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Posts from the ‘South Plainfield’ Category

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.

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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

Red Robin

Despite being a Northwest chain, I don’t think I’ve eaten at a Red Robin more than once and nearly two decades ago. I have only a vague youthful memory of restaurant, and the nagging feeling that I perceived it as upscale. I’m not sure if that says more about Oregon or me.

I keep seeing their TV ads and just like with Sonic’s commercials, I instantly feel compelled to look up just where these non-NYC chains exist in these parts.  New Jersey, of course. I figured I could squeeze in a visit while scoping out the Norma Kamali collection at Wal-Mart (kind of eh, but I enjoy being a L instead of an XL at Wal-Mart. Oh, just figured out that I'm now a L by most chain store standards–guess my sugar/starch limiting has finally paid off. Unfortunately, "bottomless fries" will show up later in this missive) and picking up hair darkening shampoo and conditioner at Menlo Park Mall’s Aveda (I overheard the cashier mention her food court break at Chick-fil-A. I totally would’ve gone if Red Robin wasn’t already on my itinerary. Even she knew about the “hidden” NYU cafeteria Chick-fil-A).

James wanted to go to Five Guys, but what’s the fun in that? We can walk to the one in Brooklyn Heights if we wanted. No, I’d rather spend $20 in tolls and drive 34 miles to find out that frankly, even a well-done Five Guys burger is kind of preferable to Red Robin’s “gourmet burgers” cooked to an internal temperature of your choice.

Red robin interior It wasn’t so much the food, but the inept service and overall Saturday night suburban mayhem that detracted. Yes, I have standards even for chain restaurants.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the we card if you look under 39 1/ 2 deal. I don’t think they were joking, but I still chortled when asked for my ID and being pointed at the button stating just that pinned to our server’s (who’d just turned 21, we were informed for no reason) shirt. Like if I’m going to illegally purchase drinks, I’m heading to a NJ Red Robin. I know they’re just doing what they’re told, and maybe I should’ve been more weirded out that the bartender who barely looked out of middle-school didn’t card me earlier. I like to believe I don’t look 40+ even to someone half my age.

 Red robin onion ringsWe took cues from the locals and ordered the onion ring appetizer, which is admittedly kind of an odd starter. And it practically became a dessert since we weren’t brought our tower until asking about it after we’d received our burgers. This is the glitch that soured me. I don’t think it’s petty to have a separation between courses whether that is onion rings on a pole served with dipping sauces and a jalapeno laden burger or prawns with sunchoke puree and garlic confit and grass fed burger with Cotswold cheese (the same timing issue bothered me at James in Prospect Heights a few months ago).

I’m tempted to declare chipotle sauce (mayo) the new ranch but it appears that America is embracing the two equally, together. Both came with these onion rings. And the combo isn’t exactly new to Frito-Lay or Rachael Ray, for that matter.

Red robin 5 alarm burger I’m not one who rambles on about fat percentages or meat blend ratios, but I will say that lately I’ve swung into the less is more camp. If you can’t even taste the meat in your burger, then what’s the point? There was a bit too much going on in this 5 Alarm Burger, which was more than obvious from the name. All the lettuce, jalapeños, salsa and tomatoes overwhelmed and I couldn’t even detect the pepperjack cheese even though I could see it. Really, I was more interested in the fries and onion rings and consequently grew too full too quickly to eat more than a third of this. Beer and starch has a way of doing that.

The thick cut fries sprinkled with their trademark seasoning (that also sits in a big plastic shaker on the table) were tasty enough that I ate most of them, but I’d much prefer a thin crispy fry to a fat meaty one. I think they make them hearty on purpose to eliminate anyone actually taking them up on their bottomless fry promise. Yes, you heard that right–all-you-can-eat fries.

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

Kimchi Hana & Bon Chon Chicken Staten Island

Coordinating out-of-the-city errands isn’t always easy. I wanted drivable Korean fried chicken but that would involve Queens or Northern New Jersey and neither of those were places where I wanted to shop (Union and Middlesex counties).

Then I remembered Bon Chon Staten Island, which would be en route to my desired part of the Garden State. Initially, I didn’t believe there was such a branch, but more than once I found those keywords misguidedly bringing searchers to this site so I had to investigate. Yes, there’s Korean fried chicken in Staten Island. Weird. For all its bravado, Brooklyn certainly lacks in the Asian food arena, multiple Chinatowns or not.

