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The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County New Jersey

The demise of Friendly’s, the Massachusetts-based ice cream and burger chain known for something called a Fribble, has been taken hard by many. Some have gone as far as tying our inability to sustain the brand directly to the decline of the middle class.

That’s not a baseless argument, though it might be hard to fathom if you live in New York City (or any major city). It’s unseemly that if you were so inclined, you could eat a different pork belly preparation every night of the week (would you prefer yours served with baby clams and a hit of Albariño, stuffed into a sandwich with crab mayonnaise and green papaya, or topped with rock shrimp tempura and sherry caramel?) while a majority of Americans (51.3%) have not dined out at all in the past 12 months.

Maybe our tastes have also changed, though. Despite the creeping ‘90s nostalgia in other aspects of pop culture, perhaps we’ve outgrown Never Ending Pasta Bowls, Bloomin’ Onions, and other last-century calorie-jammed inventions. Baja Fresh has dabbled in Korean tacos and even Sizzler launched a food truck, death knells for 2008 food trends, but something different for mainstream dining.

But back to Friendly’s for a long minute. Even though I didn’t grow up with the franchise, I have not been fully immune to its promises. When I moved to NYC in the late ‘90s, I semi-accidentally ended up in Ridgewood, Queens, a heavily Polish enclave for those who considered Greenpoint too cosmopolitan (“Manhattan’s a ten-pound shit in a five-pound bag” was how my landlord’s son laid it out for me.) with no job and not really being acquainted with more than a few penpals (yes, of the letter-writing persuasion) and friends-of-friends who lived in Manhattan, as young, self-supported people still did at the time. I did have internet and a television, though.

Life centered around the curry-infused mattress that had been left behind by the previous tenants, an intergenerational family of five. I would pass time doing one of two things: sitting at the end of the naked mattress typing on a Mac IIci propped up on a cardboard box, or lying down watching watch broadcast TV (the optimal way to view Ron Howard’s 1978 battle of the bands flick, Cotton Candy). Both involved sweating profusely, which forced me to admit that living air-conditioner-free for the previous 25 years had nothing to do with fortitude, just that Portland’s climate was as unambitious and homogenous as its natives.

That summer Friendly’s, a restaurant I’d never heard, continuously aired a commercial that opened with a close-up of a sprinter, taut, waiting to charge the gate, and ended with glamour shots of sundaes topped with Reese’s Pieces and crushed Butterfingers.  I don’t recall what the athlete had to do with eating candy-swirled ice cream and I’ve never been able to find this ad on YouTube. (I’m also a little bummed that Friendly’s official page introduced a behind-the-scenes series of videos with Andre, executive chef and vice president of research and development, then never followed up with another installment.)

All I knew was that if I could stuff my maw with those perfectly formed mounds of ice cream (nothing local or mom-and-pop would suffice even if it happened to exist nearby, which it didn’t) that my loneliness would subside and new doors would open. If you’re not reaping the benefits of struggling in a hostile environment, and no one knows you at all let alone your uncool desires, what’s the harm in fetishizing a piece of newly discovered suburbia? Chain restaurants never seemed so appealing until I became so far removed from them.

I did eventually make it to the Staten Island Mall, source of the city’s only Friendly’s, after I met a boy with a car who I could coerce into an excursion. I didn’t plan ahead; we arrived right before they started to pull down the grate (who closes at 6pm on a Sunday?). There were as many wheelchairs as children, no athletes, and there was nothing particularly friendly about any of it. My life did not change. I did, however, fill a small void with three scoops of ice cream, caramel, hot fudge, and chopped bits of Heath bar.

So, say goodbye to Friendly’s…and Sbarro, El Torito, Marie Callender’s, all of the musty brands doomed to Wikipedia’s “Defunct restaurants of the United States” page. Now is the time to shed the nostalgia and discover the modern world—classics in the making, if you will—of new chain restaurants thriving just beyond the Outerbridge Crossing, the span of steel and concrete connecting NYC (ok, Staten Island) to Middlesex County, New Jersey. Hyper-specific, sure, but I’ve sampled franchises in Long Island, Northern New Jersey, and Westchester, and those communities still feel too citified. The towns of Middlesex County provide the optimal suburban immersion experience while sticking the closest to NYC (specifically Brooklyn, but maybe you guessed that already).

