NJ: Restaurants

Tang Maru: Korean food in Palisades Park, NJ

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When Chef Bobby Cho of Kimchi Smoke tells you to go to a restaurant called Tang Maru in a town called Palisades Park and order the pork neck soup, you wait 2 years and then do just what he says.

This dude isn't messing around. Not only does he know his BBQ, but he knows his pork neck soup.

Tang Maru is a pleasant, bright restaurant, with friendly service and a big connected parking lot, in an area near saturated with Korean restaurants. Since I have so little experience with Korean food, I can't say it sticks out from the pack, but damn if it isn't fantastic. And pretty cheap.

Barley tea hits the table, and then out come the banchan. I was very pleased to see whole fried fish in the assortment. The wife, however, wasn't as pleased. So I ate two. Fleshy, moist, fried fish. Guts and all as far as I could tell. But being gutless, I avoided the really flavorful parts and went to town on the regular bits.

Also included were spicy squid (I think), white radish kimchi, cabbage kimchi, and a salad. At that point, I'm pretty much full. But moments later the cauldrons come out of the kitchen.

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Joyce Chinese Cuisine in River Edge: still on track

Don't believe the naysayers.

I've been hearing that Joyce Chinese Cuisine is slipping. That's it no longer good. That something has changed for the worse. Ignore all of those wrong people. I'll be the judge of "good" thank you very much.

Indeed, everything seems fine at this Sichuan restaurant in River Edge, NJ. In fact, on a recent trip, I had one of the best dishes of this year.

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I wanted some Sichuan comfort food, and for me, fried fish is comforting. I ordered the Fried Spicy & Aromatic Fish, which hit the spot.  Tender pieces of fried fish, chili oil, chili peppers, and a load of Sichuan peppercorn. Classic Sichuan flavors here. "Boy, this has a spicy kick" I thought. I had no idea what I was in for next.

Tripe has been entering my face whenever I see it, especially following a recent trip to Tuscany, where I ate tripe as much as possible. So when I saw Tripe w/ Long Pepper and Peppercorn on the menu, well you know I just had to check it out. "You like hot?" the server asked. "Yes, of course," I confidently replied. I'm no rube, after all.

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The Barrow House: Clifton, NJ

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First things first: they have to rope off that entrance that faces the parking lot, since everyone thinks it's a way in, and every guest walks up to the door before realizing it's locked, including me.

Second things second: that burger is horrible. Something must be done about it.

Other than that, we had a very enjoyable meal at Barrow House.

The place seems to have an excellent staff (not much unlike its sister restaurant, Cowan's Public in Nutley). It's a stunning looking restaurant, with attention to detail at every turn (including a photo booth, in which you can have your silly photos taken and sent immediately to you via email). The place looks like it came out of the Farmhouses-R-Us catalog. The restaurant has several different rooms, each with a slight variation on the theme. Fireplaces in about every room.  And a lounge room with couches and big chairs. Certainly a bit kitschy, but executed well. 

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Jockey Hollow in Morristown: continues to knock it out of the park

It had been a bit over a year since my first and only visit to Jockey Hollow. That visit yielded some mixed results, but overall I walked away very positive about the place. Why it took so long to return is beyond me. Indeed, two recent meals suggested to me that Jockey Hollow is one of the best and well-run restaurants in New Jersey.

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Our first recent visit included one of the best burgers I've had in quite a long time. Everything about it was outstanding. The bun was a perfect size and texture, the meat had a course grind, and was super-beefy, the garnishes were creamy and acidic and sweet and smokey and salty (the bacon), and the damned thing just worked. Really well.

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A pristine piece of Branzino was served with pickled vegetables and a cauliflower velouté with some roasted cauliflower. A simple preparation on the face of it, but one which brought some creamy notes and some acidic notes to the table. Along with lots of textures. A real pleasure this dish.

Fast forward two weeks or so, and we're watching Youtube videos on Italy, one of which has a chef making a very simple pasta dish with guanciale. I think to myself "why can't we have a restaurant in New Jersey that uses guanciale." All I wanted was pasta with guanciale. I got myself into a lather, filled with disappointment. The missus out-of-the-blue says "Do you want to go back to Jockey Hollow?" I figured that would be a good move, and I pull up the menu. BOOM. Guanciale, in a pasta dish. Off we went.

But first, a cocktail.

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From Scratch: Excellent Italian restaurant in Ridgewood, NJ

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There's a little gem of a restaurant tucked away on E. Ridgewood Ave in Ridgewood. With its limited menu and lack of the typical Italian-American treats, From Scratch might not be for everyone. But if you are interested in Italian cooking influenced by the cooking of that country, you will probably enjoy the place. Judging by the crowds and hard-to-get reservations, plenty of people already "get it."

I could have very well been sitting in Italy the other day, as I enjoyed my lunch, with the sounds of the Italian language in the background (the owners are from Rome). The waitress that day was also from Italy. Near Napoli, as it turned out. More importantly than where she's from is that she convinced me to order an Italian soft drink.

