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Posts from the ‘New Jersey’ Category

The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County: Kona Grill

kona grll vibe

I’m not going to tell you how long ago I ate at Kona Grill because it’s kind of embarrassing in its negligence (not for the mere fact that I ate there). But the documentarian completist in me can’t let it go unmentioned. Plus, I took NJ Transit to get there on a weekend so it was kind of an effort (combined with a visit to friends nearby–I don’t generally do chains solo unless in other countries–where we also did Bonefish Grill brunch). I’ve never been attracted to Kona Grill, kind of because it has a conflicting brand identity. The name would imply meats with some tropical edge, though in reality sushi is prominent. It’s not a part of some major restaurant group (though it’s based in Scottsdale, AZ like P.F. Chang’s) and there are only roughly 30 locations in the US. And also it’s in the parking lot of the Renaissance Hotel, near no other restaurants, unlike the usual suburban clusters, but most importantly it’s across the highway from Bonefish Grill, my old favorite chain, so if I was going to go to Woodbridge (technically Iselin), NJ I would have a hard time giving up a plate of Bang Bang Shrimp for the unknown.

kona grill food

So, Kona Grill is glitzier than it projects from a speeding car zooming down Route 1. There is a main dining room, with a sushi bar as its focus, all glowing blue like a Vegas (or NJ) lounge. We sat in a windowed side room near a fire pit, illuminated by TV screens, and shared a bunch of small plates (crab cakes, dumplings, avocado egg-rolls with honey-cilantro sauce, and portobello & goat cheese flatbread). Entrees remind you of the Grill part of the restaurant’s name and read busy a la miso-saké sea bass shrimp & pork fried rice, pan-asian ratatouille, yet there are also cajun dishes, cuban sandwiches, greek salads, and clam chowder. The menu could stand to be shaved by one-third.

kona grill drinksYou can have sake flights in addition to the Strawberry Basil Lemonades made with Bacardi Dragon Berry Rum. Yes, I’m the freak who always orders a martini with a cheese-stuffed novelty. I think the chain does a substantial happy hour business (I recall reading that in some earnings call transcript), which I will probably never witness first-hand.

Kona Grill * 511 US Hwy 1 south, Iselin, NJ

The Post-Millennium Chains of Middlesex County New Jersey: Seasons 52

The Post-Millennium Chains of Middlesex County New Jersey explores the brave new world beyond Olive Garden and Red Lobster that’s thriving just west of Staten Island.

The shtick: All “seasonally-inspired” dishes are under 475 calories. You might see lamb or asparagus in spring, for instance.
The signatures: Cedar plank roasted salmon, flatbreads.
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Unfortunately, nothing is fried. The lump crab, roasted shrimp & spinach stuffed mushrooms do come with a parmesan-panko crust, at least.

My second experience with Seasons 52 has given me a better grip on the chain’s M.O., not that it’s hard to grasp (think anti-Applebee’s). Just a few months ago this new branch sprung up in the Menlo Park Mall’s parking lot down by the ’80s, vaguely art deco sign. Menlo Park is no King of Prussia. Reservations are available through Open Table, making it the classiest Darden brand by far, and you’ll need them on the weekend. Even with reservations, it’s likely you will still have time for a drink at the bar before your table is ready–just like a real city restaurant. There is a piano player in the bar where booths are first come first serve. I mean literally behind the circular bar there’s a guy pounding out Stevie Wonder or taking requests while servers scurry around picking up trays of rosy Strawberry Basil Fusions (strawberry-infused Prairie Organic Vodka, agave nectar and basil) and Pomegranate Margarita Martinis that are neither margarita nor martini.

seasons 52 cocktails

Do note the Prairie Mule. Moscow Mule variations are very in at chains and probably the biggest crossover drink of the year, I’m guessing because they’re really just a gingery vodka soda in a cooler cup. Brooklyn-chic shops like West Elm and the ecommerce arm of Food52, which I always want to call Seasons 52, both sell the copper mugs.

seasons 52 double date

Photo: Seasons 52

This is exactly how I imagined my party of four appeared. Exactly. The advertised “casually-sophisticated adult ambiance that feels inviting” is no joke. Warm wood is inter-cut with stone mosaic walls, high ceilings are crisscrossed with rafters that evoke an upscale ranch, and open shelves of wine act as room dividers. The epitome of a grown-up restaurant.