Crossing a bridge or a tunnel is key. Rent a Zip Car if you need to. (Luckily, 12 years later I still have a guy with a car who will drive me to these chain restaurants.) You really don’t want to be one of those young ironists reveling in the Times Square T.G.I. Friday’s or the Fulton Mall Applebee’s (there is nothing ironic about Dallas BBQ because it’s pure awesome). This is an undertaking that only works in its natural habitat (plus, you’ll feel like a chump paying $11.50 for Olive Garden’s hot artichoke dip in Midtown when the warm dish of goo will only set you back $7.65 in Woodbridge, NJ—never mind that the toll to get back into the city via Staten Island is $12).

And there’s nothing more revitalizing—similar to how I imagine waking up at 6am on a Saturday and going for a run, followed by a carton of Zico coconut water or maybe a weekend indulgence of egg white omelet on a scooped bagel must feel to freaks who enjoy such things—than periodically leaving behind artisanal egg creams and pimento cheese, if only for an afternoon.

I don’t do therapy or spa treatments, and I like to believe it’s not because I’m rigid and close-minded, but because I’ve discovered my own grotesque form of emotional balance. At the very least, I would hope that a few urbanites could take a step back—is a hot dog smothered in spicy ketchup and jalapeño mustard and crushed potato chips eaten in an open lot in Williamsburg really that different than a coney with pepper jack, tomatoes, and jalapeño slices consumed in a car pulled-up at a Sonic?—and allow themselves to enjoy the simple pleasure of spacious booths and the democracy of the plastic beeper because it’s fun, not because it’s funny.


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…



Where Every Day Can Be St. Patrick’s Day


I’m off to Berlin for the next week. And while I’m aware that food-wise it’s not exactly a San Sebastian or Copenhagen (my original choice) it concerns me that anyone I’ve mentioned this vacation plan to has seemed unenthused. It’s not all sausages and schnitzels! At least I don’t think so…

Who cares because they have green beer! I’m determined to find this supposedly sour Berliner Weisse that’s sweetened with cherry (red) or woodruff (green) syrup. I wonder if woodruff is anything like mugwort, another herbal agent that lends a green hue to products in other countries. Like mochi cakes in Japan.

Photo via BerlinAndOut


1/2 As each year passes, a restaurant blog post becomes less and less servicey and more of a fragment of dining history. A majority of what I’ve written here doesn’t reflect NYC’s current scene in any way. I originally started this as a pre-blog dining journal to keep track of what I’d eaten (uh, which is still kind of what this is—the only difference is that now people actually read, or rather look at pictures, about what strangers eat on the internet) and it’s great because even though photos weren’t de rigueur in olden times, I can see the style of cooking that was being employed at Wong’s 2003 predecessor, Jefferson.

Yes, it was more upscale (then downscaled to Jefferson Grill, then closed). Then there was candlenut foam and lobster in kaffir lime nage. Now lobster shows up in fancified egg foo young and pizza shows up alongside noodles. Chef Simpson Wong is adaptable.

Wong naan

Naan does double duty as bread basket/amuse. The warm bread comes with a glass vessel of clarified butter stuffed with a sprig of mint leaves to pour and shred (it’s messy) plus a curry sauce for dipping. It’s like luxurious roti canai.

Wong hakka pork belly, hakurei turnip, taro root tater tots, greens

I’ll admit I chose the Hakka pork belly because of the tater tots, i.e. taro fritters with hint of lemongrass (or maybe lime leaves). But the lacquered hunk of meat, crispy and sticky along the surface and perfectly tender beneath, was the star. Pickled anything is always a good foil for fattiness, and the tiny Hakurei turnips and tuft of salad were a good match. The original temptation, the tots, were room temperature, though. They had the potential for greatness—I could see something wu gok-like being done with them.

Wong duck meatball, spiced tomato sauce, squash, paneer

The substantial duck meatball went more Mediterranean, using spiced tomatoes and feta. Of course cast iron skillets signify a farmy ethos, adding to the formerly unseen “Asian locavore” concept that’s also taking off at RedFarm.

Wong lobster egg foo young, leeks, salted duck egg yolk, dried shrimp crumble

The lobster egg foo young. While I didn’t sample the shellfish tail, I appreciated the umami richness of salted duck egg yolks and dried shrimp granules. The salty and fermented edge shifted the dish far from its traditional namesake.

