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Posts tagged ‘my life in middlesex’

Wild News

Some very important Middlesex, New Jersey chain restaurant intel has come to light . The combo Bonefish Grill/Cheeseburger in Paradise on Route 1 that has been Cheeseburger in Paradise-less since being bought by Luby’s in December 2012 finally has a new tenant. Only eight CIP branches survive in the U.S., some transformed into Fuddrucker’s.

Not so, in Woodbridge* where a Buffalo Wild Wings opened today at 11am. The first 100 people in line, starting at 10pm last night, received free wings for a year. And yes, even in the suburbs, people–or at least teenaged boys–will line up for food.

*It’s also possible to get pedantic about non-NYC neighborhood names–or in this case, townships. The Bonefish Grill housed in the same structure considers itself to be in Iselin, and as an outside observer I always assumed it was Route 1 that split Iselin from Woodbridge. Claiming to be in Woodbridge is yet another bold move by Buffalo Wild Wings.

Staten Island Shutter Shocker

jose tejasOf limited interest to even residents of Staten Island and Woodbridge, New Jersey, but big news to me: the Staten Island Mall Bonefish Grill closed after little more than a year in business. Sad news (Carrabba’s, the previous tenant owned by the same company, fared no better–if a chain can’t even succeed on Staten Island) but the real story may be the poll conducted by the Staten Island Advance showing that 38% of locals wish Jose Tejas would replace the dead Bonefish.

I’ve never been able to understand the wild popularity of Jose Tejas (and I was just there a few weeks ago) a Tex-Mex-Cajun restaurant that has an un-suburban wait for tables even on a weeknight after 9pm. The rock bottom prices must have something to do with it, but I’ve also speculated that diners might think it’s not a chain because the other branches go by Border Cafe. The Chevy’s down Route 1 is never full, for instance. And my theory has now been supported; the Advance just reported that Jose Tejas is not a chain.

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Bone-In Steak, Birthday Cake

Costata tomahawk steak

Costata Eating at two Michael White restaurants in almost
the same week is kind of odd. I’m not a fanatic or anything. But it was a
birthday dinner option and I took it (Maggiano’s in Bridgewater, NJ–don’t
ask–and Mission Chinese were also tossed into the ring. The Elm might’ve been
the best choice but I don’t like to pick my own special occasion meals) because
I was up for something meaty and I wanted to see if the room was all D.C. style
because I love corporate hotel chic (it’s not that bad) and if it was all
blobby blowhards in suits. No, strangely, there were lots of groups of 20-something
ladies in sausage casing Vegas/Meatpacking dresses drinking cocktails and
primping in the bathroom.

Costata duo

Get the tomahawk rib-eye if someone else is paying and skip
the pricey crudo (I’m not lumping oysters into that) even if they are. I don’t
care about pasta, so farroto with bone marrow and parmesan and the broccoli
rabe with fennel sausage worked as sides. Go wild and drink Spanish Rioja instead
of Barolo (I don’t care about expensive Italian reds either). Though dry-aged
for 40 days, the steak isn’t super funky. Some slices had that hyper-meaty edge
while others were mild and tender, maybe too much so. You don’t really need
black truffle butter, but after $118 for a slab of meat what’s another $3?

Cata razor clams

Cata After reading about the rising price of raw bar fodder,
and the $21 razor clams at Costata in particular, the shellfish sauteed with
garlic and olive for $14 sounded like a relative bargain while having a giant
pre-dinner gin and tonic flavored with kaffir lime leaves.

Cata kaffir lime leaf gin & tonic
Also $14, and though I recently boo hoo’d about
this cocktail price point, these drinks are long-lasting, not gone in four
sips, and potent as two normal gin and tonics.

Cheesecake duo

Cheesecake Factory Sure, you can go to Edison and discover
Indian food if you’re friends with Floyd Cardoz
, or you can eat at Cheesecake
Factory in the mall. I first stumbled upon this part of New Jersey (I have not
forgotten about the Post-Millennium Chains of Middlesex County, by the way) in
2005 when looking for America’s first Uniqlo
(which will soon be returning to
the Menlo Park Mall, plus Staten Island and that horrible Atlantic Ave. Brooklyn
shopping center with the Target) that served as a testing ground for Soho then closed. I prefer other chains over Cheesecake Factory (the
martini with blue cheese olives is three dollars cheaper at Bonefish Grill,
which is only one reason why I love Bonefish) but the Thai lettuce wraps are a
classic appetizer in all their glorious unauthenticity, and the fried chicken
salad was more demure than I’d anticipated size-wise (that’s not a negative).
And yes, there was a slice of turtle cheesecake involved.

