Dining Guide: World Class
A jet-setter's guide to great ethnic restaurants--right here in Delaware.
by Matt Amis, Maria Hess and Drew Ostroski Published January 15, 2008 at 11:00 PM
Photographs by Thom Thompson
The wok-steamed Alaskan halibut fillet
is topped with shredded ginger and scallions
at Confucius in Rehoboth Beach.
Research assistance by Deanna Candeloro
Why Italian Will Never Go Away
Italian food is arguably the most universally loved cuisine—at least in the United States. “It’s the history, the passion, the flavors,” says Luigi Vitrone, of Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities. “People love fresh herbs and garlic and olive oil, wonderful wines, exceptional cheeses. Should I go on?”
In Italy, the line has blurred between casual and fancy. In Delaware, there’s still a difference. Trattorias, warm and casual family-run operations, are ubiquitous in Wilmington’s Little Italy and beyond. More formal restaurants operate statewide. Many serve a combination of Northern and Southern Italian dishes because, as many culinary experts agree, Delaware has Americanized its Italian offerings.
As a rule, northern cuisine uses more butter, cream, polenta, mascarpone and Parmesan cheeses, risotto and fresh egg pasta. The south favors the tomato and olive oil, as well as mozzarella, cacciacavallo and pecorino cheeses.
But getting back to why we love Italian food, it’s pretty simple. Delaware’s mom and pop Italian restaurants are places where families serve families. Owners cook for you like they cook at home. It boils down to warmth, authenticity and flavor—things chain restaurants can’t duplicate.
1007 Orange St., Wilmington. 658-7050 • A framed photograph of the glorious Sophia Loren greets diners the moment they enter Café Mezzanotte. That’s important. Not only does chef and owner Sergio Pellegrino adore the Italian goddess, his restaurant epitomizes her sophisticated yet approachable style. From the beige wallpaper patterned with fleur de lis to the velvety green upholstered chairs to the iced-glass sconces, the restaurant is casually chic, like Sophia, and its classy bar shakes the best martinis in town. Café Mezzanotte is a great choice for seafood, especially the Chilean sea bass and grilled salmon. Monthly wine tastings with the café’s sommelier are worth a few pours, too.
Café Napoli Restaurant & Pizzeria
4391 Kirkwood Hwy., Wilmington, 999-7553 • Locals may come to Café Napoli for pizza and beer, but they usually end up ordering wine and excellent baked ziti, which is loaded with ricotta and mozzarella and baked with spicy marinara. Here’s another spot where eggplant Parmigiana is the real deal, though the top seller is tortellini alla boscaiola (ham and mushroom in a pink cream sauce). Napoli’s real surprise is the scungilli salad: a tangy blend of conch, fresh lemon, garlic and olive oil. Ask for extra garlic.
3612 Miller Road, Wilmington, 762-5818 • Want to know where Senator Carper hangs out? Check out Café Palermo. Don’t overlook this little trattoria in the Home Depot strip mall on an unremarkable section of Miller Road. In August the café assumed new leadership, bringing together the team of Michel Colondria, Brian Aglim and Rose Conte. The spruced-up café now attracts lots of locals. It’ll be difficult to pass up the hot, buttery garlic rolls, but save room for our top pick: Palermo’s zuppa di pesci, which is packed with fresh seafood and can be prepared with marinara sauce or garlic white wine sauce. We prefer the latter, made with Franzia wine, fresh basil and visible chunks of garlic. If there were a customer service trophy, Café Palermo would nab it.
4737 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 478-8288 • Owner Michael Tumolo calls the family restaurant “a glorified pizzeria.” Sorry, Mr. Tumolo, but Riviera is much more. So let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, Café Riviera operates inside Concord Mall, but it is not a mall-type food operation, nor is it a chain. Riviera’s house Italian dressing is the best we’ve tasted anywhere. The fettuccini Sofia Loren (scallops, prosciutto and peas in Aurora sauce) is second to none. Italian sausage and broccoli rabe is like Grandmom’s. Pasta and ravioli are homemade. Pizza toppings, like prosciutto and sirloin steak, are inventive. And the restaurant caters throughout Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. And the fact that Macy’s is under the same roof doesn’t hurt.
504 Greenhill Ave., Wilmington, 656-0955 • From the rust-colored walls and crisp white tablecloths to the GoodFellas poster, Café Scalessa’s starts at lovers lane then goes clubbing. Scalessa’s, in fact, is one of the few places to pop the question early, then rock out with your future mate later. In the late hours, televisions air Italian-themed movies on mute, sports play at the bar, and music pounds, followed by a light show and dancing. And there’s food, too. The café turns out great pasta, sausage and chicken dishes, plus a terrific cannoli. There’s no set menu, but if rockfish happens to be a special, you’re golden.
789 Garfield Pkwy., Bethany Beach, 539-4550 • With its sunny yellow walls, hardwood floors, chic sconces and contemporary window treatments, DiFebo’s Restaurant manages classy and homey at the same time. We go to DiFebo’s for the chilled antipasto alone. Then we add the chicken Juliana or the lobster Bolognese, an amazing dish with black pasta and lobster sauce in cognac cream with arugula and shiitake mushrooms. A family owned place, families are celebrated here. Husband-wife kitchen duo Jeff and Lisa Osias trained at the famed Culinary Institute of America.
In Bocca Al Lupo
1960 S. Dupont Hwy., Smyrna, 659-2110 • The name means “into the mouth of the wolf,” an expression for good luck. No wolves here, only hospitable servers like Justin Tunks and skilled chefs such as Joseph Abrams, a former New Yorker. Save for a few plants, antique dishes, textured ceilings and beige curtains, In Bocca is a large, unpretentious living room, though the food is quite a bit fancier. Abrams is a soup connoisseur. Five types of beans and perfectly al dente pitalini pasta drenched in a spicy base make his pasta e fagioli very popular. Other soups plus three main specials appear every weekend. The signature dish is pollo saltimbocca alla Romana. Abrams is Sicilian. Owner Joan Monteleon is from Northern Italy (which might explain the rosemary in the marinara sauce). So cuisine covers both regions.
La Casa Pasta
130 Four Seasons Shopping Center, Newark, 738-9935 • For the eyes, there is classically neutral Italian decor with marble floors, stone statues and crème linen tablecloths. For the ears, there is Pavarotti singing in the background. But what really gets you is the smell of bread baking and garlic sautéing. Chef and owner Giuseppe Martuscelli hails from Santa Maria Di Castellabate near Salerno, Italy, and specializes in northern and southern dishes. He uses many fresh herbs and ingredients imported from Italy, and the pasta is homemade. The signature dish is paccheri alla Giuseppe, which combines rigatoni, monkfish, shrimp and cannellini beans in marinara.
514 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington, 762-9094; 1300 Centerville Road, Wilmington, 995-6955 • Real baked eggplant Parmigiana with cheese oozing over fried eggplant smothered in thick sauce is hard to find these days. It’s always served at Lamberti’s Cucina. Though the restaurant specializes in homemade pasta, chicken, veal, seafood and fresh fish, the sausage and peppers is especially good. The paglia Afieno is prepared with another hard-to-find ingredient: whole-wheat spinach fettuccine.
Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities
415 N. Lincoln St., Wilmington, 656-9822 • Old World collides with eclectically cosmopolitan at Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities. In the front open kitchen, Vitrone is probably cracking 30 eggs for his homemade pasta, but walk two steps to find a color scheme of semolina and plum to match the semolina and red wine pastas. Jet-black tabletops copy black squid pasta. But Vitrone’s food is the real art form. All stocks, pasta, sausages and desserts are homemade. Our top picks: grilled polenta, followed by either Hunters cannelloni or zuppa di pesce. Vitrone is a chocolate nut, so try his chocolate sorbet. Wines from France, Italy, California, Australia and Chile abound. Vitrone has sampled each one and will happily advise. All the rage: The Pomme de Glace, an iced apple wine from Quebec. Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities is the only place in Delaware that has it.
Madeline’s Italian Restaurant
531 N. Dupont St., Wilmington, 656-4505 • When a patron went into labor during dinner, she named her baby Madeline. That’s what we call a family place. The portrait above the fireplace is of Madeline Sparco, the matriarch who founded the eponymous red-gravy restaurant 42 years ago. Other than freshly painted white walls, it’s still the place to go for stuffed shells, veal spezzato, hearty pasta fagioli soup, rich five-layer lasagna, crusty rolls from South Philly and—surprise—an exceedingly creamy lobster bisque. Bring a crowd: Madeline’s is the only spot in Little Italy with a parking lot.
Mancini's Brick Oven Pizzeria & Restaurant
907 Coastal Hwy., Fenwick Island, 537-4224 • Mancini’s is a contradiction in terms. The exposed brick walls, Formica booths and flowery window treatments say trattoria. The food says elegant restaurant. Chef-owner Gabriel Mancini still uses some of his grandparents’ recipes. But he’s polished additional northern, coastal and southern fare with his own tricks. Try Mancini’s unique crabmeat bruschetta to start. Main dishes such as veal scaloppini or capellini con pollo and carciofi (angel hair pasta with chicken breast and artichoke hearts) are good bets, too. Mancini’s family friendly staff patiently tends to toddlers.