After a few stops in New Jersey to see if anyone carried the Times-approved 2009 Haut-Medoc Bordeaux (Wegmans, of all places, came through) I had to order a glass of 2010 Chateau de Parenchère Bordeaux just because there was a Bordeaux on the menu at all. Never mind that it was the wrong vintage and region. I’d also made a Costco trip that inspired me to buy a huge jug of Woodbridge cabernet sauvignon as a gift for one half of my double date because they live in neighboring Woodbridge, NJ (duh).

seasons 52 appetizers

Chilled lobster & shrimp spring roll and blackened steak & blue cheese flatbread with cremini mushrooms, spinach, caramelized onions.

The food is what would happen if Cooking Light came to life as a restaurant, except that everything is plated in a slightly nicer manner than you might bother with at home–most dishes are presented with some sort of flourish like table-side saucing–and your portions are meted out, no seconds because you were left unsatisfied. Proteins are modest and bolstered by other on-trend components and lots of adjectives are applied to make perfectly fine, but never quite delicious food sound more craveable.

seasons 52 turkey skewer

Hence, the Plainfield farm turkey skewer, grilled vegetable-farro pilaf with zinfandel bbq glaze. Farro not rice, glaze not sauce, zinfandel not wine, and the metal rod (shown in this much prettier publicity shot) is pulled from the poultry cubes in front of your eyes.

seasons 52 steak salad

The steak salad comes trapped in a clear plastic ring mold, half-a-foot high. After being lifted up by a server, the leaves tumble out to join the fingerling potatoes, charred onions and medium-rare slices of meat. I could not even tell you what the dressing was since the point is shaving calories, not creating lush memories for life.

seasons 52 mini indulgences

The best part might be the dessert course a.k.a. mini indulgences. Normally, who cares about sweets at chains, but it’s hard to ignore the selection that’s placed on the table–especially since each flavor is highlighted with a penlight as its being described. I guess someone has to run and grab another glass of goop if more than one person wants the same thing?

seasons 52 pecan pie

Yeah, this is a pecan pie. If you’ve ever wondered what mini indulgence you would be, here’s a quiz for you. I’m a Rocky Road because I’m a “quintessential chocoholic,”  thanks for asking. Buzzfeed, Seasons 52 is not.

Seasons 52 * 217 Lafayette Ave., Edison, NJ

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Bone-In Steak, Birthday Cake

Costata tomahawk steak

Costata Eating at two Michael White restaurants in almost
the same week is kind of odd. I’m not a fanatic or anything. But it was a
birthday dinner option and I took it (Maggiano’s in Bridgewater, NJ–don’t
ask–and Mission Chinese were also tossed into the ring. The Elm might’ve been
the best choice but I don’t like to pick my own special occasion meals) because
I was up for something meaty and I wanted to see if the room was all D.C. style
because I love corporate hotel chic (it’s not that bad) and if it was all
blobby blowhards in suits. No, strangely, there were lots of groups of 20-something
ladies in sausage casing Vegas/Meatpacking dresses drinking cocktails and
primping in the bathroom.

Costata duo

Get the tomahawk rib-eye if someone else is paying and skip
the pricey crudo (I’m not lumping oysters into that) even if they are. I don’t
care about pasta, so farroto with bone marrow and parmesan and the broccoli
rabe with fennel sausage worked as sides. Go wild and drink Spanish Rioja instead
of Barolo (I don’t care about expensive Italian reds either). Though dry-aged
for 40 days, the steak isn’t super funky. Some slices had that hyper-meaty edge
while others were mild and tender, maybe too much so. You don’t really need
black truffle butter, but after $118 for a slab of meat what’s another $3?

Cata razor clams

Cata After reading about the rising price of raw bar fodder,
and the $21 razor clams at Costata in particular, the shellfish sauteed with
garlic and olive for $14 sounded like a relative bargain while having a giant
pre-dinner gin and tonic flavored with kaffir lime leaves.

Cata kaffir lime leaf gin & tonic
Also $14, and though I recently boo hoo’d about
this cocktail price point, these drinks are long-lasting, not gone in four
sips, and potent as two normal gin and tonics.