Wong long island duck breast, niagara grape, coconut vinegar sauce, collard greens, squash

The duck was the most conventional, or rather non-Asian, dish, sliced, rosy, with collard greens, charred grapes, and squash (also present in the duck meatball). Coconut vinegar, a typically Filipino ingredient, did make an appearance and cut through some of the fowl’s naturally oiliness.

Wong caramel apple shortcake, sugar-roasted apples, brown butter cake, cinnamon cream, wee caramel apple

Sure, the duck ice cream dessert had outré appeal, but I kind of wanted to see the promised “wee apple.” It arrived as one component in an autumn extravaganza of brown butter, caramel, cinnamon, and more apples.

I don’t know if it was because we’d made a reservation or it was the luck of the draw, but we got one of the few two-seaters in the window instead of a place at one of the dreaded communal tables (there’s no convincing me that sharing tight quarters is fun). And while busy, the table next to us remained open the entire time. There’s no good reason why Wong has availability on a Friday night while nearby Tertulia and Whitehall are standing room only.

The prices are fair, the atmosphere polished-casual—I like how the music shifted from adult and jazzy to Hall and Oates’ greatest hits to The Smiths’ first album, as the night progressed—and the food creative. The only weirdness was with timing; there were long gaps between courses and varying food temperatures on the same plate. Hopefully, the kinks will get sorted out. I’d hate to see Wong morph into Wong Grill…and you know the rest.

Wong * 7 Cornelia St., New York, NY

Faster, Casualer

Ihop express

Three’s always a trend, right? Chains, some already downscale, appear to be downscaling further.

Already fast-casual Pei Wei Asia Bistro has created a new brand Pei Wei Asian Market that has eliminated table service and real plates and created cheap combos. In other words, the suburbs now have an equivalent to the ubiquitous Chinese takeout New Yorkers take for granted.

Sit-down Red Robin is opening Red Robin Burger Works, a fast casual concept that could work in non-traditional locations and “urban environments” where the brand is currently absent. Denver will be the test site.

IHOP is taking the same route with IHOP Express. The first location recently opened in San Diego. Thankfully, the Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity will still be offered on the abbreviated menu.

Photo credit:

Taste of Cochin

When the only patrons of South Asian descent happen to be men at the bar and a party in the subterranean banquet room, signaled by music chiming up the staircase, beats vibrating beneath your feet, and the occasional celebrator coming up to use the bathrooms, it doesn’t instill much confidence in the food. However, only two parties of two in the dining room does mean that both get to commandeer the pair of banquettes along the wall.

The point of Taste of Cochin was trying Keralan food, which locally only seems to exist on the Queens/Long Island border. It’s a minefield of chicken tika and buffet fare (lunch-only) which I imagine fills the tables during the day. I went into this fairly blind, so my observations aren’t exactly well-informed. (I go nuts when I read others writing naively about cuisines I don’t think are obscure—last night, it was a British person on a Berlin food blog being confused about Colombian food, though realistically, why would they know anything about Colombian food?)

Taste of cochin chicken 65

Who knows the origins of chicken 65, heavily seasoned fried chicken chunks that we were warned away from because of the bones. I wasn’t expecting chicken nuggets, but I did get the gist later when it became apparent that these bits had been hacked willy-nilly and were more like eating catfish.

Taste of cochin malabar fish & keralan vegetables

It was determined that Malabar fish was Keralan. I wasn’t convinced that our waiter, overly helpful, and a little misguided, understood that we truly did want the fish curry to be spicy. It’s easy to get burned when a large number of diners aren’t native eaters of a cuisine. They won us over, though with a heat level not tempered in the least, the kind of heat that spreads through your chest and warms from the inside out. The flavor wasn’t all fiery, but smoky too, adding an unexpected campfire quality. I could’ve sworn we were told the fish was sea bass, and the white flesh was very firm, so firm it made me wonder if it was not smoked and canned. I also wonder if kodampuli, a dried, smoked fruit traditionally used in Malabar curries had anything to do with the smoky aspect.

The vegetables, in a coconutty sauced tinged with turmeric, were also unusual in that they not only used okra, but also long, fat strips of yuca that looked like potatoes until you bit down and got that fibrous chew. Also a hot dish in spite of the deceptive creaminess.