Mazzella’s Italian Restaurant
729 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington, 762-8722 • Mazzella’s Italian Restaurant is a neighborhood hangout that screams pizza joint but cooks homemade meals. The taproom-type spot is as welcoming to little chefs celebrating their third birthdays as it is to bowling leagues yucking it up over pizza and beer. Chicken cacciatore, as well as sausage, peppers and onions are first rate. If you crave mouth-watering, garlicky broccoli rabe, this is your place.
Mrs. Robino’s Family Style Italian Food
520 N. Union St., Wilmington, 652-9223 • Mrs. Robino’s defines classic. Other than a little re-sanding, the dark panels built by Frank Robino Sr. in 1940 still hang at Mrs. Robino’s. Not much has changed since Tresilla Robino simmered her traditional red sauce for neighbors, not even the recipe. Chefs make 60 gallons of sauce at a time, five days a week. For homemade pasta, look no further. The same pizza roller great granddad Robino bought for a few bucks in the 1940s and manager Joseph Manuti retooled last year for $2,800 creates the unusually textured noodles. Call that a good investment. This old contraption produces the best spaghetti and ravioli in town. Mrs. R’s still uses a variation of placements with classic cocktails printed on them (though we wonder if anyone has ever ordered a pink squirrel).
Rt. 4 at Harmony Road, Newark, 737-9999 • Nonna Ristorante sits in a strip mall next to a Best Nails, but it’s no pizza parlor. Aside from a few artsy lamps and several gold-framed mirrors, it isn’t fancy either. Yet Nonna boasts two unique offerings: wine on tap (a cruvine system that infuses a shot of nitrogen per glass and saves wine from oxygen’s perils), and a separate cheese menu. Gorgonzola dolce is our first choice. Nonna is an exceptional place for veal. Chef-owner Chris Peters’ masterpiece is the veal Abruzzi, which features crimini mushrooms and hot peppers in a white wine-garlic sauce.
1900 Lancaster Ave., Wilmington, 428-0909 • A cross between your parents’ first rec room and the parish dining hall, Ristorante Attilio is the ultimate neighborhood hangout. It’s a place where kids celebrate their First Holy Communions and locals bemoan the Eagles. The dark-paneled trattoria offers the best Italian wedding soup in Little Italy. Ditto for the pepper and egg sandwiches. The slightly tart, thick and garlicky red gravy is best when it smothers lightly breaded, juicy chicken for Parmigiana. All pasta is made on the premises. If you’re called “hon,” you’re family.
Ristorante Mona Lisa
607 N. Lincoln St., Wilmington, 888-2201 • Ristorante Mona Lisa is one of Little Italy’s upscale offerings. A portrait of the painted lady hovers over a dining area graced with Roman columns, Pellegrino water bottles, white tablecloths and a black marble bar. Italian background music and exceptional service are pluses—as is valet parking. Owner and chef Nancy Campitielo hails from Salerno, and specializes in veal, risotto and polenta. (Try the ricotta and mozzarella version.) Northern and Southern cuisine is prepared well, but the lemony pollo picante and spicy shrimp marinara top our list. Share the profiterole, a cream puff with sweet filling and chocolate. The coffee is the best we’ve had in Little Italy. Since Claire Mauk and her brother David Mauk purchased the place in December, they’ve slowly put their touches on it. “We’re improving the wine list—big time,” says Claire, who was the sommelier at Columbus Inn for nearly 14 years.
Ristorante Pomodoro Italiano
720 N. Union St., Wilmington, 574-9800 • Salerno natives and brothers Francesco and Marco Parmisciano have brought Italy’s southernmost regions to Wilmington. Francesco created the menu and extensive wine list. Marco runs the business. He also laid every tile of floor and wall, as well as every square of imported glass around the bar. Francesco is just as passionate about food. Huge chunks of real lobster—not the usual little bits—make his linguine alla astice special. The salsiccia alla griglia, a marriage of sausage, smoked mozzarella and cannellini beans, representative of the Campania region, is a unique dish in this area. Pomodoro specializes in cured Italian meats. Its insalata di bresaola mixes fresh bresaola, a cured beef, with fennel and umbriaco cheese in a vinaigrette. Smoked prosciutto is a highlight in the gamberi con insalata, which is nicely topped with orange-fennel vinaigrette. Fresh salami is served with mixed cheeses in the house antipasto. A complimentary shot of Lemicello, made with cream, lemon and 95-proof grain alcohol, is a memorable finale. Save room for the homemade tiramisu. It’s the best in town.
3 President Drive, Dover, 678-1045 • Whether the meal is served at Roma or a relative’s table on Sunday afternoon, the experience is the same: a celebration of family, friends and food in a rustic setting. Chef Joseph Garramone Jr. learned to cook from his pop, owner and founder Giuseppe Garramone. Locals go there, essentially, for the tomato sauce. Joey won’t spill the recipe, but he slow-roasts the veggies, then simmers the gravy for a minimum of 15 hours. Roma is the place for saltimboca alla Roma: veal topped with prosciutto, sautéed spinach and tons of melted mozzarella. Much to our delight, the popular pan-seared ahi tuna is finally a menu item.
Sapori Ristorante Italiano
3801 Kennett Pike, Wilmington, 654-9501 • Owner Antonio Lubrano opened Sapori in September to offer central and southern Italian cuisine in a Tuscan-style environment warmed by beige tablecloths, stucco walls and navy blue cloth napkins. Chef James Kozongo, who trained in Paris and Belgium, does not make vats of gravy. He prepares all sauces to order. Popular fare is the vitello gamberi, an unusual combo of veal medallions and jumbo shrimp with white wine sauce, and the pollo al balsamico—Sapori’s version of Marsala—prepared by sautéing zucchini and eggplant in a balsamic wine sauce. Sapori also serves unique noodles, most notably large tortelloni stuffed with veal, strozzapreti and thick, tubular bucatini.
696 Unionville Road, Kennett Square, Pa., (610) 444-5600 • We love the fresh fare at Sovana, where the flavors of artichoke, black olive and arugula are allowed to assert themselves against the homemade mozarella and a ragoût of duck with butternut squash and dried cherries harmonizes perfectly over fettucini. A fave: the roasted pork chop with cannellini and Swiss chard braised with salty pancetta. Don’t worry: There are plenty of pasta dishes, and the pizzas rock. And don’t forget to take your own wine; like many Pennsylvania places, Sovana is a BYOB.
Toscana Kitchen and Bar
1412 N. DuPont St., Wilmington, 654-8001 • Toscana Kitchen and Bar may be 18 years old, but because it’s a hip bar as well as a fine eatery, it remains one of the most contemporary restaurants in Trolley Square. “The bar scene during the late nights is unique because it appeals to a sophisticated crowd that is entirely congruous to regular dining patrons,” says chef-owner Dan Butler. Hand-rolled pastas and desserts are excellent and the wines are well chosen. But carb-out on the breadsticks: No one does them better. Butler’s signature dishes are tortellini and ravioli—which are more sublimely toothsome than you would ever expect. We also pay due homage to the fettuccine with shrimp, scallops and mussels in tomato-saffron cream. We’re sure the capellini with tomato and roasted garlic has never left the menu, despite its many iterations.
Vallé Cucina Italiano
Pike Creek Shopping Center, 4725 Limestone Road, Wilmington, 998-9999 • Much has changed since this pizzeria went uptown. Every booth has its own heartleaf philodendron peering over it, making the 3,600-square-foot bistro a cozy haven for locals who enjoy large portions of Northern and Southern Italian dishes and meaty crab cakes. Grandma Doris Reno still makes the baked eggplant Parmigiana, pastas and superb crabmeat ravioli with Angelina sauce. Steak man and executive chef Eric Orsetti is partial to the 14-ounce ribeye. We love the 10-ounce filet mignon with bianca sauce.
Real Chinese: It Ain’t Takeaway
General Tso didn’t make chicken and he wasn’t commanding officer to Colonel Sanders, orange beef isn’t a specialty of any Chinese chef, and fortune cookies were invented in San Francisco.
The proliferation of American Chinese takeout has cast a serious cloud over authentic Chinese cuisine. Not that there’s anything wrong with a little sesame chicken, but the truth is, it’s about as Chinese as stromboli.
Wipe-down Chinese takeout was spawned by immigrant laborers—not trained chefs—who cashed in on Western palates during 19th-century expansion, says Joe Chan, owner of the Crownery Restaurant in Hockessin. The resulting cuisine was stripped of fresh vegetables and seafood—hallmarks of Chinese food—using instead frozen meats and cheap cuts of poultry. Dishes often swim in oil and salt. The salty, brown fried rice you get from the shopping mall food court? It’s drenched in soy sauce. That’s not how it’s done in Chinese homes.
That’s hardly the case at authentic Chinese restaurants like The Crownery, where the kitchen is teeming with chefs and cooks who prep ducks fresh from a New York market.
Chinese cuisine uses ample amounts of hearty, leafy vegetables like bok choy, gai-lan and green kale. The same goes for fresh fish and seafood. Starch, like rice and noodles, are equal components to the vegetables and protein—not side dishes.
At The Crownery, there’s a three-level steamer churning out handmade dim sum and 10 woks fired up in unison—and no general in sight.
