New York City brings out a cultural diversity in its restaurants across all five boroughs like nowhere else in the world. Whether serving beef gyros or kebabs to customers on their lunch breaks, the convenience of ethnic fast food right out in the open on the street can be found everywhere.
Step off the George Washington Bridge and into New Jersey and the thought of street stands or trucks offering a bite to eat and bit of culture is all but absent. But there is a mixture of cultural fast food served not on the streets, but within restaurant environments.
Take in Fort Lee. Derived from Korean tradition style, the dynamic establishment introduces locals to the feeling of eating a quick yet ethnically unique meal.
“Although we brought a Korean culture of eating, whether after school, for kids or people on their lunch breaks, we want to be representatives of convenience,” said School Zone manager Eun Young Kim.
With street stands offering quick bites like spicy rice and fish cakes near schools and office buildings in South Korea, Kim added that Fort Lee’s own School Zone served as that ideal archetype, catering to Korean American and non-Korean American residents alike with its fast, healthy menu and social atmosphere.
Customers ranging from elementary school to college, office employees and families gather for savory dishes like Kimbap, a roll of rice blended with vegetables and meat such as marinated beef or tuna, wrapped in dry seaweed and often accompanied by fish cake soup. The menu conveys both a novel and a traditional identity, combined with a friendly, illuminating atmosphere.
There are of course other items on the menu, such as sushi, fried rice and ramen noodles, emphasizing rice as the main staple but blended with vegetables like pickled radish or Korean style spinach.
“Although we have courses like deep fried meats and rice noodles, we blend them with vegetables like Kimchi [spicy cabbage] and bean broth soups,” Kim said. “We want our customers to enjoy their meals while eating a mixture of healthy ingredients.”
School Zone also offers a comforting environment perfect for socializing and adorned with round white tables at the front and a long flashy bar. It blends effectively the culinary philosophies of a food stand and a decorous restaurant but doesn’t emphasize one over the other.
Aside from introducing different spices and a somewhat foreign approach to eating a quick meal, Kim said that School Zone has seen a steady increase in non-Korean customers since opening in 2009. She added that fried rice, free fish cake soups and novel desserts tend to be some of the most popular menu items among these customers.
“We’ve seen a 10 to 15 percent increase of non-Korean customers and even customers from New York City come to eat here,” she said. “Our frozen yogurt and fish cake soup [oden], I feel, attract them most.”
Having combined the ideas of fast food, Korean cuisine, and a bright and friendly interior, School Zone brings a different sort of eating culture to Fort Lee—that of consuming food both quickly and in a healthy way.
“We want people to enjoy our food regardless of the customer being Korean or not, and while possibly in a hurry,” Kim said. “We also aim to include everything else like a comforting and socializing atmosphere.”