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Posts from the ‘New Brunswick’ Category

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.

On The Border

Jose Tejas, the incongruously named Border Café that give the illusion of not being a chain, rules the Tex-Mex scene in Middlesex County. It’s always packed, the parking lot overflowing well past the time other restaurants in the area are thinning out for the night. Chevy’s in nearby Linden doesn’t really compare, so we kept going south down Route 1 until we hit On the Border in New Brunswick where you can always see a new movie in an uncrowded multiplex.

Not surprising for a Saturday night, the restaurant was bustling and we were quoted a short wait. What I was surprised by was the predominantly Indian clientele. That’s why I like New Jersey so much. Sure, it’s the suburbs but it’s not the all-American West Coast suburbs of my youth. The setting would've been ripe for painful Outsourced-style humor involving Sikh turbans.

On the border apps

The chicken-and-cheese stuffed jalapeños (they didn’t call them poppers) aren’t so different from mirchi bajji, really.

On the border fajita

Their fall Hatch chiles menu is kind of on trend. This year in particular, they’ve been getting a lot of press. The weird thing was that I didn’t really taste the green chile and I didn’t expect cheese on my grilled meat. Of course, melted cheese in the trademark of any fine chain, but I was asked if I wanted cheese or guacamole, and I went for the latter if only to lower my cholesterol marginally.

I ordered one agave margarita, which tasted bitter and lingered like it contained artificial sweetener. My second, a standard version, tasted exactly the same, so then I was confused. I will say that one thing Jose Tejas definitely has over On the Border is the margaritas.

On The Border * 51 US 1, New Brunswick, NJ



1/2 Makkoli’s fluorescent glare, strip mall location and impervious daycare flooring suited for a carpet sweeper, do not mask an hidden suburban jewel. This all-you-can-eat Japanese buffet is exactly what you would expect for unlimited $20.99 sushi. Perhaps strangest of all, this is not a chain.

Makkoli entrance

I was hoping for a Minado (whatever happened to the proposed Edison location?) but this canary yellow room with only The Weather Channel on mute for distraction, didn’t quite make up for the disappointment of being quoted an hour-plus waiting time at Bonefish Grill one parking lot over, my original plan. 

Makkoli interior

That’s not to say that throughout my stint there weren't waits for seats; long tables were filled with Asian-American families with New Jersey accents, Chinese-Chinese whose only English consisted of “Pepsi,” a gaggle of bikers staking out the corner and more than a few middle aged, date night couples with bottles of wine.

Alcohol did not appear to be on the menu, there is no menu, so the wine confused me. It never would’ve occurred to me to bring wine into a buffet, though it would certainly elevate the experience. I would’ve gladly downed a few glasses of Charles Shaw.

Makkoli plate one

The seaweed, octopus and jellyfish salads were fine. The sashimi was mushy and they oysters weren’t chilled sufficiently.

Makkoli plate two

This is a small sampling of the cooked food row, which contained more Chinese dishes like prawns with walnuts and mayonnaise, scallion pancakes and dumplings. I picked up shrimp tempura, a rib, a breaded, fried crab chunk (I never understand coating on top of a shell) and a grilled prawn. The hit of any buffet is always the king crab legs; people will shove for them. I just can’t get excited about cracking and picking.

Makkoli plate three

Sushi round. The variety and flavor is better than what you’d find in most NYC refrigerated cases. Ok, that’s not saying much, but if grab-and-go lunchtime rolls are your benchmark you’ll be fine with Makkoli.

I didn’t photograph my dessert plate. You can choose from Jello, those unsatisfying but pretty chiffon cakes you find in Asian bakeries and scoop-your-own-ice cream (I’d never seen green tea that brightly colored before) that created a traffic jam in the dessert section. Don't they know that buffets need soft serve machines?

More interesting to me were the Phil-Am (fortuitous, because I needed bagoong for a kare kare recipe the next day) and closed Russian Restaurant (I’ve never encountered Russian food in such a setting) in the same mall complex.

Makkoli exterior

Makkoli * 415 Rt. 18, East Brunswick, NJ

The Old Bay Restaurant

1/2 Despite lacking any serious intentions of moving, I do everything I can to not be in New York on weekends. I should consider myself lucky to live in a spacious apartment in a coveted Brooklyn neighborhood, and I do, but that doesn't mean I get satisfaction roaming around my own environs. My surroundings are about the new, the in, the crowded, what's been written about. Being in the thick of things can be fun but frequently I want the opposite.