Green symphony salad bar

Green Symphony is the bizarro Yip’s (R.I.P.?). It’s also one
block from my office like my former love, but this by-the-pound buffet is
greaseless and healthy and borderline Little Lad’s (also R.I.P.) even though
it’s not vegan or even fully vegetarian (there is organic chicken in various
guises). These piles include a cucumber salad, broccoli rabe with pine nuts,
curry chicken salad with fake mayonnaise, edamame salad, wild rice salad,
quinoa salad and some tofu mushroom thing. I can dig this.

Worst birthday ice cream cake ever

Baskin-Robbins The West Coaster in me wanted to blame
Carvel (Baskin-Robbins is also an East Coast brand, but ubiquitous–I’d never
heard of Carvel till later in life) for this ice cream cake disaster that
supposedly bears my name, but it was the handiwork of a Brooklyn
Baskin-Robbins/Dunkin’ Donuts hybrid shop. My name is not aes (?) for the record.



The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County New Jersey: Bahama Breeze

The shtick: The Caribbean comes to the suburbs, one pineapple coconut martini at a time.
The signatures: Indiscriminate usage of descriptors Island, Creole, Cuban, and Jamaican, and an unusually long list of appetizers and snacks, i.e. “Caribbean inspired tapas.”
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Truffled yuca fries with guava ketchup.

Bahama facade

The suburbs can soften you, or at least tame rough edges. Normally, I disapprove of children at bars or hour-long waits to be seated, yet concessions must be made for novel experiences. Bahama Breeze, the Darden brand that no one knows about—there are only 30 locations nationwide—is special in its scarceness.

So, I got to know the eight-year-old (he could’ve been a mature four or a shrunken 12–I can’t tell children’s ages) who wanted to compare iPhones and show me his Facebook friends while sitting at the bar with his parents. Even though the restaurant had only been open a few weeks, the family were old pros. The father who struck me as a contractor, a foreman, old enough to now delegate manual labor, was not one to waste words, but the mother was a talker and was quick to explain which drinks were stronger and which were pretty but weak (The Bahamarita).

I unwittingly picked the most expensive cocktail (chosen because it seemed the least fruity/sweet, likely to use premade mix) a Caipirinha , but don’t worry, it was only $8.69. 20-ounce house beer is only $4.29 by comparison (I am still reeling over the $6.25 Sam Adams at the Red Lobster across the highway).  It’s not all blenders and Captain Morgan’s either–Gosling Black Seal Rum and Pussers’s Dark Rum also make their way into a Dark and Stormy and Painkiller, though the latter may be controversial with New Yorkers since the Lower East Side bar, Painkiller, was strong-armed into changing its name. by Pusser’s

Bahama breeze interior

The decor was also more tasteful than I had expected, at least in comparison to the other nearby tropical-themed restaurant, Cheeseburger in Paradise, on the other side of Route 1, similar to how I imagine a Caribbean resort to look ( I have never been to the Caribbean, but I am thinking more Hyatt than Sandals—I still haven’t encountered a Four Seasons/Ritz-Carlton-type chain restaurant, though I would like to). Less Hawaiian shirts, neon pinks and turquoises, and rampant wicker, and more warm chocolate tones, restrained thatching, and dark wood. Though not mahogany, which I’d never given any thought to until the day an entertainment reporter called when I was working at the New York Post library to ask, “Is mahogany an upscale wood?”

One of the most unusual things, which isn’t odd on the surface, is their rampant use of pork. Outside of bacon, breakfast sausages and the limited-edition McRib, pork just isn’t commonly used by chain restaurants, though that’s changing. 2011 saw a 7% in pork mentioned on menus. Now, I’d like chains to tackle my other beef: reluctance to serve bone-in chicken.

Bahama breeze sliders

It’s in the chorizo sliders (loose Mexican-style sausage formed into square, springy patties, by the way, not the hard-cured Spanish type, which one might assume considering the inclusion of Spanish cheese) with Manchego.

Bahama breeze plantains

As well as the sweet plantains topped with scoops of pulled pork and a smoky, also-sweet (sweet and salty are the dominating flavors) guava barbecue sauce.

Bahama breeze conch

Anything could’ve been breaded into these fritters—who knows conch from any other shellfish when it’s heavily battered and fried and dipped in a creamy sauce? At least they were striving for regional authenticity.

Bahama breeze pasta

Unlike that old Jamaican favorite, pasta with cream sauce, a.k.a. Calypso shrimp linguine.  That’s the trouble with entrees. It’s easier to play with empanadas, flatbreads, sliders, dips, and wings. Main dishes rely on staid sides, in this case rice, garlic mashed potatoes or cinnamon mashed sweet potatoes, and pasta. I just ate an appetizer as a main instead.

Bahama breeze to go

Your server might spend an inordinate amount of time with your leftovers and you may see them fussing around with the aluminum containers at their station. But you will be more forgiving when you see that they’ve drawn a picture and thoughtfully dated the creation. Or not.

Bahama Breeze * 520 Woodbridge Center Dr., Woodbridge, 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

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…



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

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