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Cheeseburger in Paradise

In preparation for my upcoming foray into South Florida I thought I’d do some research. You know, like what to the locals eat? So, I did the only logical thing and headed out to U.S. Route 1 in New Jersey, where all the finest chains are represented, and tried the brand new Cheeseburger in Paradise.

Cheeseburger_in_paradise_rum_punc_2Apparently, in Key West they put mini sunglasses on their cocktail garnishes, eat glorified patty melts oozing Velveeta and enjoy acoustic Journey covers. All in all, pretty awesome. I’m set.

To be honest, I don’t understand the Jimmy Buffet connection to Key West (and I’m not about to look it up) let alone why anyone would name a restaurant Cheeseburger in Paradise. But there’s a lot that I don’t understand.

On an early Sunday evening, the bright pastel hued, surf shack-esque room was almost to capacity with families and large parties (I couldn’t stop staring at a motley group wearing purple polos with a logo I couldn’t make out. I was most mesmerized by a fortysomething female’s modern take on the rat tail. Her short, choppy gray hair was flanked by multiple tiny braid tails flowing half-way down her back. I started taking a photo, then stopped myself because who I am to judge someone’s hairy freak flag?) though in an un-chainlike manner there was no wait for a table.

Cheeseburger_in_paradise_crab_dipI wasn’t sure what Cuban crustinis were but figured I should find out. Ok, they’re just mini toast rounds. Lime and cheese seem creepier than the seafood and cheese taboo, and this appetizer had it all. I’ve never been bothered by dairy and fish together, and really the crab, lime juice, spinach and melted asiago were inoffensive.

Cheeseburger_in_paradise_pressed_buMy burger? Not so sure. You get what’s coming to you if you order anything containing Velveeta and mayo, but I was curious about this Pressed Burger because it had a palm tree icon next to it indicating that it was an “island favorite.” Like I previously stated, it’s really a patty melt because it’s not on a bun. I was sort of imagining a panini burger, whatever that might be. This was more truck stop than trattoria and didn’t conjure the Florida Keys either.

Cheeseburger_in_paradise_facadeThe food was almost secondary because it was hard not to fixate on the entertainment, a middle aged guy (I actually couldn’t see him from where I was seated, but if he was under forty, I’ll buy you a plate of chocolate nachos) with an acoustic guitar, who managed to make every song murky, maudlin and sound like Time in a Bottle. Eventually, I could make out “Dust in the Wind,” “Landslide” and “Who’s Crying Now?” (the latter pumped into the bathroom stalls at five times the normal volume, which made me laugh out loud and no one could even hear). And it only got better when they put on piped music and Rupert Holmes’s classic, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” caressed my ears. It really perked up my pressed burger too, but everything feels smoother after a rum punch and margarita. And I now have a new ringtone idea for when I tire of “Popcorn.”

Cheeseburger in Paradise * 625 S.  U.S. Rt. 1, Iselin, NJ

When Life Gives You Lemons…

CountrytimelemonadeEvery so often I have severe lapses in judgment that can hardly be explained away. There’s no way that ingesting only lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for ten days can possibly be good for you. Call it a detox, a cleanse, whatever, but it’s got to be quackery. I thought so, and yet I couldn’t resist giving it a go. And well, the experience was extremely short-lived and beyond disastrous.

I was gung ho yesterday morning, drank my not all that grotesque concoction during the day and began feeling cloudy headed around lunch time. There’s no way I was starving already but figured I was missing my two usual cups of coffee. Around 2:30 I started getting a pounding headache and began sweating and getting dizzy and seriously started having second thoughts.  Even though it would ruin my detox, I thought I would eat some lettuce so I ran downstairs and got a salad at Au Bon Pain. Before I could get back to my desk I started heaving and had to run to the communal one-stall bathroom and violently puked off and on for five minutes. My face was soaked in sweat and red as a ripe tomato (I always use a tomato to describe my face because I can’t think of a better description). All I could think was that I had to get out of there and get home somehow.

