Out of necessity, you’ve probably eaten in lots of shopping-mall food courts. You’re tired, hungry, and footsore, and rather than hitting the streets with help from your smartphone, you simply succumb to desiccated nori rolls, limp greasy fries, and the supremely trashy but weirdly fascinating wiener stuck in a tube of pretzel dough. And the rule that all food-court grub must suck, like some 11th Commandment, becomes firmly implanted in your mind.
Well, every rule has its exception, and that exception is Jersey City’s Newport Centre Mall, just above the Newport stop on the PATH train. For whatever reason, the mall partly caters to middle-class Indian shoppers who seem to be rather picky about what they eat. A fast-food restaurateur called Creative Food Group—which also operates Jamba Juices in airline terminals—has established two Indian food counters side by side. One caters to vegetarians, the other to flesh-eaters. If you’re omnivorous, I urge you to try both.
Located on the third floor, the food court is one of the larger ones, boasting 18 eating establishments with approximately 1,000 common seats fanned out around an atrium with dizzying views of the levels below. Glass panes in the ceiling admit sunlight, which is particularly welcome on winter afternoons. There’s a multiplex cinema on the same floor, making this a good date spot. Taste of India is the meat-bearing counter, also offering vegetarian dishes from the northern Indian Mughal canon. The selection changes daily, and most choices are displayed on a steam table.
Vegetable commonplaces such as chana masala (chickpeas bobbing in mellow gravy), palak paneer (spinach with cubes of fresh cheese), and aloo mutter (cilantro-laced potatoes and peas) are here rendered with superior subtlety. But look carefully at the lineup behind the sneeze guard to discover a regional dish or two. One day, it was tamatar dal, a coarse puree of red lentils and tomatoes zonked with powdered cumin; it tastes like Texas chili. Two vegetarian selections along with dal, rice, and a freshly baked naan lighten your pocketbook by $7.95.
The poultry combo costs the same, and one of your choices is invariably butter chicken (a/k/a chicken makhani), tandoori morsels immersed in a creamy orange gravy. It was invented in either Delhi or Glasgow, depending on who you believe. That dish done well is available almost anywhere; more interesting is kolhapuri chicken, a cornerstone of Maharashtrian cuisine—referring to the Marathi people, an ethnic group that lives in the region surrounding Mumbai. The recipe boasts a dark, coconut-laced sauce.
Unfortunately, the poultry curries at Taste of India tend to be made with skinless, boneless breast—which deprives them of rich chicken flavor. Accordingly, you might want to go for rogan josh. This Kashmiri curry features a mild gravy lapping swatches of the tenderest lamb, so you won’t need the plastic knife provided. While the combo of one red meat, one vegetarian dish, and the usual accoutrements boosts the price of a meal to $8.95, it’s an extra dollar well spent. All the combos can be upgraded for a modest sum with a special bread of the day or chicken biryani instead of plain rice. Go for the first; skip the second—you’ve rarely tasted a damper or more boring biryani.
The other counter, Thali, offers a selection of 16 serve-yourself vegetarian dishes displayed in a series of metal tubs, sold by weight for the bargain price of $2.99 per pound. Many of these prove starchy in the extreme, focusing on rice, noodles, and pulses (beans and lentils). Some of the Indo-Chinese stuff is truly awful, such as a greasy, sweet lo mein. The better choices include curd rice (a savory yogurt pudding), vegetable korma (mixed veggies in nut sauce), and uppma (cream of wheat doctored with spices). The cuisines of the world offer no better comfort food than uppma.
But the real glory of Thali lies in its made-to-order dosas (south Indian crepes) and utthapams (crisp filled pancakes). Dotted with paneer lumps, green chilies, and cilantro, the chili-cheese utthapam ($7.95) bulges magnificently, the terrain of sponge and squish unforgettable. It’s accompanied by a plastic cup of coconut chutney and a bowl of excellent vegetable-heavy sambar. The dreamy pancake is so enthralling, you won’t remember you’re dining in a mall—till someone weaves between the closely spaced tables and rudely knocks you in the shins with an Armani Exchange shopping bag.