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Posts tagged ‘my life in middlesex’


It’s not that I’m forced into eating at chains on my occasional New Jersey shopping forays, it’s that I like eating at chains when I leave the city. That’s why when posed with the premise “let’s try a nice suburban restaurant this weekend,” I became stumped.

Obviously, nice is subjective. I think it means sit-down, non-diner/take-out, not necessarily expensive. New Jersey certainly has edible diversity as written about recently in the New York Times, but deep-fried hotdogs and subs weren’t what we were discussing. Technically, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a nice suburban restaurant but I don’t know any other places of that caliber in an hour and a half radius (I’m open to suggestions). I hate Italian-American food and anything even veering into continental territory, that’s the stuff I fear getting roped into.

Newark Portuguese sounded fun and I’ve always felt remiss in never trying any of the Ironbound offerings. But we like shopping in Edison and have never sampled any of the gazillion Indian restaurants in nearby South Plainfield, either. As usual, Asian won out and I picked Moksha, South Indian but not vegetarian. And I didn’t quite adhere to the non-chain criteria either, as the owners have a mini-empire in the area.

First, we were forced into an unexpected detour to East Brunswick and were almost swayed by the Bonefish Grill. I had a shopping list that could only be satisfied by the giant Hong Kong Supermarket in South Plainfield. If you’re accustomed to the little ratty ones in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens, it would bring a tear to your eye. They’re not even super clean or full of hyper fresh produce, they’re just spacious with shopping-cart friendly aisles, non-chaotic fish counter and tons of variety you can actually browse without being body checked by elderly Chinese ladies.


Well, it turned out that our favorite HK Supermarket location has given up the ghost (that phrase weirds me out, I never use it, and I’ve seen it countless times in 2008 so I will jump on the bandwagon). Damn them, and it was kind of fitting since the way we originally stumbled upon the grocery store was looking for a non-urban Goodwill that was supposed to be in the same strip mall but had gone kaput and has turned into an Big Lots, which I didn’t have time to explore because we had to track down the next nearest HK Supermarket in East Brunswick.

An old Vietnam vet from Princeton that was in a Thai cooking class I took in the early ‘00s was raving about the huge HK Supermarket in East Brunswick and I recalled Lloyd’s wise words while fiddling with Google Maps via Blackberry.

As it turned out, East Brunswick was no South Plainfield and the best of the Chinese chain is gone for good. I still got what I needed, though: Thai basil, chiles, clams, rau ram (which I never see in Brooklyn), palm sugar, fried shallots, rice vinegar, pork belly, preserved radish, spicy bamboo shoots and bean curd.

But yes, nice suburban restaurants. I suppose Moksha is a little fancy in that the décor feels upscale Pier 1 rather than Christmas light garish, all earth tones, natural materials, and subtle water features, Oh, and things like rice, naan and chutneys come with a surcharge. Like how no free chips and salsa signals Mexican food to be taken seriously (not that it necessarily tastes better). I didn’t take any non-food photos, though.


A chicharon-like puff instead of the typical papadum. I don’t know if this is a traditional snack or made up. It’s kind of like pani poori but not really. There were spices imbedded in the white crackly blob and I’m certain that it was meatless.


Onion bhajis and chile fritters, a.k.a. Indian jalapeno poppers, were kind of run of the mill, but definitely not heavy or too greasy. I meant to order a another more salad-y appetizer but forgot.


Ok, all of the entrees look the same on the surface, but the flavors were all distinct, quite hot and if you scrutinized the bowls, you would notice that the murky shades hinted at green, brown and orange. I originally ordered a whole fried fish that they were out of, which is what forced me into a second-choice of shrimp, causing a curry overload.

Bottom: Karuvaepillai Eral Masala. This shrimp masala was the herbiest, the green likely came from curry leaves and almost seemed Thai in comparison to the others. The spice didn’t catch you until you’d chewed half a mouthful and burning ensued with full force.

Top: Iguru Mamsam. Minus the meat, lamb hot pot almost seemed Cajun, super dense, cuminy, hot and oil-slicked but tangy from chopped tomato.


Guthi Vonkaiya Koora. The tiny mushy eggplants were said to come with sesame seeds. I didn’t see any seeds, so I wonder if they were pulverized into the sauce.

