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At Old Bridge market, the world is your oyster, pierogi, etc.

Published: Wednesday, August 15, 2007, 8:32 PM     Updated: Thursday, August 16, 2007, 5:40 PM
Brooke Tarabour
Ulyana Yagodintseva of Sayreville in the meat section of the International Food Emporium in Old Bridge.

International Food Emporium -- 2280 Route 9 South, Old Bridge. (732) 679-3100. Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

It's not easy to single out a particular sign on Route 9 in Old Bridge. The area is consumer heaven, with fast-food stops, discount stores, car dealerships and furniture showrooms on all sides. All you can see are signs.

But a couple of months ago, a billboard caught my eye and my fancy: "Fill up yourself and your car. Turn here (note: an arrow to the right goes after 'here.')." So of course I did. Only the arrow pointed to a gas station.

Then about 400 feet behind the pumps, I saw a large, European-style building with its own sign reading "International Food." I had to go in.

It's a good thing. International Food Emporium - the whole name - is a large, beautiful market predominantly featuring traditional Russian foods, with an extensive selection of prepared dishes and bakery items made in-house.

There are several aisles of groceries, and it's worth your time to prowl every inch of space. Everything's imported from Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Israel, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Estonia and other countries, and you'll find fascinating things at very good prices.

You'd expect to find dried fruits and nuts from a few different places, but how about mayonnaise from five countries? If you enjoy the charm of foreign packaging - who can pass up chocolates with Czar Nicholas on each piece - look through the spices, sauces, cereals, pastas, grains, couscous, sodas, soups, cookies, snacks, teas and mineral waters. I don't know what it tastes like, but a malt beverage with Rasputin on the bottle was wild.

These are fun gifts, they can be delicious and a bargain to boot. A pretty, 25-ounce jar of Russian raspberries in light syrup costs $2.99; a 32-ounce container of German buckwheat honey is $6.97. Reasonably priced honey also comes from Patagonia and Tasmania.

Preserves are also well priced. From Estonia, you pay $4.39 for a 20-ounce jar in all flavors. International specializes in sugar-free and no-sugar-added products, and it carries a good selection of preserves, candies and snacks.

The real draw is the kitchen, though, and if you shop at 3:30-4 p.m., the day's entrees start coming out of the ovens. The cooks are all Eastern European women who look like they've been chopping vegetables, stuffing cabbage and browning pierogi every day of their lives.

Prepared foods are also low priced, and you can customize a dish if you call ahead. For example, if you'd rather have cabbage stuffed with chicken instead of beef, just say so. There must be 50 salads and side dishes, and most average $4.99 per pound. We loved the wedges of potatoes baked with porcini mushrooms and onions, the mushroom salad (sliced very thin with mayo and garlic) and the Gruyere cheese salad that would make a great spread on a piece of black bread.

Baby octopus salad, squid with seasonal veggies, crab salad, beets and veggies in vinaigrette, Russian potato salad made with chicken or bologna, several colorful herring salads, stuffed eggplant, hummus, babaganush, chopped liver, turnip and beef salad, baked zucchini with cheese and dozens of other side dishes make choosing dinner almost impossible before you even get to the main course. And that's not even mentioning zucchini pancakes, blintzes, pierogi, potato pancakes and delicious cottage cheese pancakes with golden raisins - each worth taking home.

So how to choose between the stuffed cabbage, chicken Kiev, roast chicken, duck breasts or legs, Cornish hens, chicken stew, lamb or pork chops, chicken or beef Stroganoff or Schnitzel? The dishes rotate daily, but that's just a few on the list.

At holiday time, whether it's the High Holy Days, Easter, Christmas or Chanukah, the list is endless, and they also cater.

There's not enough room to talk about all the pickled vegetables, the soups and sauerkraut, the dozens of salamis, wursts, bacons, good cheeses (including a very nice Gouda for $4.99 per pound), but I do want to mention the smoked fish.

International charges $17.99 for Nova lox - well below the average in New Jersey, and they slice it thinner than most. If you like cold, smoked trout, don't miss this one. Ours was wonderful: bright red, almost creamy and only $9.99 per pound. There's also whitefish, smoked cod, black cod, paddle fish, catfish, sardines and, of course, herring.

In the bakery, there are honey, sponge, coffee and pound cakes sold by the pound that are made in-house; all other products are brought in from local vendors.

We watched a man named Koko Beikian of Manalapan buy 18 pounds of Bulgarian feta cheese. He said, "I come every one or two weeks and buy all they have. This was all they had today or I would have bought more."

Beikian has seven people in his family, and I guess they all really like cheese. He was born in Bulgaria; he's been here 38 years and says he still misses the food. "I find everything I need here, and it's always fresh."

Judging from the long lines every time I shopped there, he's not the only one who thinks so. But who builds a fancy food market in back of a gas station? I asked Lenny Finkelstein, who owns International Food Emporium with his brother Mark.

It turns out I had met Mark many years ago when I walked into little convenience store right next to another gas station (Emporium Foods, 1299 Route 9 North, Old Bridge, 732-721-2144). It looked like your average grab-and-go until the second aisle when I noticed kielbasas hanging in back of the cashier. They had some serious Russian food that back then was cooked in Brooklyn and trucked in.

This market opened three years ago when they decided to build a kitchen so everything would be fresh and on hand every day. They told me they're also planning on adding a large restaurant on the second floor and plan to open in March with steaks, sushi and live music.

I guess "fill¤'er up" takes on a whole new meaning when the Finkelstein brothers open a business. I don't know if they wash your windows, but making you a good dinner is definitely worth the price of gas.

"Taste of New Jersey" appears every other week in Savor. Please send news of your favorite finds with your name and telephone numbers to Savor, "Taste of New Jersey," The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102. All submissions become the property of The Star-Ledger and will not be returned; submissions may be edited and may be published or otherwise reused in any medium.


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