Check out this list featuring 16 of the Pine Barrens’ best places to eat, drink, and unwind.
South Jersey doesn’t get enough attention.
When media outlets publish articles about restaurants or food events in New Jersey, they usually focus on North Jersey. In some ways, all the attention North Jersey gets is understandable. New Jersey’s northern counties are more populated, and so there are more businesses to cover.
But South Jersey has so much to offer: a rich cultural history, a beautiful landscape, and best of all, a lot of places to get good food – if you know where to look.
That’s why, for my latest article in Jersey Bites, I decided to write about 16 of the best off-the-beaten-path eateries in the South Jersey Pine Barrens. In the future, I’d love to write a sequel to this article, so if you know of any restaurants I didn’t cover here, please let me know in the comments below.
Everyone from the New York Times to the Food Network has raved about the homemade sweets at Penza’s Pies at the Red Barn Cafe on Route 206 in Hammonton. The quaint, family-owned shop is housed in a red barn where you’ll feel more like you’ve stepped into your grandmother’s kitchen than a restaurant.
Penza’s is open seven days a week from eight am to six pm for pies and flowers, but they only serve breakfast and lunch between eight am and two pm. When I was a kid, my family and I rode our bikes through Waterford and Hammonton to have breakfast at Penza’s a couple times, but I was too young to remember much of those trips. This past Sunday, my husband, son, and I headed to the Red Barn for a late lunch.
Set amidst forest and farmland, the shop’s old-fashioned windmill and floral displays invite drivers to stop and savor the scenery. Outside the shop sits a greenhouse. A wooden sign advertises apple cherry pie, and the colorful mums remind you that fall is, indeed, finally here. When we entered Penza’s, we saw two dining sections: an “outdoors” area in the enclosed porch, and an indoor area in the bake shop. Since the weather was chilly, we sat in the indoor section.
The shop is worth visiting for its charming rustic decor alone, both inside and outside the cafe. Even the pies on display lend an artistic touch to the setting. Old black-and-white photographs of the farm and newspaper clippings highlighting the cafe’s media coverage over the years adorn the walls. Wooden bookcases, cloth placemats, and a tiny kitchen where you can hear the waitress delivering your order to the cook create a cozy, down-home ambiance.
Farmhouse decor lend the indoor dining area a cozy ambiance.
The “outdoor” dining area is located inside an enclosed porch in the Red Barn.
Like many families in Hammonton, owner Evelyn Penza is Italian, the descendant of a farmer who immigrated here from Sicily in the early twentieth-century. In the 1970’s, Penza and her husband began to experiment with turning the old barn into a business. By the mid-1980’s, Penza and her two sons opened Red Barn. Today, Penza owns and operates the entire operation – including the cafe and pie shop.
Still, her family helps with the shop when they can. “Although the boys have their own businesses, they are an enormous asset and help,” Penza says of her sons.
As we waited for our menus, several families came into the bake shop from out-of-town and gushed over the shop’s eye-catching pies. Behind the counter, Penza sold the pies along with instructions on how to “care for” them at home. She also sold pepperoni bread and other savory baked goods. When Penza asked one man what he wanted, he admitted he was unsure because everything looked so appealing.
The cafe’s autumn menu lists just a few items available for breakfast and lunch, including eggs, quiche, omelets, pancakes, hamburgers, soup, and grilled cheese. The cafe doesn’t have a kids’ menu, but our three-year-old gobbled down an order of peach pancakes served with a side of cranberry-apple sauce. My husband ordered grilled cheese and chicken soup, and I ate a cheeseburger with chips and salad. Our waitress informed us that the cafe is cash-only. As people who rarely carry cash, we were relieved to learn they an ATM.
Fresh dill flavored my salad as well as my husband’s soup. We both enjoyed the taste and appreciate fresh herbs in our food, and our meals were definitely homemade. I expected my salad to be the standard, uninspired iceberg-lettuce with bottled Italian dressing that a lot of diners serve as a side. I was wrong. My salad was a refreshing mix of fresh cucumbers, peppers, onions, and plenty of seasoning. We ate every bite, and since we figured our son had ingested enough sugar that day between leftover Halloween candy and pancakes, we declined a dessert course.
