Written and photographed by Max Rudy
My family’s trip to Ocean City, New Jersey is an annual tradition more than 40 years old. This year, I was wondering how we got to having thirty-plus relatives descending on this stretch of beach each year. Not only that, I wondered how we managed to keep the tradition running for more than four decades. And, come to think of it, how is it that no one ever stopped to ask why?
But why would you ask why? Why is obvious to every family member, every neighbor, every little kid with his or her sand pail and shovels. Why has some relatives coming from the tropical beaches of Florida’s golden coast to go to the Jersey shore. Why is simple: because in this harsh world, there are still little shining beacons of utopia, even in New Jersey; heck, especially in New Jersey!
Last October, as many New Jersey shore towns were devastated by Hurricane Sandy, the eye of the storm passed 10 miles north of Ocean City, directly through Atlantic City. I was hoping and praying for the survival of the town, and despite the horrid destruction reaped on so many shore towns, Ocean City was indeed stronger than the storm.
Now, if you’re going to qualify for utopian status in my family, the food better be damn good. And Ocean City delivers on and off its two-and-a-half-mile boardwalk. Every year, cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and family friends embark on a mission to eat our way through this tasty, tasty town. Here are my favorites:
First thing in the morning, my mom has a tradition of taking the little ones to Browns (110 Boardwalk at St. Charles; 609-391-0677), the northernmost restaurant on the Ocean City boardwalk. A pair of Pennsylvania teachers have been serving up fresh apple cider donuts in six varieties since the 1970s: they come out hot, with toppings like chocolate glaze, powdered sugar, and honey melting down the sides. The toppings are tempting, but I’ll still take the simple goodness of the still-warm plain donut. It’s moist and dense, and perfectly dunkable in the fresh morning coffee. If you want to dine in, get there early for a platter of Browns’ phenomenal cream chipped beef on toast, which—it almost goes without saying—goes great with a donut.
Manco & Manco
When it’s time to bond with my old man, we do it the Jersey way: over a slice of pizza. There are a lot of slices to be had on the boardwalk, but only one Manco & Manco (three Boardwalk locations at 8th, 9th, and 12th; 609-399-2548). Long known as “Mack and Manco’s,” it dropped the Mack a few years back. Nothing but the name has changed, and the pizza is one of the best slices in all of Jersey. This thin -crust gem of a pie starts with fresh tossed dough, then a unique technique of layering cheese down first, swirling a mix of sauce on top, and promptly placing the pie into a high-tech rotating pizza oven. The result always comes together perfectly: a burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth-hot slice. Pizzas should only be eaten either plain or with pepperoni—remember, there is no need to ask why.
Positively 4th Street
My teenage self stumbled upon this off-boardwalk spot way back in the mid-’90s, and Positively 4th Street Café (400 Atlantic Ave.; 609-399-8400) quickly became my sanctuary from those oppressive adults. It’s also a locals’ spot, so if you happen to need to get away from your family getaway, pull up a table, open a good book, or have a surprisingly pleasant conversation with the locals (they are smart, they did decide to live here!)
Riffing off the Dylan song that inspired this café, I’d like you to stand in my shoes and ogle the omnipresent array of baked goods—warm, sugary scones filled with white chocolate and strawberries, lemon ricotta muffins—that a hobbit hath never dreamed of! But you came for the coffee, right? The coffee is Harry and Beans Fair Trade Nicaraguan Roast, a brew roasted by a local surfer who obviously has equal passion for surfing and coffee beans. The roast is perfect, bringing out the oils and smokiness in the beans. Take it iced on a hot day or try an espresso drink, as they are made properly, even for a self-proclaimed coffee guru (go ahead, ask me about a Flat White!).
This was my dad’s discovery. I mean, we’d been coming to George’s Candies (100 Boardwalk at 1st St.; 609-398-4444) for their super premium ice cream for years, but he decided to slip past the ice cream and found a heavenly surprise waiting behind the counter. This heavenly surprise came in the form of a coconut macaroon. As you take your first bite of this chewy confection, you may respond like Jodie Foster in Contact: “No words… Should have sent… Poet!” Try them plain or dipped in milk or dark chocolate. They are simply ethereal, but eat them when they’re fresh, because they don’t ship well.
Hurricane Sandy brought about a lot of reflection from people about the oft-mocked Jersey Shore. For so long, it has been taken for granted, but not this year. Why? It’s a question you need not ask.
>Max Rudy is a globe-trotting, food-loving good time waiting to happen. When not running the Interwebs for Rubbermaid (not Tupperware), he can be found planning vacations based around food and friends, eating ethnic delicacies, or being woken up by his cats for their food. Max resides in Little Poland—aka Greenpoint, Brooklyn.