Skip to main content

Middletown Life

Yes, healthy foods can taste good

Aug 09, 2019 11:27AM ● By J. Chambless

By Drewe Phinny
Staff Writer

As Middletown continues to grow, new restaurants are popping up all over. With the increased interest in healthy foods, restaurateurs are taking on the challenge of coming up with choices that combine good taste with decent nutrition numbers.

Three eateries that make the cut are Playa Bowls, Poke Bros, and Marlena’s Mediterranean Deli.

Playa is Spanish for beach, which is indicative of the origin of Playa Bowls. The original concept was born at the Jersey Shore. It’s the vision of co-founders Robert Giulani and Abby Taylor, who grew up surfing the beaches of Monmouth County and Ocean County. On their surfing trips to California, Hawaii and elsewhere, they enjoyed unique versions of acai or pitaya bowls, inspiring them to recreate their own recipes with a twist. What started in 2014 as a makeshift stand has grown to an impressive chain of 65 stores nationwide.

The Middletown location, at 832 Kohl Ave., is managed by Jessica Herron, who also runs the store on Main Street in Newark.  

Herron explained that Playa Bowls are based on two “superfoods,” acai and pitaya. “Acai is a Brazilian super-fruit, out of the Amazon,” Herron said. “It’s really high in antioxidants and healthy omegas. And pitaya, which is probably our most popular base, is a dragon fruit from Nicaragua. It’s high in fiber but low in sugar, and a good source of iron, magnesium and Vitamin-C.

“We have a pretty big menu,” she added. “Some people find it slightly overwhelming, but I always tell them our menu is completely customizable, so anything you see that you don’t particularly like, you can always take that out and substitute a different fruit.”

Coconut bowls are a big seller. “Our coconut bowls are probably our highest calories,” Herron said. “They’re very good, but good for you, compared to, say, an Almond Joy. Actually, there is a chia bowl with that same name, made with spiced almonds, coconut flakes and we use raw cacao, just chocolate in its raw form. It’s sweet, but it’s also a super-fruit, so it’s much better for you. Other sweet alternatives include honey, agave, Nutella, almond butter and peanut butter.”

Not surprisingly, the most popular bowl at Middletown Playa Bowls (and company-wide) is the Nutella Bowl. Breakfast is served with oatmeal bowls embellished with fresh fruit and organic, natural peanut butter, or the typical maple and brown sugar.

Playa Bowls                                                                                                                                      832 Kohl Ave., off Merimac Ave., Middletown

Open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m.)


Poke Bowls describes its offerings as “Sushi-grade fish and farm-fresh veggies in an authentic, Hawaiian poke bowl.” Poke features cubed, raw fish mixed in a bowl with rice, vegetables and flavorful toppings such as sesame seeds, wonton chips and toasted coconut. 

Poke Bros was started in 2015, when the founders were introduced to the Hawaiian staple on a trip to California. Impressed with this unique dish, they made plans to bring it to the Midwest. The business has grown to 24 stores in seven states, including Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Braden McGlone, marketing manager, describes a Poke bowl as “a deconstructed sushi roll. Although, with poke, there are additional options you can add. All the sauces are house-made, recipe sauces. O.G. sauce is soy-based, and is used on almost all the bowls, unless a customer requests otherwise. Sriracha is a spicy aioli that is pretty popular.”

Not everybody loves sushi, and for those who may want to opt for other possibilities, McGlone said, “Not all the Poke Bros locations are completely traditional, and we’ve found in the last few years that it was best to include a few items for just about everyone, whether or not they like raw seafood. So you’ll see grilled chicken and steamed shrimp. We try to make our menu as approachable as possible.”

Diners can make their poke bowls as healthy as they want. On the other hand, “You can certainly pile on the sauce and the rice and things like that where they may not be as healthy,” McGlone said. “They also offer salads as a base, rather than rice. We actually see a lot of the people who are really into fitness, and they really like Poke Bros because of the amount of protein and clean eating. When you’re ordering, basically you choose your base, and from there you choose all your different ingredients.”

Some signature bowls include the Johnny Utah (salmon, avocado, edamame, cucumber, masago, OG sauce and sriracha aioli), Da Kine (marinated tuna, sweet onion, seaweed salad, masago, green onions, OG sauce and ponzu), and The Duke (tuna, salmon, shrimp, seafood salad, edamame, cucumber, OG sauce and Gochujang, a red chili paste).

Some will joke that food that’s good for you isn’t very tasty and food that’s bad for you is probably delicious. McGlone disputes that notion when it comes to the poke bowl. “You don’t have to hate your lunch. That’s one of the big benefits,” he said. “And it’s quick. You can be in and out in five minutes and have yourself a pretty healthy lunch.”

Poke Bros                                                                                                                                          476 Middletown-Warwick Rd. ,  Middletown

Open from 11a.m. to 9 p.m.


Marlena’s Mediterranean Deli is a family business run by Sam Alachouch and his sister, Reham, who came to the United States from Syria with their parents in 2006.

They feature Middle Eastern cuisine with an emphasis on gyros, hummus and falafels. One of the more popular items on the menu is Chicken Shawwarma, a wrap with garlic sauce and pickle served on toasted flat bread. You can pair that with lentil soup with lentils, swisschard and carrots, and you have a good meal.

Alachouch uses basic ingredients for his dishes, and he believes that -- along with a focus on freshness – is the key to the success of Marlena’s. “We concentrate on what we know. We came here, put a few items on the menu and people loved it, so we kept adding more of what they like,” he said. “My mom checks everything in the kitchen to make sure it’s right. This food is very simple; we grew up eating it. We get new people every day who have never even had hummus. They try it and love it.

“We make it from scratch,” he continued. “It’s chic peas blended with tahini sauce. We add a little garlic. It’s really good. Another favorite is falafels. “We make them from scratch, too. We take the chic peas, we grind them, add spices. We have a falafel maker and we fry them. We have a wonderful falafel platter with hummus with tabouli salad, made with parsley, bulghur wheat, tomatoes, onion, olive oil and lemon juice. Another favorite is Mujadara. It has lentil, bulgur wheat and fried onions.”

Marlena’s Mediterranean Deli has been open for more than two years. The community has responded with solid support and great reviews on Facebook, Yelp and other social media: “Love that Middletown has a family-run business that offers different cuisine”

“The kafta wrap with ground beef was absolutely delicious”

“It’s great to have a Middle Eastern deli here in Middletown.”

“Can’t wait for you guys to expand. The food and service is great.”


Marlena’s Mediterranean Deli 

10 West Main St., Middletown

302-373-6957                                                                                                                                      Open Tuesday through Saturday from 11a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.  



Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Middletown Life's free newsletter to catch every headline