(Published on Baristanet Jan. 13, 2011)

JukGajee – Thai on Broad St

How does it work if a Thai restaurant decides it needs to also present burgers on its menu? My Baristanet colleague Annette Batson and I decided to investigate.

JukGajee, on Broad St in Bloomfield, occupies a huge space over two stories, with the upper level dedicated to events and functions. Manager, Chan Vinh, 40, who lives in West Orange and hails from the Chonburi province of Thailand, said JukGajee was his first restaurant and that he had worked before in a restaurant with his father in Yonkers.

He said he decided to add some American options to his menu to allow the general population, which may not be familiar with Thai food, to feel more comfortable. His burgers, however, are flavored with Thai spices and herbs.

Annette and I, however, were bent on sampling the real Thai deal, so we ordered a combination of starters which were served together on a large platter. Spicy and sweet, the potato-filled curry puffs were delicious, the pastry flaky without being greasy; pesto and lime-flavored shrimp rolls were top-notch, while fried spring rolls with carrots and cabbage were on the money. The selection was served with a sweet-sour clear fish-based sauce and a sweet and spicy red sauce.

We asked Chan Vinh to recommend a soup, and he suggested a JukGajee special, the curiously named Rub and Roll Chicken soup. The clear chicken broth burst with stockful flavor and was studded with sliced carrots and some torn napa cabbage. But the best part was the chicken and vegetable-stuffed balls of cellophane noodles – extremely tasty and right up there with the most flavorful of matzah balls.

Another appetizer, Todd Munn Gai, or chicken patties, resembled the fish cakes we were both more familiar with at Thai restaurants – yet another winner, and served with a cucumber vinaigrette and a chilli marmalade.

The one main dish were weren’t too sure of was the pepper and garlic pork, which was unfortunately overzealously salted, ruining all hints of the herbed meat within.

Last, but certainly not least and definitely on the cards for repeat future orders, was the Basila Fish. Crunchy grouper, coated in corn flour and fried, served with a chilli and basil sauce, onions and bell peppers. Here was the heat and tongue-dance we’d both anticipated; the fish was spicy, crispy on the outside, juicy inside, and met its match in the sweet, hot sauce. Divine.

30 Broad St, Bloomfield, NJ 07003

Binh Duong Vietnamese, Belleville Ave

Binh Duong is located within the same complex as its better known neighbor, the East-West Market, an Asian grocery store. I don’t know how often I’ve driven past Binh Duong on Belleville Ave, but recently decided to make up for this remissness.

The predominance of north Asian faces at the modestly furnished Vietnamese restaurant, which has been open for six years, was very reassuring.

My companion, fellow Barista and pal Gudrun Lake, and I decided against ordering the ubiquitous Vietnamese pho, if only because noodles in a boiling-hot broth don’t make for easy sharing, and we had heard only good stuff about BD’s pho anyway. We started off with Goi Cuon Chay –  fresh, summer rolls stuffed with tofu, vermicelli, beansprouts, mint and lettuce. This was crunchy, its freshness was accentuated by the mint, and it was nicely paired with sweet, peanut sauce – a fitting post-holiday cleansing sort of appetizer.

A second appetizer, Banh Xeo Chay, was picked as a nod to Vietnam’s former French colonial days. This was a crispy crepe which resembles an omelette on the outside (albeit in an exaggerated shade of yellow), comes stuffed either with shrimp or tofu, lettuce and fresh beansprouts. Its vivid coloring and eggy appearance belied its taste though, which was somewhat bland, a mite too oily and not egg-like in the slightest.

The manager, who was helpful and friendly, explained that the dish was meant to be eaten together with a platter of lettuce, mint and cilantro served on the side along with a sweet dipping sauce. Bits of crepe were to be wrapped in lettuce, the herbs added to it, and then dipped in the sauce (made of fish sauce and sugar). This treatment lifted the flavor a little, though not enough to warrant a repeat order next time.

The star of lunch, without a doubt, was the steamed flounder with ginger and scallions. This was pepped up with cilantro and caramelized onions in a sweet, soy-based sauce with ginger and vinegar. Tender and juicy white fish, gently but perfectly flavored with ginger and the hearty sauce. Absolutely delicious and, despite the size of the fish, not heavy at all.

Sauteed lemongrass tofu with bell peppers and onion was also a splendid shade of yellow, possibly being tinged with turmeric. Served with egg noodles, the vegetables were spicy, modestly seasoned and pleasantly al dente.  A dish of sauteed mushrooms, baby corn and peppers with tofu in a stock-based sauce was tasty, but resembled the lemongrass tofu dish ingredient-wise.

The beverages were both winners. Coconut water was lightly sweetened, with large chunks of tasty coconut flesh – cool and refreshing.

As always, one can’t lose with Vietnamese coffee. I was offered it black or sweetened, and picked the latter. It was bold and full of chewy, arabica flavor (a good thing), with a most satisfying color – well rounded without being acidic. Order it black if you’re averse to condensed milk – the favored sweetener-creamer in Southeast Asia.

The flavors at Binh Duong were gentle, as they tend to be with Vietnamese food, which relies on broths, ginger, fish sauce, mint and cilantro for liveliness and goes easy on the salt and pepper. But our largely vegetable-based choices might also have limited the scope for flavor.

Whether you’re dining in or ordering a takeaway, definitely try the pho (lauded by many who have tried it), and dishes with meat, fish or shellfish, which will add punches of flavor. Bing Duong’s food is authentic and freshly prepared, and the staff are happy to accommodate dietary requests.

Binh Duong Restaurant

61 1/2 Belleville Ave
Bloomfield, NJ 07003
(973) 680-8440