The Authentic Chinese Restaurant
200 University Plaza, Newark, 368-0660 • It’s the little touches that make Authentic Chinese, well, authentic. Sa-cha main fun, or thin rice noodles with chicken in a savory sa-cha sauce, is something you won’t see at an average take-out joint. The house chicken throws a change-up too: lightly coated white meat is fried, then topped with a honey mayonnaise and walnuts. Wonton soup is complimentary with orders over $25. The expansive vegetarian menu is a bonus.
1845 Marsh Road, Wilmington, 475-3686 • Tucked away in a meager, easy-to-miss North Wilmington strip mall, China Royal is a well-kept secret to its loyal customers. The menu may be difficult to crack sometimes, with dishes like Chicken Amazing and Neptune’s Blessing appearing without description, but the friendly and helpful wait staff might help you uncover a new favorite. Plus, they’ll carve up roast duck and prepare the accompanying pancakes tableside.
57 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-3848 • With its sleek, clean interior and beautiful plating, Confucius is a true upscale dining experience. The diverse menu reflects that same class, paying homage to several styles of regional Chinese cooking. Traditional favorites like Peking duck sit alongside lesser-known items like cold jellyfish, and thinly sliced Woo Shien beef. American favorites General Tso’s chicken and orange beef appear, but they are more like footnotes among original creations like the ginger-marinated salmon in a bed of shredded onions.
The Crownery Chinese Restaurant
Lantana Square Shopping Center, Hockessin, 239-3825 • Customers dubbed it the Moon Gate—the beautiful carved crimson and golden arch that separates dining areas in The Crownery. It might be the main photo-op at the Hockessin classic, but customers return to The Crownery for the authentic Chinese cuisine. Chefs at Crownery were trained in Hong Kong and inland China, so they do a bit of mixing in their styles, cherry picking dishes from the Cantonese, Szechwan and Hunan styles of cooking. The result is dishes like the popular crispy prawns drizzled with a delicate cream sauce and honey walnuts. It’s no surprise Chinese Restaurant News named The Crownery one of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in the nation.
3615 Kirkwood Hwy., Wilmington, 999-0286 • Szechuan isn’t limited to the regional style of its name. This suburban classic—30 years plus—was one of the first to introduce fiery Szechuan to local taste buds, and it’s still great. The decor now seems non-descript, given the upscale-contempo feel of livelier pan-Asian places, but food on the dinner buffet is of far better quality than that at the big Asian buffets.
The volcano roll at Kenny’s Pan Asian
Cuisine in Bear is made with fried tuna,
crabmeat and cucumber topped with
spicy mayo sauce and Tobikko caviar.
The Rise of Pan-Asian
Eating at a good pan-Asian restaurant should be the gastronomic equivalent of an hour-long tour of Asia. Given the stark rise in popularity of mixed-bag Asian places, Delaware diners have become more than willing tourists.
At Kenny’s Pan Asian Cuisine in Bear, the menu ranges from China and Japan to Malaysia and Thailand. Pan Tai in Wilmington mixes in some Vietnamese and a little Indian. Jasmine in Wilmington has a few Korean favorites on its menu.
Rather than specialize in one ethnic fare, pan-Asian cuisine selects dishes from everywhere. It gives Kenny’s owner Kenny Wang the freedom to get creative with his menu. That, in turn, he says, gives his customers more freedom to choose.
“The style and presentation of the mix allows us to be more contemporary versus the old styles of Asian food,” Wang says.
For Corby Spruance, co-owner of Pan Tai, it means boiling down an oft-intimidating range of styles to its elements. “It’s not like when you go to Chinatown and have a menu with 300 things on it,” he says. “We have the best of the best.”
Take for example, the omnipresent General Tso’s chicken. “It’s a popular dish for Americans,” Wang says. But Kenny’s transforms delicate white meat chicken with a blend of sweet, sour and crunchy. “That way it appeals to a range of backgrounds. We have a lot of Filipino and Indian people in this area, so I wanted to make a menu for them, too.”
Abstractions Sushi Bar and Restaurant
203 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 226-0877 • When Abstractions opened in 2004, it immediately became a hit with sushi novices because all the work of choosing entrées was left to chef-owner Spencer Derrickson. But the cosmopolitan Rehoboth restaurant also boasts innovative house Maki rolls like the Abstractions—a colorful and beefy combo of tuna, yellowtail salmon, Tobikko and lump crab meat.
721 College Square, Newark, 368-9933 • House specialties like luscious green tea-smoked duck only begin to tell the story at Bamboo House. Locals love the quality sushi menu and value that comes with it: sizable portions at a reasonable price. Original creations like the College Square roll (yellowtail tempura with asparagus) and the toasted Pocono Mountain roll (ebi with crabstick and masago) are under $10.
Cultured Pearl Restaurant
301 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-8493 • Featuring a menu that’s dotted with Japanese and American classics and a dining area dotted with bamboo, soft lights and Koi ponds, the Cultured Pearl is a true comfort dining experience. The sushi menu, overseen by chef Kiyomi Yamanaki, contains the house favorite Cultured Pearl roll with tempura tuna, scallops, avocado, cream cheese and cucumber. Fusion entrées include the cashew chicken with bell peppers, scallions, and cashews in a sweet-and-spicy sauce over jasmine rice.
3618 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 479-5618 • The menu features eclectic elements of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food. The sleek interior and incandescent lighting scream high end, but it’s not uncommon to find families with kids dining there. The expanded Jasmine Lounge has even provided North Wilmington a bona fide cool place to hang out.
Kenny's Pan Asian
Cuisine Governor's Square II, 1255 Quintilio Drive, Bear, 838-1725 • Customers flock to Kenny’s for its fresh take on General Tso’s chicken and fried rice, but regulars come back for the mammoth Kenny’s Delight: whole lobster tail, chicken, beef, scallops and vegetables. More adventurous devotees go for the crispy whole red snapper with spicy mango sauce. One can’t-miss dish is the volcano roll, a concoction of tuna, crabmeat and cucumber, lightly fried and assembled lengthwise to form a mini mountain—with lava of spicy mayo sauce and tiny red Tobikko caviar.
Mikimotos Japanese Restaurant
1212 N. Washington St., Wilmington, 656-8638 • Haven for the downtown Wilmington crowd and crown jewel in owner Darius Mansoory’s collection of Cherry Tree restaurants, sleek Mikimotos is a true collaborative effort of sushi chef Al Chu, executive chef Sean McNeice and sous chef Darin Clower. The results are original fusion creations that are fun, fresh and mouth-watering. Take for instance the not-safe-for-search-engine Hairy Mexican, with its fried shrimp, avocado, crabstick and eel sauce. There are also bento boxes and dim sum, as well as entrées such as schichimi-blackened salmon.
Pan Tai Restaurant
837 N. Union St., Wilmington, 652-6633 • The 23-year-old Union Street staple, under the wing of founder Jim Olivere, has sustained an air of quality Southeast Asian cuisine with a deliberate nod to Vietnamese food. “Fresh, fresh, fresh ingredients,” are the key, according to co-owner Corby Spruance. “Everything is cut right before cooking. It sounds simple, but it’s the most important thing.” Fans of the restaurant love challenging the heat scale printed on the menu. “Chilis are where you get that kick,” Spruance says. “But we also use lots of fresh ginger and garlic.”
Potstickers Asian Grill
1247 Churchmans Road, Newark, 731-0188 • With its heavy wood tables, warm, red glowing hanging lamps and Buddha statues as far as the eye can see, Potstickers blends Cantonese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese with a European flair. The restaurant’s inspired take on the angry tuna roll is black peppered tuna and avocado. And you can’t leave without sampling some actual potstickers—part crispy, chewy, all savory—stuffed with pork, chicken, Shanghai shrimp or Peking duck.
It’s been a long time since recent immigrants and World War II vets brought a taste for Japanese home to the state. Thanks to its ongoing popularity—and the ascent of sushi 20 years ago—most supermarkets have a tiny corner devoted to sushi. Sadly, these have little to do with actual Japanese cuisine. Real sushi demands impeccably fresh seafood and the expertise of an experienced sushi chef, such as Kailon Yeung, chef at Okura in Hockessin. “Our restaurant gets fish in daily and from three different suppliers,” he says. “Our steady customers know our fish, and they appreciate the freshness.” Sushi and sashimi must be crafted by a skilled hand. “A sushi chef must have experience,” he says. “Each roll must be a clone of the last. A slight difference in cutting or handling can alter the shape or taste.”
Hibachi Japanese Steak House
22 Fox Hunt Drive, Bear, 836-2498; 1160 Pulaski Hwy., Bear, 838-0414; 215 Astro Shopping Center, Newark, 456-3308; 5607 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 477-0194 • The flat-top grills chefs use to entertain diners—by building smoking volcanos of onions, cracking eggs mid-air with the edge of a spatula, flinging sautéed shrimp into the mouths of patrons—are the center of attention in these popular local restaurants. The experience may be more about show than four-star cuisine—though the sushi is remarkably good.
Ichiban 737 N. Dupont Hwy., Dover, 677-0067 • The entryway lets you know what you’re in for once inside. Yes, there are bento boxes and sushi, but there’s also Korean bulgogi.