This is one of the many reasons why living in NYC sucks. Getting home rapidly is an ordeal and affords no privacy. At least in the rest of the country, if you’re sick you be so in the privacy of your own car. I considered getting a cab but that made me more nervous. I was going to have to subway it. Normally, I take two with a 10 minute walk but the walk seemed too treacherous so I had to do three subways. Miraculously, they all met up. The J came quickly, I switched to the A and it came immediately and I got a seat because it wasn’t quite rush hour but I was holding in vomit and sweating profusely the entire two stops. Then at Jay St. the F was sitting across the platform, which never ever happens. And it was nearly empty, so I took a seat and the guy across from me was skeeving me out, he kept staring at me and whispering to himself and I was a little delirious at this point and he might’ve been reading lines but I felt like I was being harassed, and the train wouldn’t go, it was just sitting there tormenting me.

I totally freaked out, jumped off and started barfing all over my salad in its bag. I was trying to get everything out so I could get back on the train but the doors started closing and I couldn’t stop wretching and I felt like my brain was swelling and hitting my skull. I almost started crying because I just wanted to get home and now I couldn’t stop puking and had to wait for another subway. I really felt crazy and unstable and swore people were looking at me exaggeratedly like I was high and paranoid. Well, I was hurling into a plastic bag but that’s nothing in the scheme of things. I’ve seen much worse.

So, I did manage to wait ten minutes or so for the next train and last the next two stops and the five blocks to my apartment before practically spewing out my entire stomach lining. I lied in bed from 5pm to about 9pm when I got up, tried to watch TV and ate one bite of cheese and one bite of granola bar. I promptly threw those up and went back to bed until 8am this morning when I tried to get up for work, decided to work from home, then felt too ill to even do that and went back to bed at 10am where I stayed until 1pm. It’s now 4pm and I still feel like shit (though I can now eat). And I feel like the outer layer of enamel has been eaten off my teeth and my throat and esophagus have been bathed in acid.

I don’t understand how just drinking lemon juice, cayenne and syrup for a day could make one so ill. Of course, all the hardcore diet freaks would just say that it was because I was so full of toxins that I was having a serve reaction and that I should stick with it. I say that’s nuts and that a regimen that induces severe vomiting can’t possibly be healthy. If anything, I was poisoned and not already full of poisons.

Or maybe I really am addicted to caffeine, sugar and fat. My last lapse in diet judgment occurred back in 2003 when I wanted to see what all the Atkin’s hubbub was about. I also threw up repeatedly the day after starting that horrible routine and had welts and hives all over my chest the entire six weeks I did it. And I lost a measly six pounds, which is what anyone would lose by just eating healthier for six weeks. On the other hand, I lost six pounds since yesterday with this wonderful master cleanse. Seriously. Puking ten times in a day apparently melts away the pounds. But I was trying to detox, not involuntarily become bulimic.

Blue Cheese: Cambozola

Mold is the only substance that will make me gag and wretch like those inexplicable emotional vomiters that fascinate and repel me. If I see or smell (yes, mold has a distinct smell) white fuzz, my throat closes up, acid starts rising. (The other day, I discovered a bag of jerky next to the cat food that had begun sprouting fur. I had no idea that jerky could go moldy.) But I can reconcile my loathing as long as it’s an intentional part of crafted cheese. Just cutting off green growths from a block of cheddar won’t suffice. (I know plenty of people think this is acceptable but I was traumatized years ago by woodsy, mobile home dwelling, vague friends of the family who brought out a jar of grape jelly for sandwiches and nonchalantly directed, "just don't put the knife in the mold." The entire rim of the glass container was encrusted with flora. Later that same day I was served a hamburger that had a pocket of mayonnaise in the middle of the patty.)


Cambozola is next up in my comparison of soft blue cheeses. I can’t decide if it’s pricy or not at around $12/lb. Is it classy? I got mine straight off the shelf at Fairway. Usually, they stock Blue Castello, but it was absent on this visit. I hope they didn’t replace it with Cambozola. As might be intuited from the name, this is a Camembert Gorgonzola hybrid. However, you might not guess that it’s German (though Champignon’s US headquarters are just across the Hudson in Englewood Cliffs, NJ).

This stuff is like pure buttery fat, sticky and thick and not overwhelmingly blue. Smooth, with no bitterness or sharpness. I could actually stand for a little more punch. My problem in general is that I have a hard time defining what’s too rich, so the line between appreciative and gluttonous can be tenuous. I have to wrap up and hide away these creamy blue-streaked wedges or I’ll keep going back and slicing off more. I guess that means I like the Cambozola.