But I wanted sit-down rather than takeout, which was the impression I’d gotten about S.I., so fried chicken was nixed and general Korean was substituted into the schedule. I’ll admit that I’m kind of a Korean food idiot having never ventured past the obvious like bbq and bibimbap. I do like spicy and pickled so there’s no reason why I should avoid it, it’s just never around.

Based on some internet randomness, I settled on Kimchi Hana in South Plainfield’s Middlesex Mall.  Now, Middlesex Mall is only a mall in that there’s a row of storefronts; some are empty, others occupied by the likes of Dollar Tree, Radio Shack (which saved my life with in-stock earphone pads. Do you know how difficult it is to find replacement pads for earbuds in stores? I ended up ordering from Amazon and incorrectly buying the wrong size, which were the circumference of an oatmeal cookie) and a more busted looking Macy’s than the one on Fulton Mall, which also isn’t a real mall. I knew what I was in for after reading a local resident’s lament.

What didn’t occur to me was to make a reservation. I clearly don’t have the suburban know-how down because I don’t equate strip mall restaurants with advance planning. And it was busy at an early-ish 7pm, but not insanely so. No one was waiting in the lobby when we showed up. We weren’t asked if we had reservations, though, just whether or not we wanted a bbq table. It seemed like getting a grill would be a problem, plus I trying to expand my culinary horizons, so we went the easiest route and agreed to any table available, which ended up being a standard four-seater in the back half of the smoky room.

This was fine for about ten minutes while we tried to interpret some language on the menu. There was a section of grilled meats but it said you could only order those at bbq tables (though later we noticed cast iron plates of kalbi and the like on grill-free tables. Perhaps they meant you just couldn’t cook it yourself?). While pondering, a woman who seemed to be the boss, came over and told us that we needed to move because someone had reserved this table.

Here we go…the Saturday night nuisance again (and I don’t need anonymous assholes telling me to stay home, thanks, everyone’s entitled to a reasonable dining experience). I don’t mind sitting at a two-top but I could already foresee a problem with fitting dishes into the abbreviated space. The banchan alone (which I do love about Korean cuisine) would take up a majority of the open area.


There were seven dishes, a spinach-like vegetable was off to the left. Those pictured included kimchi, baby bok choy, bean curd, octopus, radish and seaweed.

And sure enough, after ordering two appetizers and two entrees we were admonished, “That’s a lot of food.” No, not really. We were ordering a reasonably sized meal and it was now up to them to figure out how they were going to fit all of the dishes.

Sashimi came first, and the raised wooden board wasn’t too much of a hindrance. These were some hefty slabs of fish and considerably fresher than the disconcertingly room temperature slices I’d been served the previous day at Gold St. in the Financial District.


The girthy pajun arrived soon after. Pan-fried cakes can get a little doughy, though this seafood-stuffed one maintained a fair amount of crispiness. I will admit that these greasy treats are probably better divvied up between more than two diners, especially since it doesn’t lend itself to leftovers.


The seafood hot pot was a bit problematic to eat because of broth’s high temperature (the photo is steamy) and the weight of the vessel. Normally, I would ask for two small bowls as other tables seemed to have but there was nowhere to put them. So, I had to carefully rearrange the other dishes and scoot the little cauldron near me, trying not to splash, eat a few bites, then maneuver it back towards James so he could have some.

The soup was black pepper and chile flake hot, the type that doesn’t hit until you swallow and get the urge to cough. A little of everything was included: shell-on crab chunk, clams, tiny shrimp, hefty tofu squares, wedges of fish and decorative pink-rimmed fish cake slice. It seemed right for a spring day that had turned chilly and wet.


Chicken was a misstep. I still had fried chicken on the brain so those two words jumped out at me from the kan poong gi description, but as you can see it was essentially sweet and sour chicken. There was a hint of heat and a scattering of bizarrely firm peas and carrots. It wasn’t horrific by any means but wasn’t what I was craving.

The danger of not eating what you wanted is that you (ok, I) will just end up double dinnering to make up for that empty feeling (in your soul, not your stomach, duh). But really, would two measly midnight snack wings harm anyone?

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