Cheesecake duo

Cheesecake Factory Sure, you can go to Edison and discover
Indian food if you’re friends with Floyd Cardoz
, or you can eat at Cheesecake
Factory in the mall. I first stumbled upon this part of New Jersey (I have not
forgotten about the Post-Millennium Chains of Middlesex County, by the way) in
2005 when looking for America’s first Uniqlo
(which will soon be returning to
the Menlo Park Mall, plus Staten Island and that horrible Atlantic Ave. Brooklyn
shopping center with the Target) that served as a testing ground for Soho then closed. I prefer other chains over Cheesecake Factory (the
martini with blue cheese olives is three dollars cheaper at Bonefish Grill,
which is only one reason why I love Bonefish) but the Thai lettuce wraps are a
classic appetizer in all their glorious unauthenticity, and the fried chicken
salad was more demure than I’d anticipated size-wise (that’s not a negative).
And yes, there was a slice of turtle cheesecake involved.

Green symphony salad bar

Green Symphony is the bizarro Yip’s (R.I.P.?). It’s also one
block from my office like my former love, but this by-the-pound buffet is
greaseless and healthy and borderline Little Lad’s (also R.I.P.) even though
it’s not vegan or even fully vegetarian (there is organic chicken in various
guises). These piles include a cucumber salad, broccoli rabe with pine nuts,
curry chicken salad with fake mayonnaise, edamame salad, wild rice salad,
quinoa salad and some tofu mushroom thing. I can dig this.

Worst birthday ice cream cake ever

Baskin-Robbins The West Coaster in me wanted to blame
Carvel (Baskin-Robbins is also an East Coast brand, but ubiquitous–I’d never
heard of Carvel till later in life) for this ice cream cake disaster that
supposedly bears my name, but it was the handiwork of a Brooklyn
Baskin-Robbins/Dunkin’ Donuts hybrid shop. My name is not aes (?) for the record.



Eaten, Barely Blogged: Spicy, Meatless, Horseless

Brooklyn taco duo

Brooklyn Taco The Saturday afternoon pop-up housed
inside Williamsburg's Donna was a pleasant surprise. Happy hour drinks
practically call for a little stomach padding. Guacamole (for god’s sake, never
say "guac"–do I even have to tell you not say "marg?")
always bores me to death and is overpriced to boot (I’m fine enjoying the
two-dollar's worth of raw materials in my own home) but for reasons I don’t
understand everyone always wants to order a shitload for the table, so I was a
mildly amused that the usual crowd-pleaser was fiery enough to elicit dismay. I'm
not even sure where they heat was lurking in the green mash. Same with the
tacos; those who went for the vegetarian version got dosed with a blast of
chile heat. Maybe the meat-avoiders were being punked? The cabeza was spicy,
not brutally so, and I was happy to have a chewy, substantial choice instead of
some stewed San Loco/Calexico blahness.

Blossom I probably wouldn’t have chosen a vegan
restaurant out of my own volition (though animal-free dishes are a step above
raw foods) but others’ birthdays are like that. And the
pistachio-and-pepper-dusted tofu was better than the sum of its parts. Probably
because of the foundational crepe stuffed with a root vegetable puree and the thick
lemon truffle sauce. It was more rich than austere. My camera photo was hideous enough that it decided to leave it out–I hate to give vegan cooking an even worse image.

Qi Bangkok Eatery I’m really not obsessed with Qi
even though I do get a kick out of the Williamsburg location (I'm pretty sure
I've mentioned it at least twice). It turns out that I now work a block from
the one on Eighth Avenue so I had to take a peek. I was surprised that they
also have a menu by Pichet Ong a.k.a. the “Bangkok Selection” (and that there
are still peep shows in Times Square) but it’s not the same as in Williamsburg,
no Ovaltine ribs, etc. and only available after 5pm. I just had the lunch
combo, steamed chicken dumplings that were kind of boring but not bad and
chicken basil chile stirfry that was spicier than expected for not having to
ask for extra heat. $7.95 isn’t a horrible price (you could pay $13 for a
takeout salad over here) for two dishes in a non-frenzied setting. I'll probably go back and just get a larb and a glass of Riesling (drunk lunch is my new midtown M.O.–don't tell anyone) You don't
like chandeliers in lucite boxes and Louis Ghost chairs during your lunch break?