Kyoto Japanese Restaurant
4563 Linden Hill Road, Wilmington, 368-9882 • Start with hamachi: succulent pieces of yellowtail sashimi coated in mirin wine in a cup of tropical leaves. Follow with the popular Pike Creek Roll: salmon and avocado topped with crunchy tempura flakes and teriyaki sauce. Then sample the signature yoyo roll, with its lobster tempura and tuna mixed in a spicy sauce, then topped with avocado slices and eel sauce.
Mayflower Japanese Restaurant
230 E. Main St., Newark, 292-1850 • It’s not just the sushi that UD students love—it’s the price. Rarely does a menu item at Mayflower breach the $10 mark. The house roll is a crispy shrimp tempura creation mixed with caviar and topped with steamed shrimp and crabstick. Teriyaki combos can be had for around five bucks and come loaded with rice, broccoli, salad, and either tempura, a California roll or Gyoza dumplings.
Niwano Hana Restaurant
3602 Kirkwood Hwy., Wilmington, 995-8905 • Formerly Mikasa Restaurant, Niwano Hana is the new name from the same folks who brought Japanese to Kirkwood Highway. And though the circular wooden front door looks like something from “Lord of the Rings,” the restaurant is all about combo deals. A popular $6.99 spread called the lunch box comes with an inside-out California roll, shumai, edamame, fruit and tempura. The dinner box combines four pieces of California roll with rolls of shrimp, eel and tuna, as well as tempura, oshinko and teriyaki.
703 Ace Memorial Drive, Hockessin, 239-8486 • Eight-year-old Okura likes being the friendly neighborhood sushi shop, says chef Kailon Yeung. The Hockessin roll is a natural local fave, with fresh tuna and avocado rolled, tempura fried, then drizzled with spicy mayonnaise sauce, scallions and caviar.
1220 Highway One, Lewes, 645-9728 • The Tokyo Steakhouse serves prime quality fish and the finest cuts of poultry and aged beef. Customers can’t leave without trying the negimaki, tender strips of beef smothered in a teriyaki sauce and wrapped in scallions.
Utage Japanese Restaurant
1601 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 652-1230 • The Oka family has delivered authentic Japanese cuisine to the area for more than 20 years, as well as chef-owner Chihiro Oka’s fresh ideas for sushi rolls and presentations. The Aurora roll is an eye-catching combination of salmon, shrimp, steamed asparagus, seaweed, dry tuna flakes, and marinated daikon.
The ped kra prow at Bangkok House is made with crispy
boneless duck served in Thai basil leaves sauce.
Thai: It’s About Time
The spicy-sweet-sour-salty cuisine of Thailand has never been more popular. Western diners and restaurateurs alike love the balance of fresh (never dried) herbs, smooth coconut milk, salty fish sauce and hot chilies. Fresh ingredients make for clean and bright flavors, says Norrawit Jeenwong Milburn, chef and co- owner at Jeenwong Thai Cuisine. “We go to the market every morning and handpick beef, chicken, vegetables,” he says. Dishes tend to vary slightly by region, but a few key ingredients tend to pop up. Coconut milk, lemon grass, chilies, garlic and basil are blended in lots of dishes. That harmony is the key to great Thai food.
Bangkok House Restaurant
104 N. Union St., Wilmington, 654-8555 • For years, Bangkok House has been the flagholder of Delaware Thai cuisine, and with good reason. Owner Tom Wechkul adheres to the tennets of great Thai food from this low-key Union Street eatery, with dishes like Panang with coconut milk, red curry paste and basil. Wash it down with a Singha beer and get ready for the sublime duck with basil sauce. Consider ordering to-go to avoid the occasional long wait.
Jeenwong Thai Cuisine
200 Water St., Wilmington, 655-5140 • Inside the bustling Wilmington Riverfront Market, Jeenwong is the place where businessmen get their Thai on. “All of our Thai food is our own family’s style,” says chef and co-owner Norrawit Jeenwong Milburn. “You’re not going to find another egg roll like ours.” Jeenwong uses special imported Thai ginger to flavor the egg rolls, then double cooks the tasty bundles to remove the fat and add the flavor. The corporate crowd loves the curry, but for transcendent Thai greatness, try the Ba Mea Lad Nar, stir-fried beef, shrimp and chicken with Thai-style garlic brown sauce poured over egg noodles.
Seaside Thai Cuisine
19 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-9525 • A favorite spot for locals, Seaside Thai is a casual answer to many of Rehoboth’s high-end ethnic restaurants. The interior is colorful, but laid-back. The menu is traditional and reasonably priced. But the real highlights here are signature “seaside grillers” that pair tender grilled meat and seafood with fresh steamed veggies. One standout takes fresh, grilled Atlantic salmon and adds a few simple accompaniments—garlic, black pepper and teriyaki sauce.
Sweet Basil Thai Cuisine
275 Wilmington Pike, Chadds Ford, Pa., (610) 358-4015 • Sweet Basil is the newest entry in Delaware’s Thai Rolodex. (OK, so it’s just over the Pennsylvania line in Glen Mills). But it’s already made an impact on Delaware diners. The cool and sophisticated atmosphere—with white candles and matching orchids—sets the stage for razor-sharp interpretations of Thai classics. Soups and curries laced with coconut milk are menu standouts, as is the crispy duck.
Tasti Thai Restaurant
287 Christiana Road, New Castle, 322-1306 • Bright and colorful parasols dangle from the ceiling and 80-year-old tapestries decorate the walls of this unassuming Thai eatery—hidden in plain sight in a strip mall on Del. 273. It’s worth discovering. Owner Sung Falk has assembled a menu that’s fresh and diverse, with favorites like spicy, crispy softshell crab, three-flavor chicken topped with crisp basil leaves, roasted duck curry accented with tomatoes and pineapples, and refreshing papaya salad. The restaurant imports herbs from Thailand and uses fresh veggies like broccoli, snow peas and Thai eggplants called makua.
Asian crepes are filled with shrimp, bean sprouts,
green onion and a choice of chicken or pork at
Viet Kieu in Dover. They are served with leaf lettuce
and Vietnamese fish sauce.
Miscellaneous Asia: Korean and Vietnamese
Great Asian food in Delaware doesn’t end with sushi. Loyal customers and countrymen flock to a handful of Korean and Vietnamese restaurants scattered throughout Delaware. Those who opt for Korean will enjoy tender and savory meats met with rice, garlic and ssamjang inside a lettuce wrap. Wildly diverse Vietnamese cuisine varies by region, so different chefs will have differing interpretations of pho (noodle soup), bun (rice vermicelli) and banh mi (think Vietnamese hoagie).
Kahl-Bee Korean Restaurant
2011 Kirkwood Hwy., Wilmington, 998-4310 • Kahl-Bee anchors a pretty international pocket of Elsmere; it’s flanked by the International Grill Buffet and an oriental grocer. For seekers of authentic ethnic cuisine, this is usually a good sign. Inside Kahl-Bee, the specialty is, naturally, kalbi—grilled, marinated short ribs. Try them with mandu dumplings, the Korean equivalent of pierogis.
Korean Barbecue & Sushi Bar
3 Liberty Plaza, Newark, 455-9100 • Korean Barbecue is about more than great food. The experience of ordering spicy, marinated maeun bulgogi, laying it on a hot grill alongside whole garlic cloves and broiled squid is truly singular. But don’t sleep on the restaurant’s assortment of spicy soups, stews and hot pots. The gae maeuntang with spicy crabmeat is a can’t-miss.
2938 Ogletown Road, Newark, 737-6832 • Old World recipes from the Paris of the Orient highlight the menu at Little Saigon, where favorites include a tender ginger-marinated chicken called ga uop gung, a sweet-and-sour shrimp and lemon grass soup, a curried chicken called ga ca ri and a spicy, boneless duck seasoned with basil called vit xao la que. Don’t worry—you don’t have to pronounce them for your servers. They get it.
Saigon Vietnam Restaurant
207 Newark Shopping Center, Newark, 737-1590 • With its lush, green decor accented with hanging lamps and shrubbery, Saigon Vietnam is a tiny oasis in the Newark Shopping Center. Chef-owner Lan Chen’s menu is more than 100 items deep, filled with traditional Vietnamese food. The house chicken is Saigon Ga, a crispy, spicy chicken breast in a rice wine sauce. Servers here are attentive and eager to explain dishes, and the bar is stocked for cocktails like the lychee sake-tini.
Viet Kieu Restaurant
510 Jeffrey Blvd., Dover, 744-9300 • Vietnam is made up of more than 50 ethnic groups, each with its own way of cooking, says Viet Kieu co-owner Ray Hubbard. The menu at his restaurant is culled from the Northern region of Vietnam and was created by his chef—known to customers as Miss Lei. That means lots of vegetables, shrimp, bean sprouts and rice paper. Hubbard’s favorite is the banh xeo, sort of a Vietnamese stuffed crêpe. “It’s so different and so good.”
Vietnamese Restaurant 266 S. Dupont Hwy., Dover, 736-1606 • Another tucked-away gem, the aptly named Vietnamese Restaurant specializes in noodle bowls like pho and entrées for under $10. Butter-knife tender beef brisket curry is a favorite here, as are the smooth rice paper springrolls. The com ga roti—barbecued pork over vermicelli—simply must be tried.
Favorites at India Palace include
(clockwise from front) chicken tikka,
Kasmiri pulao, bayngan bhurta and
chicke tikka masala.
