought us a sampling of some desserts, all made in house. The platter included their take on a Yodel, the “Faux-del,” as well as a few of their eleven different dessert bar options.

In addition to a top-notch pastry program, Fritz’s also offers breakfast every day of the week. Plus it’s BYOB, which makes for a killer brunch option, especially outside, on their front porch.

Fritz’s is innovative, and that innovative spirit is far from spent.

Chefs and co-owners Jonathon Guarino and Robin Varga in their backyard garden. Credit: Jack Murtha.

Until now, the restaurant has held early hours, but they plan to test the late-night crowd on weekends during the upcoming school year. They will also continue their popular football tailgates during every Rutgers home game, offering their traditional menu, plus items like street corn and soft pretzels. The restaurant will host a free pretzel giveaway for the first 100 customers during the second Rutgers home game against Eastern Michigan on Sept. 9, so grab a breakfast beer at nearby Olde Queens and head on over.

Guarino and Varga’s classic American eatery is a revelation for Easton Avenue. With a variety of fresh takes on familiar favorites, it should be a staple in the Rutgers University food scene for years to come. And if you happen to venture in, be sure to dig into their Crispy Buffalo Chicken Sandwich. It is not to be missed. The sandwich may be deep-fried, but Fritz’s vision is not.

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