There’s definitely more exploring to be done in South Plainfield’s Indian hub and I’ll make it to Newark eventually. However, I’m still kind of curious about better than average, even mildly creative American food that’s not a Kitchen Nightmare waiting to happen.

Moksha * 1655 Oak Tree Rd., Edison, 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

Five Guys & Bonefish Grill

3/4 It was an unexpected New Jersey chain restaurant bonanza this weekend. My original intent was to simply head over to Edison and hit all my favorite box stores but food always figures into an afternoon to evening excursion somehow.

But first it was Costco because they close at 6pm, too early for people who can’t get up and out of the apartment until after 2pm. I don’t know how it happens, but grabbing things like Larabars, spare ribs, seltzer water, chicken thighs, garbage bags, frozen shrimp and scallops, honey wheat pretzel rods, Laughing Cow cheese, and apparently more, eventually lead to a $300+ bill. Costco is dangerous. We spent considerably less than that at Trader Joe’s and that included seven bottles of wine, and not all Charles Shaw, mind you.

Even though I loathe gardening, we also stopped at Home Depot for flowers that James can plant in the front communal patch of concrete and dirt that he’s possessive of since we live on the first two floors. I’m not even sure that he enjoys the pastime or if it’s just a bizarre territorial thing. At least it’s prettier than marking with spays of urine.

I rarely check out Wal-Mart, not out of any moral superiority, they’re just not on my mind. But the Linden location just past the Home Depot and a small airport was surrounded by all the lowbrow greatest hits: Lucille Roberts, Fashion Bug, Dress Barn, Radio Shack, Dollar Tree, Sears Essentials and International Food Warehouse. All that was missing was a Petland or Rainbow.

Wal-Mart did provide me with my favorite, non-fancy but hard to find Hanes underwear, teeth whitening gel, mini coffee grinder, AAA batteries and a $10.46 purple knit belted tunic (I love that the sizes are so skewed that I can technically wear a L instead of an XL).

Five_guys_facadeApparently, a Five Guys just opened semi-reasonable walking distance to me in Brooklyn Heights, but as is my way I turned my back on local offerings for a 33-mile drive to Edison, NJ. New York City, Brooklyn in particular, does horrible things to chains. I actually dread the Ikea and Trader Joe’s (I’m not even counting the Whole Foods because it’s not in my realm) that are eventually coming because they’ll inevitably be mobbed and under stocked. It doesn’t seem right to have these national treasures in your own zip code and be forced to leave the state for sanity’s sake.

I’m not an Americana food fanatic, i.e. pizza, hot dogs, burgers. I like two of the three very much (sorry, wieners) but I don’t go around the city taste testing or taking fastidious notes even though I admire others’ efforts. I can’t expound upon the burger-ness of a burger but I was curious what all the Five Guys fuss was about. And I was pleased that the restaurant was located in a familiar strip mall, Wick Plaza, that also contains my bank, North Fork, Sally Beauty (Miss Clairol in sable tends to be out in NYC because I guess everyone has dark brown hair. Plus, I’d forgotten to bring any lip gloss on our journey and I only had to spend 99-cents on their house brand to remedy this) and Hometown Buffet.

Five_guys_friesThe menu is short and sweet and the french fries are freshly made so I can see the comparisons to In-N-Out. But the burgers aren’t really the same. If anything, I’d say they look and taste homemade, assuming you had good cooks for parents. There’s nothing uniform and assembly line about them. And a great deal of their taste has to do with your choice of topping.

This caught me off guard. Even though there was no line because it was suburban New Jersey, I got flustered with their fifteen choices and only asked for mustard, ketchup and fried onions. Basic lettuce and tomatoes eluded me. Another thing to keep in mind is the difference between burger and little burger. I found out that the standard burger contains two patties, which was only worrisome because I was saving some appetite for another chain later.

Five_guys_cheeseburgerThough I prefer medium rare, I wasn’t insulted by their well done only policy. I was more put off by the signage about neighborhood children and allergies and not allowing peanuts off the premises. One of their trademarks is boxes of shell-on peanuts to scoop and eat while waiting. I can’t imagine that introducing peanuts into the wilds of New Jersey could possibly have the effects of sneaking ecologically unsound flora and fauna of foreign environments.