Passage to India
With at least five Indian restaurants on or near its busy lanes, Kirkwood Highway could be considered a passage to India. When traveling along this east-west thoroughfare, one can find Indian cuisine predominantly of North Indian approach, though the cooking styles of all four regions are present.
Just a bit north of this stretch is India Palace. It is here where one will find authentic Northern Indian cuisine prepared by Sushil and Anjna Sharma, both from Punjab, a state in the northwest part of the country.
Like many Indians who have brought the cuisine to the United States, Sushil became interested in its preparation as a young man. His mother taught him the ropes, and a friend who had formally trained in the style helped Sushil to master the tandoor (a clay oven used to cook with charcoal).
The Sharmas focus on preparation of tandoori and Mughalai cuisine. Mughalai came from the Moguls, Muslims who ruled much of India from the 16th to 19th century, thus, the prevalence of raisins, cashews, almonds and walnuts in the fare.
The key to authentic Indian cuisine, the Sharmas say, is fresh ingredients and the proper masala—blending of spices such as curry, ginger, garlic and cumin seeds. Turmeric powder, a deep yellowish-orange, helps give dishes their color.
Spices are added to oil and cooked until a reddish or copper color. Then the meat or vegetable is added. It is mixed and left to cook, spreading the flavor throughout. Each dish contains a minimum of eight spices. Meats are marinated and cooked either curry style (in gravy) or in the tandoor.
Another key ingredient is patience. “Indian cuisine takes time,” says Sushil. “It can be expensive because it takes time to prepare.”
Himalaya Indian Restaurant
2671 Kirkwood Hwy., Meadowood Shopping Center, Newark, 369-3993 • Owner Krish Obillaneni favors the South Indian style of cooking, which he refers to as homestyle. Himalaya’s focus on the southern cuisine is meant to distinguish it from the many Indian restaurants along Kirkwood Highway, most of which lean toward Punjabi cuisine. Obillaneni keeps a number of northern dishes on the menu for customers who prefer that style. The Chicken 65, an appetizer from Hyderabadi in southern India, is cooked with fried curry leaves, yogurt and spices. The masala dosa—a crispy rice crêpe layered with a special paste, potatoes and onions—could be addictive. Biryani of vegetable, chicken, lamb or shrimp is marinated in exotic spices, stirred with onion, ginger and green peppers, then steamed with basmati rice to spread the flavors throughout.
3456 Naamans Road, Tally-Ho Shopping Center, Wilmington, 478-2428 • If variety is the spice of life, India Grille’s got kick. The menu of more than 100 dishes, including soups and salads, welcomes you “to the land of one thousand and one spices of Indian cuisine.” The non-vegetable appetizer is a combination of meats: meat samosa, chi-tikka, shish kabab and shrimp pakora (or shrimp fritters). A selection of five soups includes the standard offering of tomato with spices and curry seasoning, lentil, coconut cooked with pistachios and cardamom, chicken and mulligatawny—an East Indian soup with a lentil base and vegetable and curry seasoning. For dessert, try the coconut kulfi—frozen milk and cream flavored with coconut.
India Palace Indian Restaurant
101 N. Maryland Ave., Wilmington, 655-8772 • Sushil and Anjna Sharma welcome you into their corner restaurant as if it were their home. The couple, from Punjab, India, has brought locals Mughalai and tandoori cuisine since 1991. The Mughalai style originates from the Kashmir region along the northern Indian border and features nuts and dried fruits. A classic Mughalai entrée is chicken shahi korma: marinated chicken simmered in cream with spices and cashews. Other popular dishes at India Palace include the chicken saag: boneless chicken pieces cooked with creamed spinach and enhanced with mild Indian spices; and lamb korma, cooked in mild cream sauce with cashews. Breads such as tandoori roti, made from whole wheat rather than flour, and the garlic naan are baked fresh in the tandoor each day. Some regulars visit often for the kheer—cardamom flavored rice pudding garnished with nuts.
Maharaja Indian Cuisine
1450 Kirkwood Hwy., Shoppes of Red Mill, Suite 121, Newark, 369-1202 • Maharaja offers fine Indian dining in an elegant but casual setting. Leaving the strip mall facade behind, as is required in most Indian restaurants in this area, you are welcomed in the foyer by ornately framed paintings of jeweled elephants. The light yellow faux bricks that form the walls in the dining room are complemented by the deep burgundy of the curtains, booth cushions and tablecloths. Classical music completes the feel. The extravagant dinner buffet offers favorites such as gobhi Mancurian, mutter pamner, sambar, aloo gobhi, yellow dal, malaikofia, green beans and lamb vindaloo, to name a few. From the menu, the spicy shrimp pakora is made with jumbo shrimp marinated with chick peas, flour and aromatic spices. Vindaloo dishes—spiced cubes of your choice of meat—are cooked with potatoes in a tangy goan sauce made from coconut and mangosteen, a sweet, juicy tropical fruit. Warning to those who avoid spicy heat—this dish is a hotty.
Palace of Asia
3421 Kirkwood Hwy., Wilmington, 994-9200 • Located next to the Blockbuster at the former site of Café Bellissimo, Palace of Asia is a regional chain worth checking out, albeit a bit pricier than its local relatives. The ornate dining rooms and bar present a classy atmosphere inspired by the architecture of the royal courts of India. In-house lunch and dinner combinations offer various choices of appetizers and entrées, all served with naan and paratha, mint and tamarind chutneys, raita, sliced salad, achar (an Indian pickle), papadum, soda bar and choice of two desserts.
Star of India
1710A Newport Gap Pike, Wilmington, 999-0855, 999-1802 • At the beginning of this year, the Star of India in Newark was uprooted and moved to this location, formerly called Indian Paradise Restaurant. Star of India regulars will have to follow their favorite food to this unassuming locale behind Prices Corner Shopping Center, but they can take comfort in the fact that the Star menu will remain intact. The special Sunday dinner buffet will no doubt remain a hit.
Taste of India
2628 Kirkwood Hwy., Meadowood II Shopping Center, Newark, 737-9483 • When owner Gian Singh P greets you, his white, close-cropped beard and black turban make you feel like you’re in Punjab. This spacious but comfortable restaurant includes a full-service bar and seats 75, with an adjoining banquet hall that accommodates 125. The faux white brick walls, dark woods, a classy elephant border and large copper serving dishes at the buffet add to the feel. The cuisine is primarily northern, featuring plenty of dishes finished in the clay tandoor oven. The tandoori mixed grill includes a combination of tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, seekh kabab, boti kabab and shrimp grilled in tandoor, all served with a fresh garden salad. Another filling entrée is the chef combination dinner: soup, papadum, seekh kabab, chicken tikka, lamb or chicken curry, vegetable korma, rice, mango chutney and naan bread. Kids specials include shashlik: skewered cubes of chicken or cheese, onions and tomatoes served on a bed of saffron rice with homemade yogurt sauce.
Classic French: American Style
Given our quest for smaller waistlines, classic French restaurants, as they existed in the Old World, are a dying breed. The pillar of French dining, Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin, does well, but Delaware offers no true French restaurants. Even our archetypal Green Room at the Hotel du Pont is headed west. “We actually have begun to transition The Green Room away from being considered a French restaurant to an American restaurant offering multicultural influences on its menu,” says executive chef Tom Hannum. “We have definitely moved away from classical French sauces to making intensely flavored sauces in small quantities, and heavy cream sauces have been replaced with foams and essences.”
Gilmore’s French Cuisine in West Chester was never classic French, says owner and executive chef Peter Gilmore. “We have an American flair,” he says. “People are always looking for a new type of cuisine. Something different from the old.” And different they will find at the following French-inspired restaurants, where the elegance, style and class of French culture remains.
Gilmore’s French Cuisine
133 E. Gay St., West Chester, Pa., (610) 431-2800 • That little shingle that reads “Gilmore’s French Cuisine” on the little street in the little town isn’t a whole lot different than a little shingle you’d see in France. A transformed 18th-century townhouse, Gilmore’s is cozy-chic, with plush carpets, rich window treatments, candles and blue stemware. Chef-owner Peter Gilmore is considered a regional master, having honed his skills at Le Bec-Fin. But he has some fun. It’s chicken Wellington here, not beef. There are lobster corn dogs. The excellent crispy Thai tilapia is done with a light mustard and panko crust. There are some misconceptions about Gilmore’s: You can’t get a table, and it’s exclusive. Wrong on both counts. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, there are plenty of seats for the 8:30 sitting. And Gilmore’s offers a $35 four-course deal, plus a free glass of champagne.
Green Room Hotel du Pont
11th and Market streets, Wilmington, (800) 441-9019 • The Green Room is the most elegant dining room in Wilmington, having won AAA’s prestigious Four-Diamond Award for 21 straight years. Diners indulge in a classic setting of carved oak paneling, gold leaf wallpaper, soaring coffered ceilings, lush drapes and chandeliers. They use silver utensils that complement the Versace china. Food is prepared to order, and it’s worth the wait. Truffles and foie gras remain, but the trend is toward French-inspired, lighter fare such as sautéed veal medallions with chanterelle mushrooms and baby beets, as well as the delicious seared sakutuna with indebleu street corn, avocados, corn shoots and chili-cilantro dressing. The Green Room will unveil a new menu soon. It will not be printed in French.
