Escapes: Oak Tree Road, a taste of the subcontinent in New Jersey

By Brian Yarvin
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 15, 2010; 11:05 AM

I always start my trips to Oak Tree Road, the huge South Asian neighborhood on the border between Edison and Iselin, N.J., with a plan. But what happens when I get there is another story. There's always a surprise or two to be found in the huge assortment of Indian shops, theaters and restaurants. It may be an ice cream flavor I've never had or a film I wouldn't have thought of seeing.

Located about 30 miles south of New York City, this is a great place to stop on your way to or from New York or New England. If you're driving on the Garden State Parkway or the New Jersey Turnpike and need a break, you can get off here and feel as though you've arrived on another continent.

As one of the oldest suburban immigrant communities in the country, Oak Tree Road has seen its share of troubles. These peaked in the early 1990s with a bunch of racially motivated gang incidents, and tensions ran high for a long time afterward. You won't know it walking down the street today, though.

When I started visiting Oak Tree Road more than a decade ago, I fell in love with the neighborhood's signature dish, the dosa. This is a huge stuffed crepe made from lentil flour, with fillings that range from spicy mashed potatoes (the masala dosa) to shrimp or lamb curry. I eat them every chance I get.

Just the other day, I had a great onion rava masala dosa at Moghul Express, a bright and cheerful place in a small strip mall. Though it has a long menu, most tables are covered in dosas, and if you sit there for any length of time, you'll see the staff bringing them out one after the other. My rava dosa was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Like all the best Indian snacks, it was soothing and spicy at the same time.

There's another good entry-level choice: a complete meal called a thali. At Chowpatty, a storefront vegetarian restaurant in the thick of things, there are four choices, including the "Chowpatty Thali," the "Chowpatty Special," the "Chowpatty Super Special" and, biggest of all, the "Village Special." All include several curries, bread, rice, the seasoned yogurt called raita and a bit of spicy Indian pickle. Some even include dessert.

It took a while longer for me to sample Bollywood, India's vast film industry. I feared long, tedious dramas and longer musicals, and instead discovered easy-to-watch comedies offering a telling view of modern Indian life. Movie buffs should make the pilgrimage to the neighborhood's Big Cinemas, where eight screens show Indian films, complete with intermissions and a choice of South Asian or American snacks. You can have both popcorn and a samosa here; it's the complete Bollywood experience.

If you're not going to the theater, you can browse in local video stores and buy a DVD to watch back home. My current favorite: "3 Idiots," a 2009 coming-of-age/college comedy.

While those sari, jewelry and gift shops may look intimidating to all but the most adventurous, don't be afraid to go in. They're filled with all sorts of possibilities. Household items, costume jewelry or imported textiles can keep serious shoppers busy for hours. I'm a sucker for small kitchen items. Most cooks have a Chinese wok, but how many have a karahi, the Indian equivalent? Or how about those plierslike metal pot holders?

But Oak Tree Road's biggest draw isn't restaurants or movie theaters. It's grocery stores. I don't know of anywhere else with Indian food shops so big you can dance in the aisles. You may never need a pound of ground turmeric or 20 pounds of red lentils, but if you did, the markets here are where to get them. Note that all the supermarkets - and many of the restaurants - are strictly vegetarian. If you want meat, you'll have to visit a separate butcher shop.

For me, there's no better way to finish off a trip to Oak Tree Road than with ice cream. The traditional stuff is called kulfi, and commercial versions are sold everywhere. At my preferred stop, Kwality Ice Cream, the line between kulfi and traditional ice cream is blurred. This results in flavors such as chikoo and sitaphal, both tropical fruits. Even more basic choices such as pistachio and mango have a distinct Indian accent. My weakness? A scoop of carrot and spice gajar halwa, an ice cream based on a classic dessert.

So soak in the scenery and inhale the scent of spices: It may be only five minutes from the Garden State Parkway, but there's India in the air.

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