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Posts from the ‘Iselin’ 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

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

Jose Tejas

What exactly is the appeal of Jose Tejas, the New Jersey Tex-Mex Cajun chain restaurant that brings a surprising amount (by which I mean one-to-two searches per day—it doesn’t take much to surprise me) of traffic to this site and commands one-hour waits after 6pm?

Jose tejas interior

Without a doubt, it’s the prices. All ending in oddball amounts, nearly every dish is under $10 and the fanciest Patron margarita tops out at $8.50. I couldn’t tell you the last time dinner for two with drinks cost under $40 (ok, that’s not counting the $5.50 house margarita at the bar).

While doing my monthly Wegmans, Costco, Target, DSW rounds in Middlesex County, Jose Tejas won out over Cheeseburger in Paradise (I mulled over Ruby Tuesday, but I have an irrational reluctance to go there after throwing up dim sum in their bathroom a few years ago).

Jose tejas chorizo mexicana

You can have your ceramic dish of melted cheese two ways: Cajun ($6.94) or Mexican ($6.83). This is the latter, an above ground pool of pepper jack with chorizo, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms sealed beneath the surface.

Jose tejas fajitas

Naively, I thought fajitas might be a minutely healthier entrée than many of the fried, dairy laden options (I don’t even consider the Cajun items because that’s just weird). Grilled meat, vegetables and tortillas, right? Sure, and a whole block of grated cheese on the side. Rice and black beans or jambalaya come with all mains. 

I ordered a combination of chicken and beef, pork is nowhere to be seen on the menu and never seems to have a presence at Tex-Mex and Americanized Mexican chains. Why is that?

Jose tejas sides

You are encouraged to wrap everything unfinished to go in Styrofoam containers, even the free flowing chips and tortillas. Even though I’ve been diligent in my carb-limiting, I still packed them all in with my untouched cup of rice because I just can’t blatantly waste food.

I also wonder if part of Jose Tejas' appeal is that it gives the illusion of being a unique restaurant. It's not until you search the name that you realize it's part of a chain whose other locations in Massachusetts and Delaware are called  Border Cafe.

Previously on Jose Tejas.

Jose Tejas * 700 Rt. 1 N., Iselin, NJ

Jose Tejas

I was under the impression that this nutty Tex-Mex Cajun restaurant along Route 1 was a rare independent venue. Maybe it didn’t look glossy enough or maybe I was won over by the enormous blue and white sign visible from a distance that simply reads EAT. But I was wrong; it is a chain and one that more commonly goes by Border Café. Actually, I wasn’t acquainted with Border Café either but now I know.

I can’t figure out why the receipt I received says Iselin yet their website says both Iselin and Woodbridge. New Jersey is annoying like that, every mile practically puts you in a different township and makes my pull down menu look like I’ve been all over the state when really I travel in a close radius around Middlesex and Union counties.

Speaking of the neighborhood, not too long ago a friend started dating a guy who lives about ten minutes from Jose Tejas. This is a very exciting development because New Jersey chain dining has always been a solitary activity. I mean, another and myself are involved but it’s not like we ever have company along (for good reason, certainly). Can you imagine anything sexier than a double date at Bonefish Grill? Unfortunately, I suspect a Valentine’s reservation has already been made somewhere and not likely in the garden state.

It hasn’t taken much for me to conclude that there just aren’t enough giant chain restaurants to satisfy the tri-state population (and what’s this I hear about the Cheesecake Factory being a freaking hotspot in Hartford, CT?). No matter where and when you go it’s a madhouse. And the unusually cheap prices at Jose Tejas—my $8.97 enchiladas were one of the more expensive items—certainly contribute to the popularity. But I cannot allow human obstacles to get in the way of my chain discovery missions.


We went between lunch and dinner on a Saturday and were quoted a 35-minute wait. Normally, I would’ve left but trying to get on the correct side of the highway and then finding parking had already wasted twenty minutes and I couldn’t fathom a plan B. Even the large bar area was jam-packed, and a nasty old lady tried picking a fight with us for blocking her way. I have zero patience with the nice elderly so I had to restrain myself from knocking her block off.

I don’t trust margaritas from machines, not so much out of hygiene or authenticity issues but because I fear a light hand with the alcohol. A bottle of Dos Equis and a requisite basket of corn chips with salsa suited me fine while waiting. And immediately two stools opened up. It was as if the hand of god, or possibly the ghost of Jose Tejas (assuming he's a real human being and that he's no longer living), reached down and cleared a space for us.


Eating lightly would’ve been smart in preparation for the next day’s inescapable Super Bowl gluttony. But how does one even accomplish such a thing at a restaurant with salads that come in those ‘80s fried tortilla bowls? No, we went all out and shared the chorizo flambado, which is essentially a shitload of melted cheese dotted with chorizo. I swear the chorizo was actually ground beef or Italian sausage but the grease and fat effect was still achieved. You eat this concoction with warm flour tortillas, creating scoopable quesadillas.

I wasn’t touching the Cajun side of the menu. That cuisine is hard to pull off properly even in its own element but in NYC it always tastes like dry, spiced mud. Actually, we joked that dirt might be a secret ingredient while in New Orleans a few years ago; the food all has this earthy flavor that seems to go beyond cumin and cayenne.


I usually order seafood burritos or enchiladas in these types of places, which doesn’t seem intuitive. It’s just that the chicken is always dry, the beef is ground (I don’t like ground beef outside of hamburgers) and pork is rarely on the menu period. I’m also not crazy about fish tacos because battered fried seafood makes me hurl (however, battered fried candy is A-OK). And my crawfish and shrimp stuffed tortillas came sauced to the nines. At least I diligently ate half of everything and saved the rest for a late night dinner. Since this was my first meal of the day, I didn’t feel so bad about the caloric value being spread out over twelve hours.

Jose Tejas * 700 Rt. 1 N., Iselin, NJ

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

Ruby Tuesday

In my most uncharacteristic move ever, I only ate a total of four bites of food during this mishap of a meal. No fault of Ruby Tuesday's, it was just bad timing. I was originally excited to get to try a new-to-me chain restaurant (I mean, I had seen ads but had never paid a visit) but I suspect I was rapidly becoming the victim of food poisoning from earlier dim sum. Having no appetite is a very rare occurrence in my world so I knew something sinister was up.

My head was pounding as we went ahead and ordered chips with spinach cheese dip to share, a sliders with both fries and onion rings for myself. Neither item was enjoyed much, as I had to run to the bathroom twice to stave off false upchuck alarms. Our teenage waitress was kind of enough to give me ibuprofen out of her purse. There's something very suburban about that-I wouldn't dare ask staff for aspirin in NYC.

But it was too late for over the counter painkillers. We had to wrap up our food (of course–sick as a dog or not, I'm not wasting edibles) and hightail it out of there before there was an embarrassing accident. Said accident did eventually occur repeatedly into a DSW bag while stuck in a Staten Island traffic jam.

While I believe Chinese snacks were the likely culprit, I'm going to have a hard time setting foot inside a Ruby Tuesday for some time.

Ruby Tuesday * 675 US Highway 1 S., Iselin, NJ