Hidden gems: 8 of the best restaurants in North Jersey you've been missing out on

Rebecca King

You’ve driven past these restaurants countless times. They sit on empty side streets. Get lost among strip malls. Have no big-name chefs attached to them. Are often family-owned and community-supported.

They’re the hidden gems of the restaurant world — the joints that serve amazing food that perhaps you’ve never heard of.

But to miss out on their food would be a mistake. And while we hate to be the ones to expose some of the best-kept secrets in the area, we feel it to be our duty to share the good news.

Here are eight hidden gems in North Jersey.

RJ’s Bagels & Tacos, Fairfield

Bagels and tacos aren’t an obvious combination. But before RJ’s was bought by current owners Luis Garcia and Alfredo Andere, it was a bagel place. So, to keep some familiarity for old customers, Garcia and Andere decided to keep serving bagels, eggs and pancakes and simply add on some killer Latin food.

“Our main ingredient is love,” said Garcia, who is originally from Colombia. Every morning, he goes to the market to get his ingredients fresh.

According to Garcia, customer favorites include the “Chavez” breakfast taco with spicy Mexican chorizo, cheddar jack cheese and avocado ($5.25); fluffy Mexican tortas with your choice of meat ($6.99); and zingy carnitas tacos on a corn tortilla with cilantro, onions and radish ($6.99).

We’ll let this Yelp review do the raving for us: “Hidden gem for legit Mexican food. I drove from Bloomfield just to check it out… Felt like I was eating at my drunk Mexican uncle’s house. You know that uncle who wears the sleeveless shirt with two bottles of Corona blasting Mexican folk music.”

Go: 16 Little Falls Road, Fairfield; 973-276-3210, rjsbagelsandtacos.com.

Fort Lee Pizza, Fort Lee

Folks zooming toward the George Washington Bridge might miss this little pizzeria on Lemoine Avenue with its red awning and umbrellas shading outdoor tables. But Dave Portnoy, the man behind the ultra-popular Barstool Pizza reviews, didn’t. He gave Fort Lee Pizza an 8 out of 10 — a high score from the famed pizza critic.

Fort Lee Pizza has been in business since 1973. (The year is proudly displayed on the sign outside.) The pizza dough is made fresh several times a day, ladled with mild tomato sauce and covered in whole milk mozzarella. Delizioso!

Go: 2469 Lemoine Ave., Fort Lee; 201-947-2420, fortleepizzeria.com.

The Humble Toast, Teaneck

The pastrami at The Humble Toast is house-cured and smoked.

The Humble Toast is like a Jewish kosher deli that was given a fairy godmother makeover. Clean white walls and tiles, modern orbs of light hovering over the counter and a logo of a chef’s hat perched over a mustache give this place a trendy flair. Helping confirm this BYO’s hipster street cred are such dishes as the bright green shishito peppers sprinkled with sea salt, lemon vinaigrette and smoked Spanish paprika ($10), fried Brussels sprouts with house pastrami ends ($13) and the popular Queen Anne’s Fries with pastrami ends, pickled red onions and jalapenos with a drizzle of sweet honey garlic aioli called “humble sauce.”

But the house-cured-and-smoked pastrami and corned beef are as old-school as it gets. Chef/owner Shalom Yehudiel, who was born in Israel and raised in Bergen County, says the secret curing recipe he uses dates back to 1920s Brooklyn.

“The pastrami isn’t super salty or peppery. It has a kiss of smoke. It’s done with a lot of love,” he said. "Old-school people eat our sandwiches and pay us the biggest compliments by saying it reminds us of the pastrami they used to eat as a kid.”

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Enjoy the cured meats piled between some grilled marble rye with coleslaw and remoulade dressing ($16). Or opt for another classic: the OG Knish, made with pastrami ends, potato knish, humble sauce and whole grain mustard ($12).

Go: 1383 Queen Anne Road, Teaneck; 201-897-3080, thehumbletoast.com.