Five_guys_extra_friesI was most impressed with the quantity of fries doled out (and that they offer malt vinegar and Mr. Pibb). Even though we dined in, they bagged everything up and not only filled our cups but threw in a full extra cup into the paper bag. As a scrounge, I actually brought all the extras home to warm up later. Thankfully, health got the better of me the next day and I forced myself to toss them.

I was fine with Five Guys, but James impressed me by thinking of Bonefish Grill and tracking down the nearest location in East Brunswick. Last year when I was doing competitive research on major restaurant chains for work, I discovered that Bonefish is the one to watch. A supposed upperscale and healthier alternative to Red Lobster that was spreading like wildfire, just not in NYC. In an effort to get our fingers on the pulse of America, we needed to get our asses to Bonefish pronto.

Bonefish_grill_exterior This location in a mall parking lot was fused with a Carrabba’s (another OSI property—same company as Outback Steakhouse) and being 9:30 the usual insufferable lines were more like trickles.  Oh, this was a classy joint alright. Sure, you get the standard beeper but they have a neutral toned, wicker and ceiling fanned outdoor lounge to wait in. It felt like a tasteful Florida beach resort. A waiter comes around to take drink orders and push pomegranate martinis on everyone. I always assume drinks are going to be around $10 and get pleasantly shocked by gentle suburban prices where glasses of wine can be had for $4 and even over the top cocktails are only $6.90.

Bonefish_grill_outdoorsThe dusky, warm evening was made perfect when New Order’s “Thieves Like Us” began playing. As a teenager, I couldn’t imagine first hearing this song in Pretty in Pink and seeing myself twenty-one years later being serenaded by it in a New Jersey mall parking lot. Glancing across the potted foliage at the looming glow of a Kohl’s, it felt like twisted paradise. Everything was so wonderfully incongruous that I started getting chills. Or maybe that was just the sun going down.

Bonfish_grill_interior_2 But the spell was broken before we could get a drink; our table was ready. It all went haywire upon entering. Nothing was coordinated with usual chain-like precision. The drinks we eventually ordered didn’t come for over fifteen minutes, our water and bread didn’t show up for a solid half hour. They’d run out of clean glasses. Our order wasn’t getting taken. I don’t get mad about these things because I don’t expect French Laundry, but for people who view this as a serious night out–some were celebrating birthdays–get very antsy and indignant. Multiple tables were complaining. All I could think about was this mystery diner side job I almost took a few years ago. Every little misstep gets critiqued and reported. It wasn’t until I overheard an apologetic waitress explaining to a group that this was the first Saturday they’d been open that it all made sense. Wow, we’d hit up the hottest new restaurant in East Brunswick on opening weekend.

We got a strangely stoic young waitress who wouldn’t make eye contact yet still engaged in classic overexplaning and attempts at being perky. While pouring olive oil in a dish speckled with pepper and spices, “I call it EVOO but not everyone knows who Rachel Ray is so they don’t get it. “ Oh, I get it all right.

Bonefish_grill_crab_cakes “Do you have any questions about our menu?” No. Grilled seafood comes with a choice of four sauces: lemon butter, Mediterranean, mango salsa and pan-Asian. I felt guilty not engaging her, then capitulated and allowed her to expound upon the Mediterranean sauce being full of omega-3s. I was just going to go for the less than healthy lemon butter anyway.

We were surprised at the hotness of one of our crab cake sauces, adorably swirled into hearts. So, we remarked on it, attempting to be friendly chatty diners:

James: That was spicy
Waitress: fumbling for a second…it’s Sriracha
Me: Oh, rooster sauce
Waitress: Yeah, there’s worcestershire in it

Bonefish_grill_shrimp_and_scallopsWha? No matter, I’d be a wretched waitress so it’s not for me to mock. After discovering they’d only been open five days, I let everything slide. The food was actually done well, my grilled shrimp and scallops were lightly charred and tender. The portions were absolutely sane and nothing was dripping cheese a la Red Lobster. The vegetable of the day was sweet and crisp fresh corn dotted with bacon. I had textbook garlic mashed potatoes as a side. Even my inexpensive Riesling seemed just right with the sweetness of my seafood and corn (or maybe it was because of multiple glasses of Riesling that I felt so soothed). I didn’t see a dessert list because we weren’t offered one (not pushing more food is a chain faux pas) though I did notice bananas foster on a specials menu.