Others have second homes to remedy this urge. Though I scoff a the luxurious concept, I have known absolutely non-wealthy people (social workers, office assistants) who share cramped NYC apartments to afford a weekend home to flee to by train 6pm on Friday.

I'd rather approximate a comfortable nest here and escape to the suburbs every couple Saturdays, if only to sit in a car with only one other person, shop at well-stocked box stores with helpful staff and eat bad-for-you chain food. It's not only grounding, it restores my sanity and enables me to face those three painful subways Monday morning.

(I really enjoy complaining about the absurdity of living three miles from my office, a straight shot across the East River [don't go stalking me, now] yet having to take three subways five stops, or two subways four stops plus a 12-minute-walk to get there. And maybe if I get it out of my system here I won't have to go into therapy to control my anger. I've actually figured out a tolerable morning solution [it doesn't work going home because the M and R don't share a station in Manhattan]. If I buy an unlimited card I can take the F two stops to Jay St. get out of the station and walk one block to Lawrence St. to catch either the R to Whitehall St. or M to Broad St. on the same platform. If it's after about 9:40am, the M has stopped running for the rush hour and it's R only, but this route can shrimk a typical 40 minute commute into 25 minutes.)

I've tried branching out but Westchester and Long Island do not provide the nearby solace I seek. Only New Jersey will do. I don't know that I would live there, not because of its stigma—that means nothing to me because I grew on the west coast, likewise, I can't understand New Yorkers who get off on Portland—but it certainly wouldn't add any sanity to my commute and no one would ever come visit.

There was no question that if one were to see Star Trek on opening weekend it would have to be in New Jersey. I'm not a trekkie by a long shot, but it's something to do on a Saturday. I was hoping for an empty house at 11:30pm in New Brunswick and nearly got it. I don’t think there were more than ten people in the entire huge theater. And I was pleased to see human versions of the Comic Book Guy, four men had shorts, ponytails and large guts.

But first, we had to eat. New Brunswick is a happening scene (and apparently, rocking). The miniaturized downtown strip has that trying be glossy, martinis, steakhouses and dressy Italian food style (I'm also picturing grand pianos but that's probably wishful thinking), that ends up looking '90s. It's how I imagine Houston or Atlanta looking. I've never been to either city but that was exactly my impression of the area around Beale Street in Memphis. I had been expecting more grit and less casual upscaleness. Of course, this is only like a two-block stretch of New Brunswick.

Old bay chile martini The Old Bay Restaurant appears to have a lively bar scene, a scary scene, frankly but what would you expect from an establishment with the slogan, "Every day is Mardi Gras?" I didn't think the Cajun-ish food would be very promising and it wasn't really. But sometimes it's more about the experience than the food. It's not as if there is great New Orleans cuisine in Brooklyn either.

The Cajun martini was actually kind of foul, not so much because of the spice but it tasted too much like food. Pepper vodka, green Tabasco and olive juice with a chile rim.I don't mind blue cheese-stuffed olives in a martini, though, and that's definitely food.

Old bay andouille and garlic croutons

They were big into "sharing plates" i.e. appetizers. They had run out of the crab and spinach dip, which implies my taste in appetizers is on the mark and very mainstream. Instead, we had the andouille and croutons. Is that even a real dish? It was fine in a junk foody way but seemed improper somehow.

Old bay duck jambalaya

I'm not even crazy about jambalaya, gumbo and etoufee and only trust them in their natural habitat. Maybe it's terroir but they never seem to work outside of the Gulf Coast. So, I didn't see the harm in eschewing tradition for orzo (tricolored, no less) with sliced duck breast. It was ok for what it was, not terribly exciting, at least the duck wasn't overcooked and managed to retain crispy skin.

With a bit under half an hour to kill, we grabbed a pint at Tumulty's, a Germanic place decorated with dark wood beams and toy trains that I mistook for an Irish pub. Maybe it is an Irish pub, though there's Cajun shrimp on the menu, I can't figure it out. Everyone at the bar was eating some very good looking burgers. That's what we should've had for dinner.

The Old Bay Restaurant * 61-63 Church St., New Brunswick, NJ