More soft blues:
Mountain Top Blue

Interblog Mingling

I’ve been so preoccupied the past few days with work work and impromptu trip planning that I forgot to mention my guest post on Gowanus Lounge. My finger isn’t quite on the pulse of new Brooklyn developments (I never know what’s going on even in a three-block radius from my own apartment). Luckily, others have that covered so I can spend more time on the mundane and me-centric.

Can-Do Spirit

Food_s4I’m not sure how one becomes a “culinary critic of tinned foods” outside of simply declaring yourself as such, but I do like the notion. A few weeks ago, I was speculating on how the French can make eccentricity chic, but it’s the Japanese who make batshit crazy cool.

Ok, collecting canned food isn’t exactly crazy (and I’ve never understood what guano has to do with mental instability). I’ve been known to find and hoard a few oddball foodstuffs but I don’t have outlets like Chika Takai. She serves canned food in a restaurant, has published a book translated as “Canned Food Maniacs” and guest spoke and produced a menu for Nichiro’s 100th anniversary celebration.

I’m not even wild about canned food (though I love spicy Thai catfish in a tin) but I’m impressed. I now want to become the foremost culinary critic of chain restaurants.

If It Was Good Enough for the Golden Girls

SlickedI’ve never been to Florida and have never really had the desire to pay a visit, but I will now be going to Miami over Labor Day weekend. I’m a way in advance planner (to the point of annoyance) but someone in my household isn’t and just yesterday got the idea to go away at the end of the month. Toronto was the first choice, just a simple, quick trip, but the prices went way up today (see, advance planning). Miami and Dallas were presented to me as alternatives (I have no idea how those were arrived at—I’m not in direct contact with the out-of-town flight searcher) and I said it didn’t matter one way or the other. So, Miami it is. I just wanted to not be in NYC for a few days.

But what on earth do you do in Miami? Everything I see on TV is frightening, and I base all my travel plans around fictional shows. I don’t want to go to a horrible club like Nikki Beach on last night’s Top Chef. I was semi-forced to watch Miami Vice on cable last week and I’m really scared that South American drug lords, neo-nazis and Colin Farrells with sun-streaked slicked back hair and a ‘stache (love those S’s) will be roaming the neon-lit, palm tree lined streets. Oh, pardon, calles. I don’t know that I’ve ever had cubano made by a Cuban, so that’s a bright spot. Dexter is set in Miami, right? I don’t recall an abundance of tan flesh or bikinis on that show (just lots of dismembered body parts and blood), so maybe I’m safe, after all.

Ok, I really hope I didn’t hallucinate this. And I wish I knew how to capture video from TV. About twenty minutes after posting the above, I flipped channels, found nothing of interest (I tried watching Last Comic Standing and it was too painful. I do kind of like Mind Control With Darren Brown, though. He’s the anti-Criss Angel) and lazily left it on the USA Network where an old Law & Order: Criminal Intent was on. Griffin Dunne was playing some possible lawyer/killer and he was reassuring his redheaded Eastern European mistress with these sweet words:

Griffin: You’ve been bugging me to take you away for the weekend. I’m taking you to Connecticut.
Sexy Slav: I want to go to Miami…South Beach.
Griffin: This time of year? It’s like a damn sauna. You’ll like Connecticut, it’s got a casino.
Sexy Slav: Z’ere eez no sandy beach there (I can’t type in dialect). I got beautiful bikini today with little string go up between here (motioning towards her ass).
Griffin: Oh yeah? Why don’t you wear it in the hotel room?
Sexy Slav: You promised me Miami, you promised we’d go away for a month.
Griffin: Look, just give me this weekend, and we’ll go to Miami for Labor Day.

See? Miami is clearly the choice Labor Day getaway. If it's on Law & Order, it must be true.

Raising the Steaks

WishboneBreaking news: women eat meat. Who knew? Next thing I know, you'll be telling me that females are wearing pantaloons and driving horseless buggies. I thought all ladies were subsisting on Wish-Bone® Salad Spritzers™ and fro-yo (oh boy, that's an even fouler word than clot). If it weren't for the Times's style section I'd never be privvy to such universal absolutes, “Everyone wants to be the girl who drinks the beer and eats the steak and looks like Kate Hudson.” You think she means "fat" Kate Hudson?