Bonefish Grill is one of those concepts that might not fare well in New York City–it’s not as if we’re lacking for quality independent seafood options. But the gap between Le Bernadin and Long John Silver’s is vast so there’s probably room for this manufactured sophistication somewhere in the five boroughs. Me, I wouldn’t bother unless I could enjoy a key lime martini in a parking lot lounge.

Five Guys * 561 Rt. 1, Edison, NJ

Bonefish Grill * 335 Rt. 18, East Brunswick, NJ

Skylark Diner

It used to be Bergen County for New Jersey excursions, but lately the communities along the Middlesex and Union county borders have won me over. Edison is as suburban as anything but there’s a substantial Indian and Chinese community that makes food shopping and dining more interesting while hitting the biggies like Costco, Target and Trader Joe’s.

Skylark_interior_2We were looking for a Sally Beauty Supply so I could pick up some bottles of professional hair color (it’s cheaper than buying consumer boxed dyes and I was specifically looking for the Miss Clairol Gray Busters line, which you can’t get at your corner Duane Reade) and a few blocks before our intended address we impulsively pulled into a mini mall, lured by the A&W/Long John Silver’s combo store advertised on the sign. I then remembered that we’d eaten Indian food in this strip before, ages ago before I even knew what Edison was. There was still an Indian place, but the name has since changed from Delhi Gardens to Hyderabadi something-or-another.

Skylark_bruschettaStill hungry, we noticed a gleaming, tricked out modern diner across the street. Skylark. I’d actually heard about this relatively new eatery, but didn’t realize this was where it was located. It was worth a try. I might’ve called it an upscale diner but that was before I saw the last episode of Top Chef. There were no tempura vegetables & mozzarella with cornichon aioli, but they did have crispy shrimp tempura with spicy citrus aioli.

They also ask if you want bottled or tap water, which is a bit too much. However, the emphasis on wine and cocktails didn’t put me off. It was too early for a martini, but all of the many color coded iterations using scary things like Midori and chocolate sauce were only $7. Maybe I’m just Manhattan-ized but that seemed like a good deal (minus the Razzmatazz liqueur).

Skylark_tasso_eggrollI was a little freaked out when they brought complimentary bruschetta to the table. It just seemed like an odd thing, and initially I was concerned that we’d gotten someone else’s starter. To be honest I’ve never understood the appeal of chopped tomatoes on bread. Let me clarify, pa amb tomaquet is surprisingly good in its simplicity and I’m sure “real” bruschetta with garden grown produce is similarly bewitching. But supermarket tomatoes in the middle of winter not so much. But I like free, so no complaints.

I really loosened up with the appetizer. Melon is my enemy but I was willing to try the chicken and tasso ham egg rolls with a jicama watermelon slaw and bourbon bbq sauce. The crunchy pink cubes didn’t really bother me as much as I’d feared and it was a tasty, albeit slightly overwrought dish.

Skylark_monte_cristoEven though it was 4pm, we hadn’t eaten anything yet so it was a toss-up between breakfast and lunch food. I chose the best of both worlds, my old Portland fixation, the monte cristo. As I’ve recently pointed out, it’s treated more like a breakfast food in NYC. I was pleased to see that this specimen was listed with other sandwiches and came with fries. But it did come with a little metal pitcher of warmed maple syrup. In the NW you’d just get jelly. This version came on cinnamon-swirled french toast. Classy. The sliced turkey was on the dry side but as a whole the sandwich was satisfying. I ate it with a knife and fork because it seemed wrong to drizzle or dip into syrup when eating with your hands. The fries were also better than decent and came covered in a spice blend that’s more typical of curly fries (why are curly fries frequently spiced, anyway?).

The one thing I’ll say for New Jersey is that they keep it nice and Jersey for you. Yes, they were pumping in the dreaded ‘80s music but it was all rock: Bon Jovi, Journey and more. At one point it struck me how jarring a random dirty guitar solo stood out amidst the retro-contemporary décor. Around 5pm, it started getting dark and smooth jazz came on. I got scared for a second like it was now officially moody dinner time, but then the power chords came back on after the brief interlude. Phew.

Skylark Diner * Rt. 1 N. & Wooding Ave., Edison, NJ

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