Jack’s Café, Westwood

Jack's Cafe's popular Dill Berry Chicken Salad

There are far trendier restaurants in Westwood — ones that offer the perfect setting for that Instagram photo. But if you’re looking to eat — actually eat — we recommend the BYOB Jack’s Café. With its red walls covered in family photos and vinyl records, chrome counters and rounded ceiling corners, Jack’s has the look of a homey dive; the big difference is that Jack’s Café’s food hasn’t been languishing in a freezer for weeks before serving. Chef and owner Chris D’Eletto uses only just-caught seafood and fresh produce. For breakfast, customers can sate their hunger with juicy lobster roll eggs Benedict, hefty three-egg omelettes and more. Lunch favorites include stuffed mushrooms, bright dill berry chicken salad ($9.25) and deliciously marinated hanger steak.

Go: 325 Broadway, Westwood; 201-666-0400, jackscafenj.com.

The Rolling Pin, Westwood

Sweet Potato Cheddar soup at  Rolling Pin Café in Westwood

Chef Heather Bertinetti-Rozzi of Stella Artisan and No. 12 in Ridgewood calls The Rolling Pin in Westwood a hidden gem. "Everything is good and consistent. You don't find that around enough."

The rickety door, the red fringed table cloths, the lineup of rolling pins stuck to the wall all give it the feeling of an old English tea room or perhaps your granny’s house. Everything is made from scratch, including the ever-popular sweet potato and cheddar cheese soup served with a fluffy buttermilk biscuit that begs to be dunked into the thick soup ($7). Salads and sandwiches make up the rest of the offerings, along with a display of tempting sweets. You’d be crazy not to grab one on the way out; we recommend the bready, subtly sweet scones.

Go: 341 Broadway, Westwood; 201-666-4660, therollingpincafe.com.

The Little Food Inn, Pompton Plains

Try the Turkey Buddha Bowl from The Little Food Inn in Pompton Plains.

Husband-and-wife owners Aaron and Dana Vandecker have been making comfort food for hungry, local families for 11 years. Both Vandeckers grew up in the restaurant industry and have scraped together old recipes from their grandmothers and other family members to create the dishes the Little Food Inn is known for: creamy avocado toast, spicy chorizo breakfast quesadillas and meaty short rib eggs benedict for breakfast; the “Witchcraft” turkey ciabatta with goat cheese and tangy onion jam ($9), crisp salads and towering meatloaf sandwich for lunch ($8.75); and decadent chicken pot pie over gnocchi, “Mile High” meatloaf and tuna noodle casserole for dinner. Brunch is served on the weekends, as well. Everything, Dana assures, is homemade.

“There are a lot of chain restaurants around here,” she said. “We’re a mom-and-pop shop. Families come here for a good, comforting meal."

Go: 575 Newark Pompton Turnpike, Pompton Plains; 973-616-8600, littlefoodinn.restaurant.

Shan Shan Noodles, Parsippany

A selection of dishes from Shan Shan Noodles.

In a country littered with bad Chinese restaurants, it would be easy to ignore Shan Shan Noodles. The fact that it’s located in a strip mall next to an H&R block, with simple décor and sun-faded photos of its dishes tacked to the wall doesn’t help. But missing Shan Shan’s hand-pulled noodles would be a mistake. These noodles come flat, thick, thin, pan-fried and floating in broth. Scissors come with each noodle dish so customers can cut the otherwise too-long ropes. Our favorites? The noodles in spicy minced pork soup ($8.50), the House Special fried noodles flavored with beef, tripe and Napa cabbage ($9.50), the aromatic hot and spicy chicken ($20) and the (admittedly noodle-free) Chinese lamb burger ($4.75).

Go: 333 Route 46 East, Parsippany; 973-287-7399, shanshannoodles.com.

Pho Ninh Kieu, Parsippany

Yet another strip-mall find is Pho Ninh Kieu in Parsippany. It has a stark red and white sign, a glowing neon “Open” light flashing in the window — you get the picture. The Vietnamese food, however, is authentic and dang good. Chris Cannon, owner of the esteemed Jockey Hollow in Morristown, is one of its fans and frequent customers. Take his word for it and stop by for steaming egg fried noodles, meaty oxtail and beef balls and filling, slurpable pho. And to wake you up out of your food coma — strong Vietnamese coffee.

Go: 73 New Road, Parsippany; 973-521-9900, facebook.com/phoninhkieu.

Rebecca King is a food writer for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.

Email: kingr@northjersey.com Twitter: @rebeccakingnj  Instagram: @northjerseyeats