Seascapes & Tablescapes

"When it comes to the sensations of the sea, we've got 'em covered: The flavor of a chilled pea soup washes over you like a wave; sea salt crackers capture the water's clean perfume; anchovy dip hints of ocean depths; and a seafood salad is like an offering from Poseidon himself."

I’m no Gourmet basher. In fact, I was kind of digging the strange dated photo-style they were using for a while (Sara Dickerman at Slate noticed too. I wish I had the wherewithal to more fully articulate these observations).

But once again, I’ve been mesmerized/baffled their bizarrely staged photo spreads. Last month, I was gripped by the overly rustic farm stand. Now, it’s a maritime theme, “Surf Sup” that’s giving me pause. There’s a fine line between eclectically sourced tableau and tablescape. I should know, I watched Sandra Lee this evening (one of the beauties of periodically working from home). Convenience food often charms rather than scares me, but her white pizza put me off, maybe it was the jarred alfredo sauce base (and when I was young enough to think nothing of fat grams, I bought 99-cent Classico alfredo sauce at Grocery Outlet like it was going out of style, um, literally)

I guess I could deal with a miniature lighthouse replica decorating a table. An old suitcase, lantern and patinad celestial globe? Not so sure. The component that pushed me over the edge, though, is the coat rack. WTF? A. You don’t need a coat or hat during August (I wanted to kill women wearing sweaters and jackets on my Monday morning commute. How does 80s with pure humidity require a second layer?) anywhere in the continental United States during daylight hours. B. You don’t need me to tell you that a coat rack has no business being outdoors on a grassy expanse.

I like the menu (I might make the anchovy lemon dip with green beans) and I even like the pert, nearly retro text. I have a hard time getting past those photos (yes, there are more) though.

My Kind of Health Food

BluetortillaYay, blue food, and now it’s healthy. Well, at least blue corn tortillas are, according to a study from the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. For what it's worth, it seems that they’re higher protein and lower glycemic than white varieties. I’ve never been a voracious tortilla eater, but I’ll at least keep blue ones in mind since they're so handsome. I wonder if there’s any extra benefit to eating blue cornbread?

Sunday Night Special: Crispy Pancetta, Burrata & Tomato Sandwich


The last thing I wanted was to be a summertime loser. It’s already August and I haven’t eaten a single real tomato (at least not while sitting on my couch watching the increasingly opaque John From Cincinnati). I managed to drag myself up to the Grand Army Plaza greenmarket just shy of closing time, and then reminded myself why I’m lucky to live two blocks from Caputo’s.


I had browsed tomato recipes on Epicurious and actually chose three, two for later in the week, but it was the crispy pancetta, burrata and tomato sandwich that seemed low maintenance enough for a scalding Sunday night. I’ll admit that Bon Appetit isn’t on my regular reading list so I had no idea that I was making this month’s cover recipe until I saw the picture on another site’s banner ad. Maybe I’d been subliminally influenced all week?

BonappetitSimple as they are, sandwiches and salads are two things I like to leave to professionals. My versions always end up as weak imitations or when made up by me, just plain weak. You only need to compare my version to the original for a glaringly disproportionate bread/filling ratio. I didn’t think it was a big deal if I substituted pane rustico for brioche but that was a bit of a mistake. The crust was hard on the mouth and the inner crumb kind of dominated.

The only blob of burrata left at Caputo’s was truffle-laced, so that subtly changed the flavor. Not for the worse, though. I will freely admit to being borderline ignorant with Italian food (I hate it when home cooks are all unabashedly clueless with cuisines that I love, though). I wasn’t familiar with panna and had no idea what type of leaf the wet cheese ball had been wrapped in (I think it’s a leek relative).

Truffle_burrataOnce you got past the breadiness, the center was a cohesive blend of all ends of the flavor and texture spectrum: salty, gooey, fleshy, bitter, a little tart and not terribly sweet (using the prescribed egg bread would’ve taken care of that). I made a second small sandwich using the same bread sliced thin, crosswise and it was close to ideal. 

Next mission is to find uses for ripe tomatoes that don’t involve cheese, olive oil and basil. I know that’s a classic combo but I’m keen on this rendition using fish sauce, white anchovies, cilantro and ginger. The strange thing is that I’m 85% certain that I made this dish before but I don’t remember getting the idea from Food & Wine.