Bonefish grill april duo
Bonefish Grill Ok, well, I am obsessed with Bonefish
Grill. Twice in one quarter is a lot even for me. This is a weirdo location in
Paramus that instead of sharing space with a fellow OSI brand like Carrabba’s is
attached to a Crowne Plaza next to a mall. So it felt like I was on a vacation.
There was no trout for my grilled fish with pan Asian sauce (pretty much soy,
ketchup and oyster sauce
) so it was scallops and shrimp instead. They did,
however, have a new appetizer, white tuna, a.k.a. escolar, a.k.a. shit fish
sashimi (that's seared) which I ordered because I’m wild that way. The seasonal sides have
progressively gotten more creative. I don’t mean that chickpeas, spinach and
turkey sausage is Michelin-worthy, just that it’s trying a little harder than the
usual mashed potatoes, rice or steamed vegetables.

Ikea Horse-free, I think, not that I would be
bothered by a little horse meat (apparently, the Swedes aren't either). I
haven’t eaten in an Ikea cafeteria in years—when did they replace the boiled
new potatoes with mashed?






Eaten, Barely Blogged: Black Labels & Seafood, City & Suburban

Minetta tavern black label burgerMinetta Tavern
Not-that-embarrassing-confession: I’ve never had the Black Label Burger
(though, I recently encountered a Thai burger bearing the same name) and when
you admit this, people always want to know what you thought of it. Ok, yes,  it was very much not a regular burger. It was
a rich, messy and amazing burger that actually gave me a stomach ache even from
eating half. (And now I wonder if it’s just because I’m getting old and can’t
handle fatty foods because the same thing happened with pork ribs a week later.
I fear turning into my boyfriend’s mom who says things like “I like
butter, but butter doesn’t’ like me,” which sounds quainter on paper than coming out of her mouth.) I’m not a
tasting notes type, but I can still recall the flavor even if I’m having trouble articulating it (I hate it when people online describe food as “flavorful”). The meat had that fleshy, aged steak flavor I think is more musky than minerally that
you get in particular when you gnaw on a porterhouse bone to eke out all the scraps and
congealed fat. There was also a lamb special involved and it seemed unnecessary
for the server to explain what merguez is, but then the crowd was weird. It was
also the first time I’d ever seen middle-American grownups taking
photos of their food with SLRs. Also, bros who didn’t know what animal bone
marrow came from and were dismayed at the cost of hair and makeup for

Nitehawk cinema quesoNitehawk Cinema Ok, these weren’t bad for movie theater
nachos (though chips, along with traditional popcorn, aren’t exactly the ideal
food for an environment requiring quiet). And it wasn’t ordinary queso. In
fact, the super-cinnamony chorizo and lime-heavy guacamole almost distracted
from the aggressively salty quality I look for in dishes revolving around melted
processed cheese.

Ditch Plains There was a lot of lobster in this roll, enough
to make for a surprisingly filling sandwich, though I still find the $28 price
tag tough to justify.

Extra Fancy The $12 shrimp sandwich in a split, buttered
roll and demure serving fries tucked into a paper fast food bag was certainly
cheaper than the lobster roll, but more of a snack than a meal.  It’s a shame that they switched chefs so
quickly since a city can only handle so many New England and Maryland
approximations–even when well-priced and easy to score a seat on a Saturday

Birthday bang bang shrimpBonefish Grill Free birthday Bang Bang Shrimp in New Jersey
on the same night that the chain’s first NYC branch opened in Staten Island. I considered
the opening, but the charity component seemed too serious and I wouldn’t be
able to use my coupon, which was the whole point. I’m pretty sure 90% of tables
have these crispy shrimp bathed in what I’m guessing is a sauce made of
mayonnaise and Sriracha. Apparently, Bonefish now serves a lobster roll, but I’d just eaten one the night before so it didn’t seem right. For the record, it’s only $13.90.

The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County New Jersey: Bahama Breeze

The shtick: The Caribbean comes to the suburbs, one pineapple coconut martini at a time.
The signatures: Indiscriminate usage of descriptors Island, Creole, Cuban, and Jamaican, and an unusually long list of appetizers and snacks, i.e. “Caribbean inspired tapas.”
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Truffled yuca fries with guava ketchup.

Bahama facade

The suburbs can soften you, or at least tame rough edges. Normally, I disapprove of children at bars or hour-long waits to be seated, yet concessions must be made for novel experiences. Bahama Breeze, the Darden brand that no one knows about—there are only 30 locations nationwide—is special in its scarceness.

