Discovering a new, creative dish—especially one that tastes as good as it looks—is perhaps one of the most thrilling elements of dining out.
At Piggyback Bar inside Mack-Cali’s Harborside in Jersey City, renowned Chef Leah Cohen has crafted a menu that is as innovative as it is delicious. The Asian American tavern may be situated on the waterfront, far away from the thrills of Downtown, but Cohen’s unique offerings are what make Piggyback not just a local hotspot, but a culinary destination worth seeking out (the breeze from the Hudson River and views of the NYC skyline certainly don’t hurt, either).
When it comes to cooking, a chef must always be willing to try something new and breakaway from the criterion, albeit while still capturing the hearts (and stomachs) of the people with new takes on the what they know to be familiar—and that’s exactly what Chef Cohen has done. One may know her from her time on “Top Chef” but the show was merely a launchpad for her to define her own style of cooking. This, and a year exploring Southeast Asia, exposed her to new techniques and flavors that she would put into practice at her highly-regarded Southeast Asian restaurant Pig & Khao, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Though Chef Cohen has had incredible success with Pig & Khao, like any great chef, she wanted to push the envelope (and food) to an entirely new place. And so her, and husband, Ben Byruch, who has worked alongside her as her business partner for years, decided to make a new home right here in Jersey City with a new restaurant. But Piggyback isn’t merely an extension of Pig & Khao, it’s an entirely nuanced (and appropriately Asian) take on typical American bar fare.
“Pig & Khao and Piggyback Bar are quite different from one another even though some of the flavor profiles may be the same,” Chef Cohen said. “Pig & Khao is Southeast Asian food whereas Piggyback Bar takes American bar food classics and puts an Asian spin on them.”
Chef Cohen’s transition to Jersey City is as much about creating something new as it is a testament to how far the local culinary scene has come in the last decade. “At first, we were unsure about what the Jersey City market wanted but knew we needed to bring some of the flavors from Pig & Khao across the river. The pre-existing restaurant in that space was a bar so we wanted to also stick with that theme. From there, Piggyback Bar kind of evolved into what it is now. In addition to being the closest logical location outside of New York City to grow our brand, we also chose Jersey City because the food community is great. What I especially love about them is that they are loyal. We have a ton of regulars already that we see every week sometimes even twice a week.”
Piggyback’s menu may not be large, but it hits all the required notes one expects of bar food, and then some. From yellow curry crab cakes—which are dipped in mouthwatering coconut cream sauce—to kimchi pulled pork with ginger scallion aioli, Chef Cohen’s quirky fusion creates a perfect harmony of Asian and American. Though Piggyback is a bar at heart, those sentiments certainly aren’t indicative of its plating—which is done elegantly yet devoid of any pretension. In addition to sourcing ingredients from similar vendors the she used at Pig & Khao, Chef Cohen also gets a lot of her produce and meat from local vendors right here in New Jersey.
Thus far, the two most popular items on Piggyback’s menu are the Piggyback Burger and the Disco Phories (not to be confused with disco “fries”). “The burger is an 8 oz. short rib blend from Pat LaFrieda on a pretzel bun with pickles and Sriracha mayo. We sous vide the burgers and then finish them off on the flat top so they get a nice crust. The Disco Phories are made with waffle fries, shredded braised beef short ribs, pho gravy, cheese curds, scallions, cilantro and chili,” she explained.
Piggyback’s repertoire also includes brunch, dessert and a pretty killer alcohol program, and rightfully so, it is a bar after all. There are usually about a dozen beers on tap, more than enough wine options and bold cocktails like the Harborside Boulevard, a bourbon drink with coffee-infused cynar, sweet vermouth and mole bitters. And for those of us who want an bottled Asian beer to wash down our Korean honey butter wings, there’s always Sapporo, Singha and my favorite, San Miguel.
Above all, Chef Cohen and Byruch’s new restaurant breaks the mold. Not just from typical American bar fare or its breakaway from Jersey City’s Downtown area, but in creating something new from their wildly creative (and already successful) Manhattan restaurant. What it comes down to is that the source of Chef Cohen’s creativity are her unique experiences and passion for her craft. Walking past Piggyback on the Harborside, you’ll notice a NYC subway map painted on the restaurant’s facade and the other large murals inside are very much of story about where they’ve been.
*For more, check out @piggybackbarjc on Instagram or at piggybackbar.com.