The Anglo File
A little more than seven years ago, Michael Stone opened Stoney’s Pub because he couldn’t find good fish and chips. He’d hoped that, because AstraZeneca was establishing its U.S. headquarters just up Concord Pike, some of the British-based pharmaceutical company’s 5,000 local employees would appreciate his meat-and-potatoes approach to British cooking. They did.
“If we could make the English and Brits and me happy, I knew we’d have a shot,” he says.
Whether you’re looking for the flavor of Britain or a piece of Ireland, it can be found right here. The Wilmington area has authentic British Isles fare covered with places such as The Flavour of Britain Tea Shoppe, A Piece of Ireland, Catherine Rooney’s Irish Pub and, of course, Stoney’s.
“Wilmington is really lucky to have that kind of food exposed in this marketplace,” says Stone. “Most big cities don’t have that kind of food.”
At the beach, you can also dig into traditional shepherd’s pie, as well as bangers and mash, thanks to places like Stoney Lonen and Go Fish! All places offer more than your standard corned beef and cabbage and Yorkshire pudding. They provide a friendly pub atmosphere that cultivates a faithful cast of regulars.
As with many ethnic restaurants, the recipes and cooking styles often come from the owners’ families. Stone’s sausage roll came from his grandfather, a master baker in England. All other dishes, including the fish and chips, are straight from his mother’s kitchen.
The key to proper British cooking, he says, is elementary. “It’s the old adage, let the ingredients speak for themselves. Don’t overcook and keep it simple. I guess it’s a little bit of history handed down from generation to generation.”
A Piece of Ireland
Chesmar Plaza, Newark, Del. 4 and Marrows Road, 454-1900 • You can touch a little piece of Ireland—an honest to goodness street sign that once stood near the village of Clonmellon—that’s mounted near the entrance of this spacious pub. If that’s not authentic enough, note the white stone fireplace and old farm tools. The 40-plus foot bar provides ample space from which to sample classic brews such as Guinness, Smithwick’s and Harp. The traditional dishes such as shepherd’s pie, Irish stew, and fish and chips are also authentic—and tasty. Just ask Nile, a native Irishman who frequents the place. The traditional Irish breakfast—two sausages, two rashers (thinly sliced bacon), grilled tomato, black-and-white pudding, and a fried egg served with homemade brown bread—will stick to your ribs.
Catherine Rooney’s Irish Pub & Restaurant
1616 Delaware Ave., Wilmington, 654-9700 • Catherine Rooney’s puts it all together—traditional Irish fare with flair, a customary mural honoring the local police and fire departments, soccer on the tele, and Irish bands such as Hit the Bottle Boys and Bareknuckle Brawlers jamming on Saturday nights. The fish in these fish and chips is white halibut. The Wexford boil, an Irish version of the London classic, features flank steak marinated in Guinness, then grilled and topped with roasted garlic and mushroom gravy. The Kilkenny medallions of grilled tender pork loin topped with spiced apple cherry chutney are to die for.
24 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 226-1044 • Go Fish! lives up to its name with traditional fish and chips, a battered codfish sandwich called “The Codfather,” fried fish tacos and beer-battered shrimp or softshell crabs. The fish list swims on with flounder stuffed with crab imperial, honey-glazed or horseradish-crusted seared salmon, and macadamia-crusted mahi mahi served with pineapple salsa, cheddar mash and steamed veggies.
Jessop’s Tavern and Colonial Restaurant
114 Delaware St., New Castle, 322-6111 • Stroll into Jessop’s Tavern and return to the days when New Castle was Delaware’s capital. The original tavern was established in 1724, but Jessop’s was resurrected from a long dormancy only 10 years ago. Each day, Jessop’s serves a different chowder, catch, sandwich, and salad, along with traditional offerings such as fish and chips and its famous bread pudding.
Stoney’s British Pub
3007 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 477-9740 • Part of the allure of Stoney’s is personable owner Michael Stone. The former music publicist, who worked with everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Spice Girls, exudes a certain charm that sets the tone at his seven-year-old “local,” as they’d say back home. Stone and chef Thomas Darson take their English food seriously. The fish and chips are made of fresh cod from Dawson’s Seafood, a Wilmington fishmonger, as Stone puts it. The batter is flour, water and a couple other ingredients—no beer, says Stone. Darson whips up the traditional Yorkshire pudding every Saturday and prepares daily staples such as steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash, country ham soup, and desserts such as bread and butter pudding. Check out the impressive list of single-malt whiskeys.
316 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-1873 • Finbar brings a classy touch of England (and Scotland and Ireland) to Delaware’s resort. It’s a fine place to grab a pint and a hearty meal. The original chef returned to his native Dublin, but not before sharing a few recipes. The cod used in the fish and chips is coated in a batter made with Harp and covered with an Irish whisky cream sauce. The cottage pie (beef, not lamb) is topped with a crown of champ (potatoes and scallions). Due to the popularity of Indian food in England, tikka masala (chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and served in tomato cream sauce) was added to the menu. For something different, order a Strongbow cider. The U.K. import is a rare find on tap in these parts.
Delaware’s Mediterranean restaurants are influenced by Greek, Lebanese and Moroccan cultures. Lebanese cuisine is known for its starches, fruits, vegetables, fresh fish, poultry, lamb and seasonings, primarily garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. Moroccan meals generally start with hot and cold salads followed by a tagine, or stew, then lamb or chicken with couscous. Greek cuisine follows suit with garlic and fresh lemon, but fuses onions, olive oil, parsley, oregano, and warmer spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg. From those ingredients and fresh meats come dishes like souvlaki, spanakopita, dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves), gyros, marinated lamb and moussaka (eggplant casserole). Overall, Mediterranean dishes are often grilled or baked with olive oil. Butter or cream is reserved for desserts, most notably baklava, kourambiethes (Greek butter cookies) and galatobouriko (custard-filled phyllo).
Ali Baba Middle Eastern Restaurant
175 E. Main St., Newark, 628-4555 • Owner Riyad Albaroki also owns Casablanca Restaurant, so he has decorated Ali Baba similarly—sans belly dancers—with couches, pillows, sofa-high tables and wall tapestries. But Ali Baba is totally a la carte. Foods are a combo of Lebanese, Greek and Moroccan. The menu offers spicy green salads, hummus and falafel. Vegetarians are well served here, with mujadara (rice and lentils), falafel wraps, and carrot or eggplant salad. Others would be wise to try the Moroccan chicken and lamb kebabs. The Turkish coffee is brewed fresh.
4010 N. Dupont Hwy., New Castle, 652-5344 • Riyad Albaroki, chef and owner of Casablanca, is a great director. He created a lush, dim Arabesque room with plush couches, pillows and tapestries as the background for a well-produced experience. Moroccan-dressed waiters serve a seven-course set menu of fresh, spicy Moroccan food, offering warm towels to wash hands in between. The overture is stewed eggplant and carrot salad with pita bread, which is followed by cinnamon pastry stuffed with spicy chicken, then beef kabobs, then lemony whole roasted chicken. Cue the belly dancers somewhere between scenes four and five. You may or may not go for the delicious baklava, but there’s always room for refreshing mint tea or rosewater with cinammon.
Captain Pete’s Mediterranean Cove
700 Coastal Hwy., Fenwick Island, 537-5900 • Captain Pete’s Mediterranean Cove is the only restaurant on the Coastal Highway with a covered deck. The name says Mediterranean, but expect authentic Greek food. Captain Pete Charahus, originally from Sparta, Greece, built the restaurant for his wife, Helen, in 1998. And Helen is a stickler for freshness. That means excellent moussaka, lots of traditional lamb dishes, and fresh grilled fish done Greek style with oil, fresh lemon and oregano. The olive oil and spices are imported from Sparta. Helen’s salad dressing is made fresh with quality wine vinegars.
1000 West St., Wilmington, 777-2268 • Outside the glass doors of Costa’s Grill are the words “Eat Downtown,” something owners Constantine Dimas and James Mallios hope Delawareans will take seriously. The restaurant was once a bank, and the old vault now houses Costa’s wine cellar. A few items to try: baby lamb chops, spanakopita, the fabulous rocket salad with halloumi (a spongy blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses), sautéed spinach with feta and garlic, anything with green olive dressing, and the terrific tarts. We like the kefalograviera variety, with its Kalamata olives and caramelized onions.
Mexican: The New Italian
Like Italians last century, Latin American immigrants have changed Delaware’s dining scene. Mexican restaurants are as prolific as dollar stores, and local icons such as El Tapatio and La Tonalteca now enjoy the same popularity as Italian stalwarts like Mrs. Robino’s and La Rosa Negra.
A handful of spots, such as Palacio Maya in Hockessin, Mariachi in Rehoboth Beach and Coyote Crossing in West Chester, have elevated Mexican dining from a plastic-sunflower-in-a-Corona-bottle experience to a white tablecloth and linen napkin experience. Their menus also offer more eclectic choices, including plenty of seafood dishes and South American-influenced cuisine.
While we gringos may not be ready to trade our meatballs for menudo (soup made with cow intestines), we are becoming more adventurous. So we need to settle this little matter of authenticity. Almost every Mexican joint claims to keep it real, but authenticity is in the taste buds of the beholder.
