MORRIS COUNTY — As a restaurant reviewer, one of the joys I experience is stumbling upon hidden gems in our local area. A fellow food enthusiast recently suggested a remarkable yet often overlooked establishment, leading my friends and me to discover A & J Bistro. Nestled inconspicuously on Route 10 West in East Hanover, this delightful Taiwanese eatery proved elusive to locate initially. However, tucked away at the rear of the Castle Ridge Plaza shopping mall, adjacent to Best Buy and amidst the bustling Route 10, we were fortunate enough to stumble upon one of Morris County’s finest Taiwanese restaurants. Look for the cream-colored frontage with the restaurant’s name in large, bold, blue lettering. I don’t believe you will find anything more culturally authentic or delicious than A&J, even in Flushing, N.Y.
A good sign of an exceptional ethnic restaurant, which I always look for, is if the clientele is primarily individuals associated with that cuisine’s ethnicity. In the case of A& J., on entering, I observed that the tables were filled with people of Asian descent and speaking either Mandarin Chinese or one of the other sixteen or so languages indigenous to Taiwan. Another positive sign was that the entire restaurant staff speaks Chinese, with just enough English to avoid confusion and make your visit enjoyable. The Chinese language menu (with plenty of pictures) also adds to that authenticity. Don’t worry about any lack of familiarity with the menu. The wait staff are very friendly and personable and seemed to enjoy helping us with all our questions regarding our choices. We had a lot of fun bantering with our server, Ben, over our selections of appetizers and entrees from the highly interesting menu.
A&J is a family-owned and independently operated business started ten years ago by owner Josephine Lin. Ms. Lin was kind enough to visit us at our table and provide some background on the business. Arriving in the U.S. in 1997 from Taiwan and having some background in the restaurant business, Ms. Lin decided to open A&J Bistro; when I asked why A&J Bistro, Ms. Lin explained that her father-in-law, Duen Min, owned a restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan named A&J Restaurant and that she wanted to keep on the tradition.
The interior is appropriately low-key, as is common in authentic Asian restaurants. Who needs that corporate or chain restaurant look? Approximately 18 wooden tables are comfortably situated around the room, separated by a bamboo-style divider. It is Immaculately clean and organized, with soft relaxing colors, appealing wall artwork, and nice ambient lighting creating a warm and welcoming ambiance. Of course, there are the expected Buddhist shrines and various Asian artifacts at the forefront of the restaurant. Cozy, comfortable, welcoming, and relaxing would be a fair description.
When discussing Taiwanese vs. Chinese cuisine with Ms. Lin, I learned that it is tough to define Taiwanese cuisine and almost impossible to answer that question. There are eight culinary regions in China, each having its own cooking style. Taiwanese cuisine is heavily influenced by the dishes originating from those various parts of China. One thing is for sure, Taiwanese food offers intense, unique flavors, loaded with fresh meat, fish, and vegetables, with lots of broths, noodles, bold flavors, and various textures. The spice level can range from mild to spicy and very spicy, stimulating your appetite. The choice is yours, and a vast range of incredible, new dishes are available that you may have never heard of. Go for it!
Something to look for on the menu (by the way, you circle your selections on a paper menu which you give to your server to complete your order) are a few dishes that you will never find in an Americanized/Taiwanese-style restaurant. Again, we are talking about quality and authenticity! Braised Pig’s Feet, Sliced Beef and Tripe in Chili Sauce, Braised Pig’s Intestine, and Black Fungus Salad are a few choices. Although I am sure they are delicious, they may be for the more adventurous gourmet.
For our appetizers, we shared the Yan Su Ji (popcorn chicken), Ma La Huang Gua (cucumber salad in hot red sauce), Xiao Long Tang Bao (steamed soup dumpling w/pork & crab meat), Gue Tie (pan-fried pork dumplings/pot stickers), Da Bing Juan Niu (big pancake/sliced beef), and Gong You Bing (scallion pancake). Everyone at the table agreed that every one of the appetizers was a home run. Mouth-wateringly delicious! A wide variety of taste sensations with every bite.
For an entrée, I ordered the Chao Mian w/Beef (pan-fried noodles with beef). I ordered mine extra spicy, as I always do. The noodles were perfectly prepared, seasoned, and textured, while the beef was soft, juicy, tender, and savory. Add in the fresh and crispy vegetables, and you have one heck of a meal. I have thoroughly enjoyed every bite! Bob ordered the Fu Qi Fei Pan (sliced beef & tripe in chili sauce). The tripe was sliced very thin and was some of Bob’s tastiest tripe, and he is a true tripe fan. Others ordered the Lu Rou Fan (braised pork on rice with a braised egg), the tender, succulent pork was a perfect complement with the accompanying bed of rice, and the Qing Zheng Long Li Ui Pian (steamed flounder filet), which was a substantial sized portion of mild tasting, slightly sweet fish, covered with a blend of Asian sauces. Again, each dish was given a thumbs-up.
Desserts are not a big part of authentic Taiwanese cuisine, but ample hot tea was on the table throughout the meal. A&J is a BYOB, so we brought our usual wines and beer. Of course, they offer Bubble drinks, Fresh Soy Milk, Slushies, Smoothies, and hot coffee with hot tea, juices, and sodas to finish your meal.
Thank you, Josephine and staff, at A&J Bistro, for a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable dining experience. Great food, great people, good friends, and fun times. Also, very reasonably priced. Another great place to visit is Morris County, do yourself a favor and stop in and enjoy your brief visit to Taiwan.
zhù nǐ chéng gōng
Dine In * Take Out * No Delivery * BYOB; Ample Parking * Reservations Taken for Parties of Six or More. Open 7 Days from 11:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
A & J Bistro, 352 Route 10 West, East Hanover. Tel: (973) 506-9066.