We went back and forth over whether we wanted basmati or southern rice. Whatever would go with the other dishes. “So, you want basmati?” then “I’ll bring you southern rice.” Um, was this Uncle Ben’s? Ok, I do see that “fat rice,” which this was, is eaten in Kerala, but it definitely wasn’t red.

Taste of Cochin is weird like that, almost as if you’re in a foreign country and it’s not clear if the oddness is caused by you or them, but it’s all fun in the end. Our waiter who is a regular at Mohegan Sun was discussing the new Aqueduct casino with the ladies next to us who had just been celebrating a birthday in Atlantic City. By the time we were ready to leave, one of the women who didn’t live in the neighborhood either (I don’t know how else you’d end up there) told me she had came from Burlington Coat Factory (where we’d also just been–I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want to come across as a Burlington Coat Factory snob—the worst kind of snob—but it was the most busted, like a ‘70s Sears from my childhood, store I’d been to in at least a decade. After this early dinner we went to the Rego Park Center with a modern Burlington Coat Factory and the best Century 21 in existence) wanted to know what I’d ordered (she had a chicken curry, extra spicy). Then the waiter gave me two rolls of toilet paper to take into the ladies room because he’d just been told they were out. It was locked, so I put the rolls on the ground outside the door and the waiter suggested I use the men’s room, which as soon as I shut and locked the door was being banged on by a male partygoer who seemed horrified when I emerged. But hey, the leftovers were good the next night.

Taste of Cochin * 248-08, Union Turnpike, Bellrose, NY


Eaten, Barely Blogged: Bum-Rushing

HibinoFor only four dollars more than what I pay for my occasional lunchtime chirashi near my office, Hibino, sort-of-near my apartment, presents a selection of raw fish, roe, okra (!) and omelet shreds that is the definition of jewel box precious. Plus, the rotating selection of $5 obanzai, Kyoto-style tapas (somehow it doesn’t bother me that they’ve appropriated the word as much as when it’s used to describe sliders or chicken parm) are unlike anything I’ve had elsewhere. There were meaty chunks of lightly battered, fried monkfish in a broth with baby bok choy and enoki mushrooms, crispy, sliced chicken cutlets served with a fluffy pumpkin tartar sauce, and a selection of soy-stained white blobs that turned out to be potatoes, burdock, and scallops that I’m guessing were dried and reconstituted (the latter dish just showed up, we didn’t order it, and the two others turned out to be more substantial than I’d expected for the price). Just beware that 10pm closing means 10pm—I’m conscientious about lingering to the point where being the last person in a restaurant is a phobia, and we still got the bum’s rush. Previously on Hibino.

Grand Sichuan House
Grand sicuan houseIt’s still nice having Sichuan food in Brooklyn, but things weren’t as good as I remembered from past visits. The dan dan noodles and cold tripe and tongue dressed in chile oil, and sautéed green beans with pork were all fine. The slices of double-cooked pork with leeks, though, were gnarled instead of fatty and lush and lamb with cumin was lacking any sear, what you might call wok hay. It was like when I sautee food at home and can never get the pan hot enough or the meat dry enough and end up steaming it into grayness. I’d still probably return if I happened to be shopping at Century 21 and the urge struck. Once again, we ended being the last people in the restaurant at 10:30, closing time, but managed to leave of our own accord, no prompting.

Empire Steakhouse
Empire steakhouseI finally gave into the late-night commercial (which they no longer run) touting their expensive/expansive/extensive wine list. We cobbled together a Peter Luger-esque meal of grilled bacon, creamed spinach, hashbrown potatoes, and a medium-rare porterhouse for two that was as good as any I’ve had in NYC (or maybe the non-expensive Napa Valley Cabernet clouded my judgment). The biggest difference between Empire Steakhouse and Peter Luger was that the staff was Russian, the clientele Asian, and barely audible ‘80s music kept pushing in and out of my consciousness. Why not eat steak to muffled Journey and A-ha? Thankfully, a couple of tourists came in half-way through our meal so we were only the second-to-last table left in the place.

What Food Brands & Associations Have to Say About Thanksgiving

Bacon ranchPie is the hardest dessert to make from scratch, say 59% of Americans in Crisco's National Pie Survey.