So, I got to know the eight-year-old (he could’ve been a mature four or a shrunken 12–I can’t tell children’s ages) who wanted to compare iPhones and show me his Facebook friends while sitting at the bar with his parents. Even though the restaurant had only been open a few weeks, the family were old pros. The father who struck me as a contractor, a foreman, old enough to now delegate manual labor, was not one to waste words, but the mother was a talker and was quick to explain which drinks were stronger and which were pretty but weak (The Bahamarita).

I unwittingly picked the most expensive cocktail (chosen because it seemed the least fruity/sweet, likely to use premade mix) a Caipirinha , but don’t worry, it was only $8.69. 20-ounce house beer is only $4.29 by comparison (I am still reeling over the $6.25 Sam Adams at the Red Lobster across the highway).  It’s not all blenders and Captain Morgan’s either–Gosling Black Seal Rum and Pussers’s Dark Rum also make their way into a Dark and Stormy and Painkiller, though the latter may be controversial with New Yorkers since the Lower East Side bar, Painkiller, was strong-armed into changing its name. by Pusser’s

Bahama breeze interior

The decor was also more tasteful than I had expected, at least in comparison to the other nearby tropical-themed restaurant, Cheeseburger in Paradise, on the other side of Route 1, similar to how I imagine a Caribbean resort to look ( I have never been to the Caribbean, but I am thinking more Hyatt than Sandals—I still haven’t encountered a Four Seasons/Ritz-Carlton-type chain restaurant, though I would like to). Less Hawaiian shirts, neon pinks and turquoises, and rampant wicker, and more warm chocolate tones, restrained thatching, and dark wood. Though not mahogany, which I’d never given any thought to until the day an entertainment reporter called when I was working at the New York Post library to ask, “Is mahogany an upscale wood?”

One of the most unusual things, which isn’t odd on the surface, is their rampant use of pork. Outside of bacon, breakfast sausages and the limited-edition McRib, pork just isn’t commonly used by chain restaurants, though that’s changing. 2011 saw a 7% in pork mentioned on menus. Now, I’d like chains to tackle my other beef: reluctance to serve bone-in chicken.

Bahama breeze sliders

It’s in the chorizo sliders (loose Mexican-style sausage formed into square, springy patties, by the way, not the hard-cured Spanish type, which one might assume considering the inclusion of Spanish cheese) with Manchego.

Bahama breeze plantains

As well as the sweet plantains topped with scoops of pulled pork and a smoky, also-sweet (sweet and salty are the dominating flavors) guava barbecue sauce.

Bahama breeze conch

Anything could’ve been breaded into these fritters—who knows conch from any other shellfish when it’s heavily battered and fried and dipped in a creamy sauce? At least they were striving for regional authenticity.

Bahama breeze pasta

Unlike that old Jamaican favorite, pasta with cream sauce, a.k.a. Calypso shrimp linguine.  That’s the trouble with entrees. It’s easier to play with empanadas, flatbreads, sliders, dips, and wings. Main dishes rely on staid sides, in this case rice, garlic mashed potatoes or cinnamon mashed sweet potatoes, and pasta. I just ate an appetizer as a main instead.

Bahama breeze to go

Your server might spend an inordinate amount of time with your leftovers and you may see them fussing around with the aluminum containers at their station. But you will be more forgiving when you see that they’ve drawn a picture and thoughtfully dated the creation. Or not.

Bahama Breeze * 520 Woodbridge Center Dr., Woodbridge, NJ


Red Lobster

3/4 It is hard to pass up Bonefish Grill, my favorite chain, for Red Lobster, especially since they share the same parking lot (across Route 1 from the Woodbridge Mall where an uncharacteristic shooting just occurred and the township's first Olive Garden opened late last year to little fanfare) in Iselin, New Jersey. But this was a Darden mission since I traded in Chase debit card points for a $100 gift card to be used at any restaurant in the company’s stable. And there was no way I was touching Olive Garden, not after Marilyn Hagerty had her way with it.

And really, Red Lobster’s reported Bar Harbor transformation needed assessing, though frankly, I don’t remember what the old Red Lobster looked like since I haven’t paid a visit since the early ‘00s. It looks like there are now gray wooden slats, wainscoting, and framed semaphore flags under glass. I would not say that I felt like I was in Maine, though Maine could very well feel like this; I’ve never been there.

