Pinwheel Garden (318 Communipaw) has a slight proximity problem. The dumpling and noodle restaurant is right next to Mordi’s Sandwich Shop. Mordi’s is not really a place to sit down for a long dinner or even a short one, but the sandwiches there are so good that alternative experiences need to be superb to justify entertaining them. Mr. Mordi is the author of two of Jersey City’s most satisfying vegetarian options: its heaping falafel pita, and an eggplant schnitzel that they’ve taken to calling a parmesan for reasons related to audience comprehension. They’re delicious and they’re cheap. Is Pinwheel Garden exciting enough to tear you away from the Mordi’s counter — even for a night?

Why we’re interested: Pinwheel Garden is an unassuming place. Service is casual and friendly, prices are reasonable, and your drink may well be pulled from a fridge near the main desk. The food is prepared in a spacious open kitchen at the north end of the big room, and the line between the cooks and the guests is a permeable one. Slowly but surely, though, the Lafayette spot has made its way on to the lists of the best restaurants in town. Thrillist called it a hidden gem; NJ dot com slipped it on to its revised roster of superlatives; chef and co-owner Steve Tseng has gained a reputation as one of the fastest guns on this side of the Hudson. Moreover, the restaurant on one of Jersey City’s coolest blocks: Communipaw west of the Liberty Science Center light rail stop, across the street from the Grind General Store and around the corner from Evening Star Studio.  It’s a great part of the city to hang out in. It deserves some innovative restaurants.

Is it vegetarian friendly?: I’ll say.  Though there are many choices on the Pinwheel Garden menu for a meat eater, this is an extremely comfortable menu for those who don’t want to bother with meat at all.  On our visits, seven of the twelve main courses were vegan. Tseng even checked with us — from over the skillet — before he added butter to a dish.  Diners can add meat to a vegetarian bowl, but some of the supplements are vegetarian, too.  Pinwheel Garden ought to be particularly attractive to fungivores: this kitchen loves mushrooms. Though this is, technically, a fusion restaurant, don’t let that scare you away.  In practice, that means Tseng and his cooks aren’t going to let tradition stand in the way of their prime directive.  They’re here to pour combinations of ingredients over noodles and rice.  It makes for a flexible restaurant with a modular menu, and one with no predisposition toward carnivores. 

Mac and Cheese Dumplings

Dumplings are part of the mission, too. Pinwheel Garden gets the consistency, thickness, and texture of the wrapper right: these little wedges of flavor yield to the fork or the chopsticks (your pick) with the proper amount of pliancy.  Macaroni and cheese dumplings are exactly what they sound like they’d be. They’re tasty and straightforward, and the chive and cheese dipping sauce gives this a very haute Super Bowl party feel.  The cooks are shooting for comfort and their aim is true, but your best move is a little farther up the menu.

Aloo Gobi Dumplings

This is a first-rate samosa filling in a well-cooked dumpling wrapper, and a cultural collision that generates no friction whatsoever because it’s so confidently conceived. Tseng probably could have gotten away with a filling of potato and chickpea, but he brightens up the mixture and adds intrigue with edamame and raisin. Every component contributes.  These dumplings come with a bright, fruity tamarind sauce that balances the starchiness of the samosa and the wrapper and makes the whole dish sing. Asian fusion can be a hodgepodge, but this isn’t incongruous; it’s delicious. Get it. 

Scallion Pancake

Pinwheel Garden promises organic ingredients, sustainable sweetener, pink Himalayan salt, filtered water for cooking, and no preservatives. Even those of us committed to eating clean might wonder how much of a difference it makes.  One taste of the scallion pancake ought to be enough to answer that question. The Pinwheel Garden version of the pancake is too good to be a product of superior execution alone — although it’s cooked perfectly, with a crisp, golden-brown exterior and a soft, yielding middle, and a garnish of the ringing, bright, diagonally-sliced scallions that show up on many of these dishes. There’s not much in this excellent dish beyond flour, oil, and allium. These ingredients taste pure and clear, and that’s a testament to the care that Pinwheel Garden takes when selecting what to cook with and what to leave out.  The bowl of coconut curry that this pancake comes with is also undeniable, and you’ll probably want to keep it around to douse your other dishes, even when you’re finished with the scallion wedges. You can also order this pizza-style with a Beyond Meat sauce on top, but that almost feels like an insult to the pancake. This disc-shaped customer is feathery light and free-spirited; it shouldn’t be weighed down. 