“Authentic means it’s homemade,” says Humberto Gomez, owner of El Toro in Wilmington. “The key is the perfect mix of ingredients and when you add those ingredients.”
Paola Demucha, whose family owns Tijuana Taco Shop in Wilmington, says the proof is in the preparation of meats such as tongue and pork. “If it’s not proper, you really notice the difference,” she says. “With Mexican, you have the perfect blend of spices: chile powder, orange citrus, olive oil, tequila, wine, chipotle pepper, any ground pepper and onions, of course.”
Javier Acuna, who owns Santa Fe Mexican Grill in Newark, is calling for a Mexican revolution. He says some local restaurants have trotted out the same menu for 15 years, so he’s challenging competitors to take it to the next level.
“It’s time for a new view toward Latin and Mexican food,” he says. “We need to bring Mexican food back to what it is, and it’s a lot more than tacos and burritos.”
37 N. Dupont Hwy., Selbyville, 436-2750; 4 W. Fenwick Station, Selbyville, 436-4492 • Cactus Café resembles owner Manuel Pavon—it is colorful and mucho jovial. Cactus is a place where customers write their names on the wall, then come back to search for their signatures. In his 18th year in operation, Pavon is now serving his brand of Mexican, Spanish and Mediterranean to a second generation of regulars. Cactus Café 54, a sister restaurant on Del. 54, is nine years old. Both places feature the 1-pound steak-lover’s fajita—16 ounces of prime rib strips wrapped in a tortilla with veggies, guacamole and refried beans. Fajitas account for 42 percent of sales at Cactus. Naturally, Pavon infuses the menu with seafood. Order the chicken or beef chimichanga and you get the usual rice, refrieds, sauce, cheese—all topped with crab imperial. He’s also got grouper, Chilean sea bass and paella. The paella takes a while, so call ahead or show up and sip sangria with your host.
102 E. Market St., West Chester, Pa., (610) 429-8900 • Cross the border for Southwestern Mexican in an elegant, yet casual atmosphere. The classy rooftop patio is the place to be in summer. Three glass-enclosed fireplaces help to warm during the winter. Owner-chef Carlos Melendez combines classic Mexican cooking with his grandmother’s recipes to create dishes such as Tampiquena—strips of filet mignon served with chicken enchilada, guacamole, refried beans and a poblano pepper sautéed with onions, white wine, herbs and spices and sour cream. Ask for the filet to be blackened. Other Southwest offerings include a grilled mahi mahi topped with a passion fruit-chipotle sauce and served with rice and roasted vegetables. The Ribs al Coyote, barbecued ribs served with glazed pineapple sauce, will make you howl.
208 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-3353 • Owners Joe Zuber and Darryl Ciarlante’s interpretation of Mexican fare includes contributions from Puerto Vallarta, where they like to vacation. A favorite restaurant in the Mexican resort inspired the softshell crab enchilada. When it comes to fish, they prefer Barramundi, an Australian species known for its mild, sweet flavor. Shrimp, crab and lobster quesadillas receive a dusting of Old Bay, another Dos Locos twist. Traditional tacos, burritos and chimichangas grace the menu, but the boys get crazy with the fajitas. Choose from sirloin, chicken, shrimp, lobster, vegetable, tuna, scallop or a combination. If the fajitas don’t flip your poncho, try stone grilling—cook any meat but chicken tableside on a heating stone warmed to 750 degrees. Like its food, Dos Locos eschews the typical bright colors from South of the Border in favor of warm tones of cherry and burnt orange. It’s classy but casual.
El Tapatio Mexican Restaurant
550-560 Eden Circle, Eden Hill Shopping Center, Bear, 836-6477; 1700 Philadelphia Pike, Wilmington, 791-9566 • El Tapatio wants to share the culture. It’s a place to try out your Spanish, groove to mariachi and catch futból on the tube. The novice friendly menu even includes a glossary. The old Mexican decor, with distressed concrete walls and traditional archways, is reminiscent of an old cantina. The various regions of the homeland are all represented on the menu. Spices such as ancho and guajillo peppers are imported from Mexico, as is the mole. Try the burrito de Lugo—shrimp, chicken, two types of cheese, salsa verde and rice or beans. The 2-foot-long giant burrito serves four. Pollo Tapatio and fajita Tapatias are solid choices. Like most Mexican places worth their weight in refrieds, the margaritas are a hit. But Tapatio offers a nice selection of imported brews, including Pacifico, Corona, Dos Equis, Carta Blanca, Modelo and Sol.
624 N. Union St., Wilmington, 777-4417 • True, this is primarily a takeout place (it has three small tables), but it’s one you need to know about. Owner Humberto Gomez has built a loyal fan base from this diminutive storefront over the past 11 years. The quesadilla relleñas, stuffed with cheese, beef or chicken, are favorites, along with tacos de carnitas: three tacos, chopped pork, pico de gallo, and tomatillo salsa with flour or corn tortillas and beans. By now, everyone knows about the awesome chile relleño. The secret behind Toro’s raging success? “The red hot sauce,” Gomez divulges. “It’s made with Cajun peppers, tomatillo, onions, cilantro, salt, garlic and a lot of love, man.”
3804 Lancaster Pike, Wilmington, 993-0464 • If you blink, you’d miss this tiny Mamí-and-Papí owned by Maria and Pedro Canongo. And it’d be your loss. La Poblanita (a woman from the Mexican state of Puebla) packs a powerful punch with authentic cuisine that includes 13 different tortas (sandwiches), seven different tacos and the best quesadillas around. Americans prefer enchiladas poblanos, chile relleños, burritos and fajitas. But Latinos, who make up 60 percent of the clientele, come for the chuletas ahumadas (smoked pork chops) and the mojarra frita (whole fried striped bass). On weekends, Maria whips up posol (corn and pork soup), menudo (a soup made of cow intestines) and three different tamales: jalepeños, peppers and cheese; red sauce and pork; and sweet tamales. The chips and green salsa, made from green tomatillos, cilantro, onions and garlic, are out of this world.
La Quetzalteca Mexican Restaurant
9 Gravel Hill Road, Georgetown, 856-7003; 25 Georgetown Plaza, Georgetown, 854-0218; 700 Washington St., Millsboro, 934-8077 • Brothers Gerson and Eddy Guox recently converted the Georgetown Plaza and Millsboro locations into Quetzaltecas, but the Guatemala natives already know what their customers like. After all, they came up in the local La Toltecas before striking out on their own. Eddy says Latinos lean toward the grilled dishes of beef and chicken, while gringos go for burritos, chimichangas and enchiladas. All agree that the Quetzalteca Special—sliced beef, chicken, shrimp and chorizo served with fried onions, pico de gallo, guacamole, rice, beans and tortillas—is tops. If you’re looking for an intimate (and far from fancy) dining experience, try the Gravel Hill location, which opened in July. The Georgetown Plaza venue (formerly called El Vaquero) is brighter and larger. It features a grand mural of a Mexican village by “some guy from Mexico,” says Eddy. La Quetzalteca’s selection of native tequilas—Don Eduardo, Reposado, Hornitos, Sauza and Silver Patron, to name a few—is equally impressive.
2209 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 778-4646; 4015 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 478-9477 • These are the last of the local Toltecas, at least in name. The local chain is still owned by the Cedillo family, but the other Delaware locations have been renamed La Tonalteca. They’ve also expanded north of the border into Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, New York. See next entry.
528 S. Bay Road, Dover, 734-4575; 245 S. Dupont Hwy., Dover, 735-1572; 1000 Midway Drive, Harrington, 398-7644; 203 Newark Shopping Center, Newark, 737-8220; 4578 Highway One, Rehoboth, 644-3994; 1724 W. Newport Pike, Stanton, 636-9484 • The Mexican food that many a First Stater was raised on remains an old friend, although the name recently received a tweaking. Burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas and tamales are staples of the 200-dish menu, along with chilaquiles—soft tortilla chips cooked with salsa, chicken and topped with cheese. The location near the Dover Target recently reopened after a fire and was refitted with a new arched entryway with large wooden doors, an outdoor patio, and floor tiles and furniture straight from Mexico. The new look will likely make the margaritas taste even better, if that’s possible.
2110 Kirkwood Hwy., Wilmington, 998-3363, 994-4716 • At Los Delfines, eponymous dolphins are on the menu—the cover of the menu, that is. Framed photos of Flipper and plastic crabs and lobsters on the ceiling make no secret that this unassuming place is all about seafood. From its seafood salad for two to its tacos, tostadas and empanadas, the fish, shrimp, oyster and octopus are prepared ceviche-style. Entrées include spicy tilapia dishes, fried red snapper and a handful of shrimp dinners, most served with rice or salad and French fries. Whether it’s homemade chips and salsa or the tomatoes, limes, oranges and avocados, everything is fresh, flavorful and reasonably priced. Landlubbers, try the Molcajete, a dish of four different meats, homemade refrieds, green onions and salsa. It costs $26, but serves three. There are plenty of other pork, beef and chicken offerings, and the lunch menu offers traditional burritos and egg dishes.