A Friday at primetime, 7:30pm, is asking for trouble. James estimated 30 minutes, I gauged one hour based on the distance we had to park from the entrance. I won. We were quoted exactly 60 minutes, which can be tough to stick out in a smooshed, standing-room-only NYC bar, but no problem on a backed bar stool sipping suburban-priced drinks.

Red lobster beerExcept that latter part didn’t prove true. I assumed a ten-dollar-bill would buy two beers yet when our bartender asked the other the price of Sam Adams, the most exotic brew on tap (this is where the elegance of Bonefish becomes more apparent—they serve a few cursory craft beers and even though the cocktail list is vodka-heavy and they abuse the term martini, at one point they did attempt promoting brown spirits and even participated in Tales of Cocktail the one year I went. Their newest creation—yes, I’m an email subscriber—contains fresh pineapple and rosemary and uses the word muddle in the description, so they’re try) he was told, “6.25!” Um, I’m still not convinced that was correct or if it was $6.25 total, not each, considering my stiff Manhattan that followed (I gave up on beer if that was what they were charging) was only $5.95.

Red lobster malibu hurricaneThe signature Malibu Hurricane is also inexpensive. Unlike the regular menu and online menu with prices localized per zip code (yes, Times Square charges like 20% more than any branch in the system), the drinks menu lists no prices so you can’t question them authoritatively. I also began doubting the bartender’s judgment when he told the older couple next to us who gave up and decided to eat at the bar that no one liked the mac ‘n’ cheese because it had bacon in it. What the…what kind of American, a chain-patronizing American, doesn’t like bacon?! Maybe he meant because it was Lent?

Red lobster oysters

Red lobster menuEating raw seafood isn’t just not done at Red Lobster, it might be taking unnecessary risks. But c’mon, they were being all fancy, with a fresh fish menu that name-checks the “grill master," and well, if they’re going to offer raw seafood, I’m going to try it. Who knows the origin of the $12.99 for a dozen oysters (actually, we kind of do; AmeriPure is the name of the comany and Process® that treats Gulf Coast oysters in some manner to give them a "superior shelf-life and yield factor") but it’s not like you can fake an oyster like calling langostino lobster or mash and extrude pollock into surimi and call it crab/krab. No, the provenance-free oysters didn’t have a particularly briny or distinctive flavor, but at least they weren’t drowning in cheese (though, charbroiled oysters, smothered in parmesan, butter, and garlic, a New Orleans delicacy, is not something to mock).

Red lobster lobster artichoke dip

The melted cheese (three mysterious types) with the artichoke dip, ostensibly containing lobster, was more like it. Tricolor chips mandatory. A gooey, warm dip must be on the menu (as well as clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl) though I’m curious if their clientele is as resistant to change as they might think. I mean, a lobster roll would be very on-trend and very Maine, but I don’t see that being done at any chain seafood restaurants including the slightly more progressive competitor across the parking lot. I’m guessing consumers would view it as cost-prohibitive for a sandwich when everything else in that category is under $10.

You get a salad (house or Caesar) and Cheddar Bay biscuits, the latter kind of being the whole point of going to Red Lobster. I should’ve taken them up on their supposed unlimited nature. Frankly, I would be fine with a basket of transfatty biscuits (I wouldn’t be surprised if they were made with that popcorn butter that’s not really a dairy product and is served alongside just about everything) and a couple of non-Sam Adams-priced beers at the bar.

Red lobster lobsterfest duo

I picked the Lobsterfest option featured on the front of the special menu, Harborside Lobster & Shrimp, mostly because I didn’t want pasta or mac ‘n’ cheese (sorry, bacon) but couldn’t forego the starch altogether (there is a bed of mashed potatoes beneath the shrimp skewers—the default was rice). Despite being seafood-focused, the overarching flavors were salty and buttery with the primary texture being creamy. There is nothing surprising about any of this, and you don’t have to think hard about it because it’s inoffensive and you're not supposed to dwell–just dip your langostino tail in the butter (then dunk your Cheddar Bay Biscuit for good measure).  I can’t criticize freshness since this is not sashimi nor Le Bernadin, and just about any shrimp served in the region (except when nicer restaurants tout those tiny, sweet Maine shrimp during their short season) has been frozen.

Red lobster trio

And a trio with a real Maine lobster tail.