Veggie Bolognese

Beyond Meat makes another appearance in this plant-based take on a classic Italian preparation. Instead of pasta, Pinwheel Garden ladles a thick sauce over udon, the thick, loose noodle that often curls up in dashi, miso, and shabu shabu bowls. The Pinwheel udon is cooked just right: these ribbons are big, slippery, and comforting as a robe after a bath, and they’re effective conveyors of huge dollops of the vegetable accompaniment. But there’s a reason why Italians prefer to tie fat-lace pasta noodles around their meat sauces.  They’ve got the tactile strength to stand up to a dense condimento. Udon, gracefully limp as it is, doesn’t.  So while I liked this a lot, I couldn’t help wishing it was presented over al dente tagliatelle (or reginette). That’s how they’d do a Bolognese in Bologna, and there are good reasons for that tradition. As for Beyond Meat, it always engenders the same reaction from me.  It doesn’t taste like meat. It doesn’t taste like vegetables, either. No matter how it’s doctored, Beyond Meat invariably tastes like Beyond Meat. If we really want to get past the carnivorous, it’s probably best to leave the simulations behind.

Maitake Mushroom Ramen

This is a fusion dish, too, but this Chinese and Japanese hybrid was so neatly balanced that it won my heart immediately.  There’s a lot going on here — Tseng’s bowls make for eventful eating — but it’s all knotted together by the skein of ramen, dense enough to feel at times like an edible cup for intensely mushroomy broth.  

Mushroom Duxelle Fried Rice

Tseng is a noodle ace.  He might be even better at cooking rice.  The chef gives the impression that he’s lavished personal affection on every grain that pops out of his steamer. The rice at Pinwheel Garden combines the playful tickle of jasmine rice with the load-bearing utility of sushi-style short grain; like many things prepared in the Pinwheel Garden kitchen, it’s novel, even if it isn’t surprising.  The tofu isn’t exactly funky, but it’s got its own sweet and offbeat personality.  It can substitute for the egg in the two fried rice dishes — the reasonably spicy Thai basil fry, which is tasty, and the French-inspired (well, sort of) mushroom duxelle, which is even better.  This is another example of the mushroom wizardry that elevates so many of the options at Pinwheel Garden.  You won’t have to ask whether the kitchen gets its fungi from local sources in small batches.  You’ll know.

Chicken of the Woods

Here’s an example of an unusual mushroom thickly sliced and presented as a side dish.  Despite the name, it didn’t taste like poultry at all.  It had the mild, creamy flavor of the stalks of fresh-harvested oyster mushrooms and the red-orange hue of a fish rubbed with achiote.   

The vibe: Highly unpretentious.  Which is not to suggest that Pinwheel Garden is unpretty or indifferently designed.  There’s an aesthetic at work in the dining room, and it’s another expression of the forager’s spirit that animates so much of the cooking here.  The space was built out from scratch, including the tables and chairs.  It wouldn’t make sense to drape a white tablecloth over hand-polished wood.  Service is attentive, friendly, and scrupulously accommodating to the needs of vegetarians and vegans, and the attitude is casual, even when the food isn’t.  At a recent visit, the soundtrack — a mix of esoteric alternative music and Led Zep — skipped straight through several songs, including a few world-famous ones.  The customers were too busy with their ramen bowls to complain, and the members of the staff were cooking too passionately to stop.  Note: this is a BYOB establishment.  They do sling cans of non-alcoholic Taiwanese apple sidra soda, which isn’t easy to find, and is more interesting than most alcoholic options anyway.  

The verdict: You’ve eaten food like this before. Ramen, udon, dumplings, rice bowls topped with the addition of your choice: Steve Tseng and his cooks aren’t trying to shake you up or subvert your expectations.  None of their remixes or cultural juxtapositions will stop you dead in your tracks.  The fusion is handled so seamlessly that you probably won’t even notice how much of it is going on.  What truly distinguishes Pinwheel Garden is the scrupulous attention to detail, the purity of the ingredients, and the enthusiasm and pride with which they’re served.  This is a confident kitchen, and it’s got every reason to be.  Though Tseng refuses to cook with anything less than good stuff, he’s not skimping on what he’s serving: main courses at Pinwheel Garden are substantial and filling.  This isn’t the sort of place where the person ordering the rice bowl is going to go home hungrier than the carnivore at the next table.  It ought to be in every local vegetarian’s rotation. Even Mordi’s superfans. 

(Pinwheel Garden is open from 11:30 a.m until 8 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday and from 11:30 a.m until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Expect to pay eight to twelve dollars for an appetizer and sixteen to twenty-eight dollars for a main course.)

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...