NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Someone’s hopes and dreams, trials and triumphs are piled high on those plates when you sit down to lunch or dinner during Restaurant Week.
For M.J. Lee, opening Café Bene was a dream delayed for a few years as he cared for his dad during his battle with blood cancer.
For Sameh Fanous, opening a restaurant such as Indochine was an escape the drudgery of the fluorescent-hued, cubical-shaped corporate world.
For Eric Hang, the heart and soul of Cambo Box are the flavors his grandparents discovered as they fled two repressive regimes.
They are just three of the restaurant owners taking part in Restaurant Week, a 15-day celebration of the diverse and delicious dishes across New Brunswick that ends Saturday.
The 32 eateries that are participating in Restaurant Week are serving up special deals aimed at making the Hub City a dining destination for new customers. And the promotion includes so much more than title suggests considering that coffee houses, sub shops and even a comedy club are participating this year.
Some are offering multicourse dishes for a set price from a “prix fixe” menu, typically an appetizer, main course and dessert. Others offer buy-one-get-one-half-price deals. Others offer a standard percentage off the check.
Whatever the deal, odds are you won’t find some of the ingredients in these dishes on any spice rack.
Take the pho at Indochine, for example.
One recent afternoon, Fanous is sitting at a table near the back of the restaurant, in front of the wall-sized chalkboard etched with the menu options.
He’s explaining why Vietnamese food and, in particular, pho – pronounced FOH for the uninitiated – has become so popular.
The soup is hot and hearty, filled with rice noodles and a meal unto itself. It comes in a choice of flavors: Steak, meatball, chicken, even shrimp and mushroom. Today, there’s a steaming bowl of Fanous’ favorite, steak and brisket, sitting on the table. Each spoonful reveals a different ingredient: ginger, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, garlic and more.
Making food here has nourished Fanous’ soul.
“I had a good job in the corporate world,” Fanous said. “I went to school for accounting and finance. It just wasn’t for me. There was something missing.”
The son of Egyptian immigrants jumped at a chance to tag along with a friend and his mother who had set out for Los Angeles to open a Vietnamese restaurant.
He came back home and opened a small place on Spring Street. It had just five tables, but they were always full. When he got a chance to move to 371 George Street, he took it.
“We get a lot of students here,” Fanous said. “A lot of them are Asian and I hear back from them that they like the food here because of its authenticity. It tastes like home.”
Over at Cafe Bene, the grilled cheese and spinach sandwich pressed so the bread resembles a waffle is rich and gooey, but does not taste like home for Lee.
He came from South Korea to become an architect and decided to open a Café Bene franchise at 356 George St. The company’s headquarters soon shut down and he was left to carry one without corporate guidance.
As one of the 10 or so remaining original Café Benes still crafting elevated comfort food, Lee said he notices a lot of college students coming to his restaurant. They seem at home in the solitude and spaciousness of the high ceilings.
The dining experience was as important as the food on the plate for Lee. The same hands that craft the sandwiches also built the large bookshelf in the back, installed the brick near the counter and constructed the stairs leading up to the loft.
So many restaurant owners have marveled at his handiwork and hard work and begged him to do the same for them that Lee launched a side business building restaurants, Myung+Sung Design & Construction.
His dad wanted to be an architect, but could not afford the tools of the trade. He became a scientist instead. When he got sick, Lee moved back home to take care of him. After he passed, Lee decided to open Café Bene.
“Would he have been proud of me?” Lee said. “He always told me to do what made me happy. He always supported me. So, yes, I think he would have been.”
In a way, Hang’s journey to opening Cambo Box at 342 George St. starts years before he was born.
His grandfather was a political dissident in China who was forced to flee to Cambodia with his wife and just a few possessions. When Pol Pot rose to power, they were on the move again. They fled the killing fields for the safety of Thailand.
The flavors of these lands, the arc of their journey to freedom, can be found in Hang’s food: the lemongrass, the kaffir lime, the galangal.
They are all right there inside the rice box sitting on the table one recent afternoon. It was lemongrass chicken, white rice, pickled cabbage and corn waiting to be mixed and topped with a sauce. The curry sauce is for the more adventurous pallet and the creamy one is Hang’s nod to the milder American pallet.
Hang, 25, grew up with his grandparents’ food but didn’t harbor dreams of opening a restaurant. He graduated from Penn State and went to work right away in Corporate America. He was designing web sites when a friend called him with a vision of opening a Cambodian restaurant. By the end of the conversation, Hang was all in.
Seeing diners come into to the restaurant – he shares the space with Poke Nagomi – and enjoy the food makes Hang proud. He has taken his grandparents’ imprecise recipes – a little of that, some of this – and recreated the flavors.
“They didn’t give me the recipes, but they gave me the ability to taste how it should taste,” Hang said. “They came in and tasted the food and said it was just like how they made it. That was a relief. That made me happy.”