Unable to leave well enough alone, I was wooed by a Chevy’s billboard on the drive back to the Goethels Bridge that was advertising a 10pm-to-close happy hour. $3 drinks and half-priced appetizers! I have often wondered where people drink in the suburbs, and now I know that at least some people, young, tanned, gelled, velour track-suited people, fill the bar at Chevy’s drinking Mexican Bulldogs, i.e. giant frozen drinks, often neon blue, with a Corona held upside down in the beverage by a plastic contraption. I had a headache the next morning (though my stomach was just fine, raw oysters be damned–must be that AmeriPure Process®) and live in fear of becoming a chain restaurant drunk.

Red Lobster * 635 Rt. 1, Iselin, NJ

Pollo Tropical

It seems like I've driven by Pollo Tropical on Route 1 a million times, though realistically it's more like once every month or so for the past three or four years, or however long it has been open. The temptation of drive-thru yuca fries is always strong, but not enough to stop. My interest in American chain restaurants is more focused on sit-downs than fast food, though as it turns out Pollo Tropical is an intebetweenie fast casual, i.e. order at the counter with food brought to the table and bussed for you.

Pollo tropical yuca frita

The idea was just to grab a snack after Costco to tide myself and a friend until dinner at Bahama Breeze. But the small order of yuca fries, more satisfyingly crispy and starchy than French fries, and fun to eat with the gazillion sauces from the condiment bar (the hot and guava bbq sauces were keepers) ended up being a gateway to larger things.

Pollo tropical tropichop

Next thing I knew I was ordering a small TropiChop, intending to only get roughage and protein, low-carbing to balance the yuca. But somehow I ended up with black beans and brown rice in addition to my shredded lettuce and roast pork. It’s hard to say no when the cashier rattles off your options and you have no idea what you’re doing. I would totally order one of these for lunch if Pollo Tropical existed in lower Manhattan. It’s comparable to Chipotle’s burrito bowl, but cheaper and less caloric.

And for those in the market for a chain restaurant Valentine’s and can’t hack the $10,000 Pizza Hut promotion (with high potential for food-embedded engagement rings) or have already done the White Castle event (where you could propose with a much cheaper Chicken Ring) you can have two TropiChops, two fountain drinks, and two orders of yuca sticks for $9.99. Romantic, no? I got an urge for a Valentine’s at Chili’s after its mention on 30 Rock, but the closest one is in subway-free Glendale and we don’t generally use the car on weeknights.

Want me to quash that loving feeling? Well, I ended up barfing up my Pollo Tropical food in a Trader Joe’s bathroom shortly, afterward. Not because it was foul, certainly, but because I have this inexplicable malady where about 50% of the time that I go to New Jersey (but nowhere else including Quebec City, a ten-hour-drive and not-so-short jaunts to Baltimore and Philadelphia) I get extreme nausea, sweating and dizziness, motion sickness.

Pollo tropical decor

Pollo Tropical's decor incorporates its yellow bird in shades mascot into works of art. Mona Lisa, Van Gogh, Warhol and so on.

Pollo tropical edward hopper

I particularly liked the Hopper. But the wall outside of the Trader Joe’s bathroom (in Westfield, at least) had their logo done in a colorful Warholian multiples too. Is this a thing? I wasn’t feeling up to snapping a photo.

Pollo Tropical * 77 US Rt. 1, Metuchen, NJ

The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County New Jersey: Brick House Tavern + Tap

Brick house tavern facade

Brick House Tavern + Tap
The shtick: Man caves for the masses. Tim Allen embodied in a restaurant.
The signatures: Generous use of tater tots, Texas Toast, and chiles, plus 100-ounce beer bongs.
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Deep-fried olives stuffed with Italian sausage and brie.

You would be forgiven for assuming that Guy Fieri had something to do with this restaurant, which is currently the fastest-growing chain in the US.  (Tex Wasabi’s and Johnny Garlic’s are his only handiwork, and confined to Northern California. Then again, something called Tommy Lasagna recently opened in Union Square, so lines are blurring.)  All of the signs are there: flames in the form of the patio fire pit and interior fireplace that’s lit even during the sticky height of summer, lending a New Orleans gentility, and quotes like “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional” stenciled on the walls in inky Olde English fonts shout their xtreme (not Extreme) ‘90s sensibility (they did play The Offspring on both my visits—yes, I’ve been more than once).

 brick house tavern chicken fried steak

Anyone offended by the new Dr. Pepper “It’s not for women” ad campaign, should plug their ears when ordering a beer (even if Pinot Grigio and White Zinfandel are on the drinks menu, you are not ordering wine). You might be asked “Sissy or man-sized?” Despite the attempts at bravado, plenty of the clientele is composed of the fairer sex; Rutgers students make up a high proportion, as do families allowing small children to run around the open area set up with recliners with cup holders and sofas facing flat screen TVs like a Vegas casino’s sports bar, minus the smoke and waitresses in nude hosiery.