Penza’s is nestled in rural farmland, just minutes from historic Batsto Village. Batsto features numerous hiking trails, a mansion, a sawmill, a museum, a lake, and a nature center. They also host educational events throughout the year. In the fall, Batsto bustles with activity as photographers snap photos of babies discovering Batsto’s orange and yellow landscape. Throughout the season, couples beam for engagement photos beside a dam where iced-tea-brown cedar water flows beneath a wooden footbridge.
Having savored our lunches at Penza’s, we embarked on a hike at Batsto. My son learned about the Pinelands’ native wildlife and a bit about what life was like for the original inhabitants who lived in Batsto beginning in 1766. The nature center even offered some information on the legend and lore of the Jersey Devil. After seeing the mock Jersey Devil “replica” inside the nature center, we had to remind our son a few times that the Jersey Devil isn’t real (although many locals would disagree).
Our pace slowed as we walked back to our car and watched the sun set behind the Batsto mansion. Daylight savings time ended that weekend, and our bodies hadn’t adjusted yet. What a difference an hour can make on your circadian rhythm.
“Why we don’t come here very often?” my son – who woke up at 5:30 am that morning – inquired. (He’s definitely in the why stage of child development.)
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think we’ll start coming more often, though. Would you like to come more often?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“That sounds good to me,” I said as we drove away.
Whip up this easy sweet potato and chicken dish for a tasty autumn meal.
Sweet potato & chicken bake
1 lb. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 in. cubes
3 leeks, roughly chopped
2 tbs. Extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, mashed
2 tbs. Lemon juice
½ tsp. Cinnamon
1 tsp. Salt (or to taste)
¼ tsp. Black pepper
1 inch. Piece fresh ginger, minced
½ c. orange juice
1/2 tbs. Grainy, old-style mustard (I used Maille brand)
1 lb. chicken breast tenderloins
Parsley, fresh or dried (optional)
2 c. white jasmine rice
2 c. chicken broth
1 tbs. Butter
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Combine all the ingredients for the sweet potato and chicken bake in a large, oven-proof glass casserole dish. Make sure sweet potatoes and chicken are coated.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake in oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 20-25 minutes, or until sweet potatoes are soft and tender and chicken has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
Cook the rice while the sweet potatoes and chicken are baking. I used an Instant Pot for our rice, cooked at high pressure for 4 minutes with a 10-minute release time.
Sprinkle with parsley. Serve with rice.
Fernbrook Farms is one of many Community-Supported Agricultural (CSA) farms in New Jersey. Thirty-five minutes north of our home in Medford, Fernbrook is outside of the Pine Barrens. While it’s a bit of a drive, our family chose to become CSA members at Fernbrook this year for two reasons.
First, there’s a lot there for kids to do, including seeing animals like goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs, and I always bring my three-year-old son with me. Also, there are lots of scenic hiking trails, and when we go each week to pick up our farm share, we usually spend an hour or two hiking.
The diverse produce we’ve gotten at Fernbrook has always been fresh and delicious. Fernbrook provides a variety of vegetables from which we can pick each week. In fact, I think before we became CSA members, I was a bit ignorant as to how many different crops can grow in New Jersey.
Most people are familiar with Jersey tomatoes and corn, Jersey peaches, and Jersey blueberries, and other Jersey staples like cucumbers, bell peppers, and watermelon. I was surprised, though, by the high-quality kohlrabi, large variety of peppers, napa cabbage, and okra Fernbrook grows.
I also didn’t know sweet potatoes came in so many varieties. Recently, we picked up ‘burgundy’ sweet potatoes and leeks as part of our farm share. The flesh inside burgundy sweet potatoes looks and tastes just like any other sweet potato (albeit maybe a tad sweeter). But the skin on the outside is a purplish color. These sweet potatoes were also much smaller than sweet potatoes we usually buy in the grocery store. I don’t know if their size is due to their variety or to the time of year.
I came up with this recipe one night when I needed to prepare a quick dinner. While it takes about 40 minutes to bake, the recipe is hands-off once you get it in the oven. I used that time to clean up the kitchen, so we’d have extra time after dinner to sit outside by our campfire with a cup of hot tea to tell ghost stories. Have I ever told you how much I love fall in South Jersey?