14 Wilmington Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-0115 • Dining on ceviche or an enchilada of shrimp and scallops is more enjoyable when you can see the ocean. Location, just a half block from the boardwalk, is but one of Mariachi’s unique qualities. Mariachi is more than Mexican. Yolanda Pineda, a co-owner from El Salvador, offers a diverse menu of Spanish, Mexican and Latin American cuisine. Masitas de puerco is Cuban-style morsels of pork marinated in criolla sauce and roasted in bitter oranges. Lomo saltado is a Peruvian dish of sautéed strips of prime sirloin with fresh tomatoes, cilantro, red onions, green peppers and a special sauce. The seafood enchilada includes two flour tortillas with shrimp and scallops in white cream sauce covered with melted Monterey Jack cheese. Be sure to order the mussels al Gengibre.
Morelia Mexican Restaurant & Bar
4617 Ogletown Road, Omega Shopping Center, Newark, 369-6888 • From the smiling Mariachi statue that greets you at the door to the marionettes that dangle from the ceiling, Morelia is a festive place to get your Mexican on. Let’s start at the bar, which is surrounded by funky painted stools and stocked with 50 different kinds of tequila. As for the food, we turn to Fred Alberer, an aficionado who drives from Claymont at least once a week to enjoy Morelia’s “own little tweak on things.” Alberer recommends the pork chops in mole sauce. Morelia’s mole is made from scratch from 18 different ingredients, including three types of chile peppers, jalapeños, sesame seeds, salt, pepper and, on occasion, chocolate. It takes four hours to cook. The mole alone, Alberer says, will make you cry.
Palacio Maya Bar & Grill
7288 Lancaster Pike, Unit 2B, Hockessin, 239-5590 • The cantaloupe walls, fluted molding and oversized decorative urns lend an upscale feel at Palacio Maya. The message on the menu touts Palacio as a place that “takes things a few rungs up the ladder” from Tex-Mex cooking. Indeed, the menu features many dishes not common to its nearby Mexican cousins, including the stuffed pepper in walnut sauce and the Veracruz-style red snapper, a red snapper filet smothered in chiles, onions, tomatoes, bay leaves, capers and olives, all served with rice. The tangy Yucatan-style pork tacos feature pork shoulder marinated in achiote, other spices and the juice of sour oranges, all baked in banana leaves with orange juice, then served on soft corn tortillas and topped with pickled red onions. The spicy-sweet chiles en Nogada is a traditional dish that features a soufflé-battered poblano pepper stuffed with ground pork and beef, cooked with raisins, apples, pears and peaches, then covered with creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds.
Santa Fe Mexican Grille
190 E. Main St., Newark, 369-2500 • Surrounded by the University of Delaware’s diverse student body, it makes sense that Santa Fe would offer a variety of international fare. Many of the countries to our south are represented here. The place even feels tropical, with its pastels, Spanish-style paintings and crafts, and a 12-foot palm tree. Try the grilled Mexican crab cake with capers and smoked chipotle remoulade or the golden chimichanga, fried or grilled. The Santa Fe chicken and shrimp features grilled chicken topped with Mexican spiced shrimp in spicy red wine garlic sauce served over Mexican rice. For dessert, homemade crêpes are filled with nutty chocolate and topped with homemade ice cream of such flavors as strawberry cheesecake or Colombian coffee and banana. The bar boasts 35 brands of tequila, 14 different mojitos, and five warm wines mulled with cinnamon and cloves.
Taqueria La Raza
227 N.E. Front St., Milford, 424-3273 • Taqueria La Raza has all the hallmarks of an authentic Mexican restaurant—sombreros adorn coral-colored walls, Mexican music plays through overhead speakers and it’s located in a strip mall next to a Latino food store. Owners Jose and Julia Lemus, of Monterey, Mexico, opened their “taco stand” three years ago. Customers, about 70 percent of them Latinos, come for the tacos. (What else?) The fried tilapia is prepared Mexican style, breaded and deep-fried with head and tail attached. The beef steak la Raza with fried onions, peppers, tomatoes and Mexican sausage is another favorite. Jose says it’s secret ingredients that set his food apart. He does reveal that his tortilla machine churns out fresh tortillas daily.
Tijuana Taco Shop
1815 Lancaster Ave., Wilmington, 777-3565 • As you enter Tijuana Taco Shop, note the narrow counter to your left. It’s much like you’d find at a Mexican taco stand and a sign that the Demucha family is serious about authenticity. The feel just gets better as you enter the cozy cantina—which is well equipped with Dos Equis on tap and an assortment of tequilas—and finally settle in the dining room at a tile-top table or comfortable booth amid the cheerful sounds of Mariachi music. The fish tacos (grilled or broiled tilapia) and enchiladas with mole are all the rage. New reasons to visit Tijuana include a fajita in a burrito wrap topped with melted cheese, lobster bisque (call ahead to see if it’s available) and the shrimp taco salad.
Caribbean: One Pot, Many Cultures
Many people associate Caribbean fare with jerk cooking, and, true, it is the most popular cooking technique in modern Caribbean fare. Jerk originated with African slaves in Jamaica, who poked meats over coals with sharp objects to infuse them with spices.
But Caribbean cuisine is an amalgamation of cultures. The native Carib cooked meat, fish, spices and leftovers in large pots. Modern Caribbean restaurants call that cook-up. They gave us hot pepper sauces and the first pepper pot stew. They also juiced up meats with lemon and lime. From India came curry. China supplied rice. Early Spanish settlers brought oranges, ginger, plantains, figs, sugar cane, grapes, tamarinds and coconuts.
African slaves were forced to concoct meals with foods their European owners shunned—like okra—so they came up with items like fish cakes and the popular Caribbean dish we know as ackee and salt fish. They created soups made with callaloo, coconut milk, okra, yams and chiles, as well as puddings and souse (a mixture of vinegar, spices and water to cure fish prior to cooking). African dishes evolved with the additions of sweet potatoes, plantains and corn meal.
A common misconception is that Caribbean food is painfully spicy. It can be. But Delaware’s Caribbean chefs let their customers determine the degree of heat. Ask for mild, you get mild. Ask for hot, and be prepared to chug lots of apple-mango soda. One thing’s for sure: Those who run our Caribbean eateries are cheerful people who celebrate their cultures and love sharing stories. They’re among the warmest restaurateurs you’ll find.
Cottoy’s Roti & Caribbean Food
707 Pulaski Hwy., Bear, 324-8074 • Cottoy’s specializes in cuisine from Trinidad, so it’s the only restaurant of its kind in Delaware. Avis Chongling, chef and owner, runs the small eat-in and takeout business with her husband, James. And by small, we mean four tables of two. Trinidad is known for the roti, a wrap that looks and feels like a four tortilla seasoned with curry and pepper—and Cottoy’s chicken or goat rotis are among the best around. Peas and rice are also a specialty, but where Jamaicans use kidney beans, Trinidadians use pigeon peas (or goongoo or gunga peas), which have a delicious nutty, earthy flavor. Also try the “doubles,” an appetizer made with chick peas.
D&H Jamaican Cuisine
748 E. Chestnut Hill Road, Newark, 369-8826 • The flags flapping outside D&H Jamaican Cuisine spell the word Corona. Inside, Red Stripe beer banners serve as bar decorations. With exposed metal ceilings, the place looks almost like a warehouse. The jukeboxes and dance floor tell you that you don’t do D&H for the decor, as customers from as far away as Hong Kong will attest. You do it for the succulent chicken curry made fresh every day, tender oxtail that has the consistency of long-simmered sirloin tips, sweet and light fried plantains, and buttery homemade rum cake made with Wray & Nephew Overproof Rum. You come to hear Bob Marley or Peter Tosh and to learn a little about soca music (soul inspired calypso). Mostly you come to enjoy authentic food prepared by native Jamaicans. “The same thing I’m serving you,” says chef Richard Duncan, “is the same thing I’m eating.” Wash it down with a non-alcoholic ginger beer.
Mango’s of Bethany Beach
Garfield Parkway and the boardwalk, Bethany Beach, 537-6621 • Though it’s about as authentically Caribbean as a Rain Forest Café is really a rain forest, Mango’s offers a great view of the ocean, fake palm trees everywhere and lots of reggae. New chef Alex Heidenderger makes a mean CocoLocoNut shrimp and a fabulous pan-roasted salmon with mango-chipotle cream, but the big seller is cedar plank tuna with soy sauce and wasabi. While enjoying Pineapple Pete’s deck, try the signature mango margaritas. Mango’s is also a great place to dine with kids, but it’s seasonal, so call ahead for hours.
Paradise Caribbean Cuisine
602 N. Market St., Wilmington, 377-2528 • Windel Lauder, owner and chef at Paradise, has a sense of humor, with menu categories like “Mon, We Got Chicken Dishes,” and buffet tables wrapped with grass skirts. And he’s as hospitable as he is fastidious. Lauder goes the extra mile to prepare food “exactly the way it’s prepared in my native Jamaica,” he says. The fried whiting is light and fresh, almost like a tempura. The oxtail is tender, the rice and beans have a peppery kick, and the steamed cabbage is flavored with sautéed sweet peppers. But for our money, Paradise is the place for jerk dishes. Lauder’s jerk is sweet yet pungent, flavored with a perfect blend of brown sugar, molasses, Scotch bonnet peppers, nutmeg, garlic and the secret stuff Lauder won’t tell us, rendering fall-off-the-bone tender meat.