Brick house tavern more dining

Bare legs rule here. And that’s the thing, despite the servers’ denim cut-offs and snug, black, cropped deep-V-neck polos, they manage to pull off a small town wholesomeness that’s less Daisy Duke and more Sookie Stackhouse. Good girls. Maybe it’s the low-top Converse that tames the overall look. Oddly, the bartenders are more covered-up, most opting to wear fitted, low-rise yoga pants instead of short shorts. More than one young woman wore glasses, and not quirky oversized Sally Jesse Raphael throwbacks, but practical wire-frames, a sexy-nerd look more fit for a go-go dancer in a dreary Chinese factory city like Guangzhou—or at least that’s what I saw recently on The Last Train Home on PBS (neither the subway, nor working will feel so soul-crushing after watching this documentary).

Brick house tavern devilled eggs

It goes without saying that food-wise, bigger is better, with bold being runner-up (the salt and pepper shakers are the size of diner sugar dispensers). Burgers can have up to three “bricks”— what we pussies might call patties—added on. If you also want a fried egg and dijonnaise included that would be called The Gun Show Burger (because eggs and egg-based condiments are like weapons?). Salads (all four of them) are referred to as “roughage.” Cupcakes are offered for dessert, and lest you confuse these confections with something cosmo-sippers would line-up for, they’ve dubbed them Double D Cup Cakes. If anything, Brick House knows how to work a theme—and the bacon-and-Tabasco-spiked devilled eggs and potato chips with queso are great bar snacks—America’s Next Great Restaurant contestants could’ve learned a lot.

Brick house tavern dining room

Sure, Manhattan has a Hooter’s and Canz just opened in Murray Hill (and will be getting a reality show on VH1) but breastaurants seem less cheesy outside the confines of the city, and Brick House, dare I say it, feels more upscale, despite its dedicated parking spots for motorcycles. Wild Hogs are welcome.

See more photos…



Red Robin

3/4 Like people, some restaurants engender warm feelings while others leave you empty and alone. It’s that nebulous just-right essence I seek out in chain restaurants and only occasionally become properly enveloped in. My two experiences with Red Robin have not provided this soothing joy.

Maybe it’s just the South Plainfield location where my last experience with the chain three years ao also occurred, but stepping foot inside is like entering a baby house of the past (or maybe a baby house of the present, but I haven’t spent any significant time around young children in decades), dried spit-up, rusty shag-carpeted ranch houses with unexplained wet patches and greasy surfaces with high e coli potential where graham crackers are called cookies and squares of unfrosted sheet cake are served underbaked with damp, floury bottoms, suspect places where as a grade-schooler I  might be dropped off in the name of day care.

The food is fine (despite my two nemeses, melon and bottomless steak fries, being the sides of choice) for the genre.

Red robin oktoberfest burger

My only intent was to try the limited edition Oktoberfest burger, which turned out to be kind of pleasing as a pretzel sandwich. The sweetish, burnished bun was the main attraction; flavors of caramelized onions and stone ground mustard predominated. The ham and swiss barely registered while the barely pink (medium is as low as raw as they’ll cook meat, and while irksome, is a step up from Five Guys) fast food-sized hamburger patty didn’t function as a featured ingredient either but more as a beefy condiment. These are big burgers visually.

Red robin margarita

But the weirdest part of the meal was the margarita. I was once served a margarita with a green olive at an Applebee’s, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that this $5.99 version came with bejeweled ice. This photo wasn’t intended to capture it, though you can see one blue speck on the upper left. The ice had fine, sparse, glitter suspended in the clear cubes. How such a thing occurred, I have no idea (and no explanation or comp was given, though a fresh drink was produced) but it makes one wonder how much messing around goes on behind the scenes.

All of the staff is very, very young, and very, very polite and cheerful. The suburbs are usually good for that, at least.

Red Robin * 6200 Hadley Rd., South Plainfield, NJ