Pretzel Nirvana: Pennsauken Mart Pretzels

Pretzel Nirvana: Pennsauken Mart Pretzels

When I slyly alluded to our hunt for the famed soft pretzels of south Jersey last week, I piqued the interest of one smart reader (who turned out to be the husband of a friend). Did we find the pretzels, he demanded?

Indeed we did!

Cass’s Pretzels sold freshly baked soft pretzels in the Pennsauken Mart for 39 years. Being from the suburbs of NYC, I don’t know from Marts. Turns out they’re the slightly grungy precursor to the shopping mall, with long rows of stalls owned by individual vendors united under a common roof—it’s like 14th Street, only all in one building. But S, in his Maple Shade childhood, not only spent more than a few afternoons at the local Marts (in Pennsauken and Berlin), he also grew up eating some fabulous soft pretzels. The Pennsauken Mart has fallen into some disrepair so we’ve never gone there, but B, one of S’s closest friends, runs a thriving electronics business in the Berlin Mart. We’ve visited him a couple of times. That Mart’s pretzel bakery churns out the thin, spindly variety, and when they’re fresh out of the oven (as they pretty much always are) they’re quite good. But B and S both insisted that they were nothing, nothing in comparison to the ambrosial twists from Pennsauken, which were bigger, fluffier, and many thousands of times more delicious than their Berlin cousins. Sadly, that business closed a few years ago.

When S and B were in parochial school, one of the nuns sold these magical pretzels in the schoolyard at lunchtime. Some of S’s fondest memories involve biting into the slightly warm, not-too-salty, chewy dough. Considering everything that’s been happening with his dad, it makes sense that he’s been thinking about them lately, and mentioned them to B. If you could’ve seen S’s face when B told him that the Pennsauken pretzel people had recently reopened in a new location! He may have been more excited than he was the day we got married. All B could remember was that the new store was somewhere on Route 130. That little snippet of information was enough for S, though, and soon we were off on the Great Pretzel Hunt.

They turned out to be easy to find—at the very first place we asked, the people knew exactly what we were talking about and told us the precise location, in the Pep Boys shopping center in Cinnaminson. Yes, these pretzels are that famous. S was positively giddy.

We walked in and the first thing I noticed was how shiny everything was. It looked like the place had literally just opened—and it turned out they had, three days before. Our conversation with B was quite serendipitously timed. After a few moments of gaping and bouncing on his toes excitedly, S bought three. As you can see in the picture above, these are not small pretzels. They’re about the size of a NYC bagel, I’d say. Y’know, big. Mere minutes later, we’d finished them and were ready for more.

But I’m skipping ahead—you want to know what that first bite was like, don’t you?

Piping hot. Firm, chewy crust. A perfect scattering of kosher salt. Mild, almost sweet, ethereally light inside. With a squirt of yellow mustard giving it spice, it was the Platonic Ideal of pretzeldom. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat a flaccid, doughy, half-cold-half-burnt NYC street pretzel again. We’re talking pretzel nirvana here, folks.

When our pretzel lunch was over, we looked at each other and agreed: We’re coming back, next week. And the week after that, and the week after that…

We did return last weekend, with a camera.

Brothers Jim and Don Fraser, baking the pretzels

The pretzel ladies

That’s the sign from the Mart. S recognized it immediately, and it made his pretzel experience all the sweeter.

On our second visit, I chatted with the ladies behind the counter between customers—sometimes the line was nearly out the door, and people were constantly congratulating them on their rebirth, thanking them for restoring the pretzel balance to south Jersey. Turns out the Frasers had closed the Mart bakery because Don, the gray-haired gentleman in the photo above, had had a heart attack. He’s fine now, so they decided to reopen, and from the looks of things the entire southern half of the state is thrilled.

I tried to get some hints about what makes their pretzels so much better than everyone else’s, but the otherwise friendly and talkative Frasers clammed right up whenever I broached the subject. Example:

Me, watching Jim skillfully dunk the unbaked pretzels in what seems to be a vat of boiling water: “It looks like the process is similar to baking bagels—are they boiled before baking?”

Frasers: “No.”

Me, a few minutes later: “What is it that makes the dough slightly sweet? Is it malt, maybe?”

Frasers: “No.”

You get the idea. This is a family recipe, their trade secret, and they’re not sharing. But that’s cool, I respect them for it. One thing they were willing to tell me is that their pretzels freeze well—a very important factor in our purchasing decision, since based on that knowledge we bought a dozen. I was instructed to leave the paper bag open to let the steam escape (otherwise condensation would form, melt the salt, and soften the crust), then wrap them tightly in foil—not plastic—and freeze as soon as possible. To reheat, I’ve been experimenting with a microwave defrost/toaster oven combo: the best mix seems to be 1 minute in the micro on defrost, and 5 minutes in the toaster oven at 300 degrees. They come out heated through, with a nice crunch to the crust. Not quite as good as fresh, but since we live two hours away it’ll have to do. And a dozen seems likely to last a week, which isn’t so bad really, is it? What’s that average out to, less than one a day for each of us?