But you must have pie because Pillsbury found that it's the "number-one treat for the holidays." Ninety-four percent of Americans will eat a slice of pie during the holidays, and no shock, pumpkin is the favorite. I was actually surprised that 59% of holiday bakers are under 35, though.

Not surprisingly, the makers of Hormel™ Country Crock® sides managed to get a majority of Americans (51%) to admit that they prefer sides over the main dish. I agree that turkey is blech, but I don't know if I'm persuaded to pick up a tub of bacon ranch mashed potatoes yet.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation close to 2.8 million pounds of game meat was donated by hunters to the less fortunate last year—and this is vaguely tied to Thanksgiving. By region, 46.1% came from the Midwest, 45.7% from the South, 7.2% from the Northeast, and a pathetic 1% from the West. Maybe they’re just hoarding venison for themselves in Oregon (they would).

The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) reports that 15% of Americans cook part of their Thanksgiving meal outdoors, up 9% from 2009.

If I have it my way, this year I will be dining out for Thanksgiving (as opposed to last year's sitting on the couch alone watching TV all day, no different than any Thursday–I'm doing it right now) and so will 14 million Americans, the National Restaurant Association reports. That's only 6% of Americans overall, though.

Foreign Affairs

I haven’t had to time write much (non-day-job stuff–I won't assume anyone cares about CPG ecommerce) lately, but I did manage to scrawl an article for Zagat about how foreign restaurants have been adapting for NYC.

I didn't have the chance to talk with Aamanns, but I'm looking forward to the Danish smørrebrød chain's arrival, which has been pushed to January. I was this close to booking a trip to Copenhagen last week, but got freaked out by how expensive everything was–and after much hemming and hawing–opted for Berlin instead. Not exactly an equivlent culinary destination, but I'm still excited. Did you know that Germany is the only country in the world where the McRib is a standard menu item?


Eaten, Barely Blogged: Red-Sauced


Ok, I’ll admit that this wood-paneled old-timer’s recent appearance on Bored to Death made me think of going. The deal was sealed when I realized a party I was attending happened to be at a Night of Joy across the street at the end of the block. I try not to talk about Italian food at all because you just come across like a jerk if you say you don’t like Italian food, meaning Italian-American. I don’t want to insult this nation’s favorite cuisine. My hesitation stems from all the tomato sauce–it’s too tangy and one-note. (It could be argued that I just haven’t had a good version. Regardless, I still have zero interest in Torrisi—or now Parm—no matter how life-changing you tell me it is.) Twice a year I might break down and order something like two meaty pork chops smothered in red sauce, pizzaiola. Add clams casino, garlic potatoes, green beans, and a bottle of Chianti, and you’re set. Also, the ladies’ room (maybe the men’s too?) is entirely pink–I want to say that somehow that rosy shade has something to do with red sauce.

San Loco
At the time, a quesadilla made sense five hours after a substantial pork chop. Red wine and beet vodka will cloud decision-making (and stain the cracks in your lips to look like dried blood and no one will tell you). And if I have it out for Italian-American food, San Loco is more like a twice a decade anomaly.

Palmyra & Enoteca on Court
Solo since Saturday, I’ve been living like a bachelor left to his devices, garbage piling up, not shaving, ordering delivery. I like Palmyra because it’s faster than Zaytoons. All I really want is the pick of five mezes to eat with pita: labne, foul, babaghanouj, muhamara, mousaka. The tagine used to be lamb leg with prunes and almonds and now it’s chicken (it now says chicken on the menu, it wasn’t a surprise substitution). And they forgot my baklava. Maybe I’ll go back to Zaytoons next time. Enoteca, the casual restaurant next to Marco Polo, which is very Bamonte’s, has a good spicy, oily pizza, the Calabrese with sopressata, n'duja, and olives. It arrived still very hot and crispy.

More pizza? This was from last week, though. At this Neapolitan newcomer I tried both the Calabrese (I prefer Enoteca’s because the n'duja is nice touch) and the Emiliana with cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, and arugula. The latter, my favorite, was lighter and the crust held up while the meatier one was a little sogged-up. Maybe not destination pizza, but a fair Lucali alternative in you happen to live in the area (I only went because it’s a few blocks from my Wednesday night Spanish class—if you go on a Friday night it will be packed with waits for tables). Much of the restaurant’s appeal comes from the back garden, which is out of commission for the season.