Tasty Tapas & Spanish Sangria Abound Along Newark’s Ferry Street (Part 1)

I grew up in Newark’s Ironbound section (or Down Neck), a neighborhood famous for its Portuguese and Spanish restaurants (“They give you so much!”) — many of which I’m familiar.

Recently, I decided to walk the 10 blocks down Ferry Street from Penn Station, the gateway to the Ironbound, to Saint Stephan’s Church in search of epicurean delights. Called Five Corners, it’s the point where Ferry Street ends and forks left into East Ferry and right to Wilson Avenue. There are wonderful restaurants tucked in every corner of the Ironbound, but I limited myself to what I could walk to if I hopped off a train for a two-hour culinary vacation.

The first restaurant I encountered was the venerable Fornos, (47 Ferry Street, 973 589 4767) which has been in business for 40 years. Its warm, woodsy interior is stylish and welcoming. The cuisine is Spanish and Basque, with tapas and a selection of traditional Spanish favorites with excellent wines to accompany them. Try any of the Albarinos from Galicia. It would be criminal not to order their classic Paella Valenciana (shellfish, chicken sausage and rice). To mix things up, wash it down with an excellent Lychee Martini. One table was digging into a giant gorgeous lobster, while another was tucking into fragrant octopus in olive oil and dusted with paprika. There’s also parking for customers.

Next stop was Iberia Peninsula, (63-69 Ferry Street, 973 344 5611). When you first enter you’re nostrils are seduced by the Rodizio grill, with sizzling chicken, steak, pork, ribs, sausage and even turkey turning on spits. If you order the Rodizio, your server will keep bringing you skewers of any combination until you call it quits. Once you get past the sizzling sensations upfront, notice the dimension the place, with cathedral ceilings, wood beams and a packed and impressive stainless steel bar. There are two large dining rooms and all of our Spanish and Portuguese favorites are on the menu. A couple at the bar was sharing a Parillhada, a seafood platter for two loaded with lobster, jumbo shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, flounder on a bed of saffron rice. The wine list is heavily Portuguese with excellent Vinho Verdes and hearty reds. Parking is available across the street at the original Iberia. 

Speaking of Iberia, (80-84 Ferry Street) this granddaddy of Portuguese restaurants, opened in 1926, is still going strong. With its spacious outdoor dining patio and 500-car parking, lot this culinary pioneer is the place that introduced the classic shrimp and garlic to Newark. The bar and dining rooms are spacious and the cuisine is a version of their Peninsula with slightly more variety, Yes, there is Rodizio and great seafood but there are interesting, tangy salads as well. And if the weather is nice, you can’t beat the patio for people-watching and some good live music

I then stopped at Mompou, a tapas bar and restaurant (77 Ferry Street. 973 578 8114). The restaurant’s design was unlike the rest of the places on Ferry Street, with exposed brick and woodsy wide open spaces in its four rooms, lounge, wine room and patio. Try the Croquetas de Bacalhao (Codfish Cakes), with creamy béchamel and accompanied by traditional Spanish aioli. Most tapas are $10. The menu is extensive and the wine list is an impressive combination of robust Spanish reds and sparkling whites plus cocktails and craft beers. Happy hour is 4-7 p.m. Monday through Friday with $5 tapas and drink specials as well as and live performances on Saturday nights. Opened in 2005, Mompou is a relative newcomer on the street, but attracts a lively and devoted clientele. 

I remembered the restaurant Sagres (973 589 4070) from back in the day and saw its sign prominently displayed on Ferry Street. Sagres is named after the city where Prince Henry the Navigator founded his navigation school that launched Portugal as a world power. The entrance is at 44 Prospect Street. It has a light and bright bistro vibe (they call themselves Le Petit Chic Bar) and its menu features Portuguese favorites plus appetizers and burgers and other bistro foods. This is a good place to sip one of their signature sangrias, which include the traditional and “eccentric” Ocean Blue and Happy Orchard and “tropical” Passion Fruit and Mango, or one of their specialty coffees like Portuguese Coffee which is espresso, brandy, whipped cream and spiked with Leirao, an exotic Portuguese liqueur with a dozen or so secret ingredients. Raise a glass and watch the passing parade while not being swallowed up in it.

On the next block I came across Mi Pequeno Mexico, (81 Ferry St., 973 344 7600) a modest and charming Mexican restaurant with an extensive menu including all the best Mexican dishes and some surprises (weekend specials are steamed goat and goat steamed tacos). Several families were happily chowing down and the service was warm and prompt. The Beef Taco I had was terrific and the guacamole was probably the best I’ve ever had. There is no liquor license but you can BYOB. Mi Pequeno Mexico was a nice surprise on this Portuguese/Spanish dominated street.

The take-out line snaked out the door at the Churrasqueira, Ferry Street Barbecue at 89 Ferry Street, (973 344 7337). The tables were full on a lively, noisy Saturday afternoon as well. The aroma of every possible kind of meat being grilled was tantalizing and the ribs would tempt a vegetarian to take a bite. Grilled pork steak, rock bass and salmon were offered in addition to beef and chicken. The guy in line ahead of me ordered the Pork Cubes (Picadinho de Porco) and was popping them in his mouth on his way out the door. This place knows how to handle volume and they keep the food tasty and the customers happy.

Check out Part 2 of 10 Tasty Blocks in Newark.