Courtesy of Robin and Sue

It probably had something to do with all the good food, right? 

David Landsel
September 20, 2017

There were two New Jersey-related news items over the past several days that caused a lot of people to sit up, pay attention and say to themselves, seriously? The first one was WalletHub's release of their Happiest States in America report. The Garden State—land of the Superfund site, home of the Alexander Hamilton Rest Area—placed sixth, enjoying the spotlight along with California (#4), Hawaii (#3), along with that noted bastion of hot dish and good manners, Minnesota, which took the top spot.  

The second thing that happened was that the New York Times went rogue, proclaiming from the rooftops that it had found the very best pizza in New York, except that it was in New Jersey. After checking the calendars to see if April 1st had rolled back around already, some people read the article, while others wasted no time, taking to their various social media platforms to rail against this latest food injustice. 

This wasn't just an epic troll—Razza, Dan Richer's exemplary pizzeria, seven minutes from the World Trade Center by train ($2.75) at the Grove Street stop on the PATH commuter rail line, is that good. It's not just because they're really good at making pizza there, or that they use a wood-burning oven; a good deal of it—as Times critic Pete Wells noted in his review—is down to Richer's knack for procuring great New Jersey produce, from the state's legendary heirloom tomatoes, to mozzarella made from the milk of a herd of water buffaloes, up in the hills of Sussex County. 

That New Jersey, ever the butt of a joke, could actually be a serious destination for food—both for produce and for up-to-the-minute, farm-to-table dining—surprises nobody who really knows the state, or anyone, really, who's ever approached it with an open mind. This really is The Garden State, once you wade through the various thickets of humanity, clustered along the rivers that divide New Jersey from both New York and Philadelphia. According to the state's Department of Agriculture (Slogan: Jersey Fresh: As Fresh As Fresh Gets), food and agriculture are the state's third largest industry, with sales generating over a billion dollars each year. That's a lot to work with, right there. 

Not that the state has much to prove, mind you—die-hards know and appreciate the simple fact that New Jersey is a really good place to eat, and has been for a long, long time. That's probably not why it ranked so high on the happiness scale—the methodology used in WalletHub's study leaned heavily on more serious things, like depression, suicide, and sense of purpose—but we'd like to think the food had at least something to do with those low rates of sadness. After all, with a very good New Jersey pizza in front of you, it's awfully hard to be sad.

Want to put the theory to the test? Interested in knowing what one of the happiest states eats all day? Let's run through some of the highlights.

All of the diners. The stationary dining car concept is through-and-through a New England thing, but New Jersey remains, to this day, one of the most eager celebrants of the genre—the state apparently now has over 600 diners, more than anywhere else in the country. There's the very old Summit Diner (in Summit, obviously), the brightly-lit Tops Diner in East Newark, where people often line up for an hour or more to be seated, Long Beach Island's fantastic Mustache Bill's—wherever you are in the state, you're never too far from one of these retro-fantastic places to grab a chargrilled cheeseburger; in many cases, Jersey's better diners now feature menus that can be astonishingly creative.

Go local. Graze, in Little Silver, hosts regular butchering classes. Brick Farm Tavern in Hopewell is a cozy spot out in the country that procures meat and produce from the farm next door, not to mention beer from the brewery out back. Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge is an imaginative spot that doubles as a coking school. Fancy-schmancy Ninety Acres is tucked away on an old country estate property in Peapack-Gladstone; Elements is at the heart of pretty Princeton. What unifies these places, besides the fact that they're all really good? Their passion for New Jersey produce. It's not just restaurants, either—the farmers market scene is no joke, here. You can find them all over, but some in particular are well worth seeking out; the Hunterdon Land Trust, for example, operates a producers-only market each Sunday (May-Nov.) at the historic Dvoor Farm in Raritan Township. 

Get into the enclaves. From an embarrassment of Indian fare riches along Oak Tree Road in the Iselin/Edison corridor to Portuguese, Spanish and Brazilian eats galore in Newark's unique Ironbound district to Korean bakeries, cafes and fried chicken spots in Fort Lee and Palisades Park, not to mention the insane amount of good, very affordable Japanese food (and desserts galore) inside the Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, New Jersey residents have quick access to a whole wealth of good food from around the world that some unfortunate New Yorkers can only dream of. (Ask New York how many Mitsuwa Marketplaces they have, or we can just tell you—the answer is none.)

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. There are plenty of restaurant towns worth knowing about, all over the state, but there's something about the way this rundown shore town has bounced back in recent years that's so exciting, it's almost ridiculous to not talk about it in a story about how New Jersey has good food. Smart, Italian comfort cooking at Capitoline, tacos at Loteria, coastal Mexican cooking and great cocktails at Barrio Costero, a rejuvenated boardwalk with food trucks and ice cream spots and good coffee, the cavernous Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten—stand on any corner of lower Cookman Avenue and point; you're likely looking at a restaurant, cafe or bar that is either good, very good or excellent. Go. Eat.  

Dear God, the Italian food. A night at Chef Vola's, a humble, hard-to-get-into BYOB tucked away in the basement of an Atlantic City home is a night you'll never forget. And what of Elizabeth, home to Spirito's Italian Diner, a red sauce joint that's been around since the 1930's, or those thick Sicilian specimens at the century-old Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza. There are those tomato pies in the Trenton area, starting with De Lorenzo's. Transcendent subs at Cosmo's Salumeria in Hackensack. Chicken parm, well, everywhere. To even put a dent in the wealth of good Italian0American food you can find here, you're going to need at least a lifetime. Better get started.