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Typically I'll drink only wine or beer or water with food, but as she described this drink as being made with bitter orange, my interest was piqued. I'm sure glad I gave this stuff a try. Contrasted with the one-note sweet glop the passes as soda in the US, the Italian version is much more dynamic, much more interesting, and much more delicious. This stuff is agrodolce (bittersweet, as you know). It tasted not much unlike an Americano, a cocktail which I routinely drink like it's my job (equal parts sweet vermouth and Campari, topped with sparkling water and served with a slice of orange). It's made by Lurisia and called Chinotto.

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Oh the food you wonder? I had a wonderful panino with bresaola, parmesan (sliced by knife), arugula, and a touch of dressing. This is a perfectly balanced sandwich with quality ingredients. Contrasted with typical sandwiches, which too often consist of too-much mediocre bread, and too many bland fillings.  This sandwich packed all sorts of flavor and texture, all with being a sensible (to my mind) size.

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White Maple Cafe: Ridgewood, NJ restaurant

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White Maple Cafe opened without me realizing it. I happened to be walking by one day, after a fine meal at from scratch, and there it was. A good-looking restaurant with an interesting menu. Who knew?

I popped in for a quick lunch the other day to see what was going on. I liked what I saw and enjoyed what I had, for the most part.

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Penang Malaysian and Thai Cuisine: Lodi, NJ

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The food of Malaysia is one of the few SE Asian cuisines that I've never warmed up to. I think this had something to do with a Malaysian restaurant taking the place of my beloved Good 'n Plenty bar in Hoboken some years back. Damn them.

More realistically, my indifference was probably because the combination of Thai and Chinese and Indian never really did anything for me. Flavors and dishes seemed watered down, to my mind, with no real identity. That, of course, is some ignorant shit. Malaysian cuisine isn't hindered by its many influences. It is elevated by its many influences. I'm finally coming around.

This boring story starts about a year ago when we, on a whim, stopped at Penang in Lodi on the way back from a miserable dinner somewhere. Just for a drink. We figured it would be horrible and we'd get a story out of it. As it turned out, the bartender was an interesting character, the bar was well-stocked, the menu looked very appealing, and we had a grand ol' time. We knew we'd be back. But then we totally forgot about the place. Until this week.

We started with achat (pictured above), which is a pickled vegetable dish with a slightly sweet peanut gravy. Holy cow. This dish is right up my alley. Crisp, bright vegetables, crunchy pieces of peanut, spices, a bit of heat, acid. This dish hits all the marks. We cleaned the plate and I wanted more. Which is a good thing, because another dish we ordered included more.

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Best dishes: of 2015

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Putting together a year-end wrap-up list like this is sort of a pain-in-the-ass, I've come to realize. I have to figure out what dishes I want to include, find a photo, remember something halfway interesting or at least accurate to say about the dish, type it all in, spellcheck, look up web sites, etc. It takes a lot time, and at the end of the day very few people care what I put into my face. And I'm sure as shit not getting paid for it. But, it's a nice walk down memory lane for me, so once I get going, sifting through the photos and thinking about the experiences, it turns out to be quite a lot of fun, as I ignore the reality that you may not give a toss about any of it.

But then I have to type words and stuff, and I put it off for 3 weeks. It turns into a task. A task that I just recently tackled.

So why isn't this list New Jersey-focused you didn't ask and probably didn't even wonder? Well I'll tell ya. I used to include only New Jersey/NYC restaurants in these lists (I think), but I've been told that there is some value to some people to include stuff from other places. The fact that many of the dishes on this list are from outside of New Jersey shouldn't be a surprise. When I travel, I'm obviously carefully picking restaurants that I think will be outstanding. And let us not ignore the fact that when you're traveling, things just taste better. New experiences put more lead in my pencil than anything. When I'm stuck in New Jersey, conversely, I don't spend enough time eating out, and too often go back to the same places where I know I can get a good meal. But, there are several restaurants on this list within a stone's throw of New Jersey, so even if you don't ever plan on leaving the Garden State, perhaps something on this list will appeal to you.

Enough explaining. On with it.

Here's a list of exceptional dishes that I enjoyed in 2015. In no particular order other than perhaps chronological.

 

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Momma's Boy Burgers: A Shake Shack-ish place in Wayne, NJ

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It's beyond evident that Shake Shack was an inspiration for the people who opened Momma's Boy, a burger/hot dog joint in Wayne, NJ. It's clear right down to the wood/metal interior and the logo. And who can blame them for taking some cues from a place like Shake Shack. Shake Shack does a pretty damned good job at selling hamburgers and fries.

The people behind Momma's Boy were certainly paying attention when they pulled this place together.  The burger is very similar to the burger at Shake Shack. Same griddled potato roll, same style of "special sauce" (may0/ketchup-based), same type of melty American cheese, and the same size. But all of that means nothing if the burger meat isn't tasty, and the execution is flawed. Do they pull it off?

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Joyce Chinese: River Edge, NJ, the same as it used to be: excellent

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From the various rumblings on the web claiming how Joyce Chinese, the barely 2-year-old Sichuan restaurant in River Edge, NJ, "isn't as good as it used to be," you'd think they changed the menu and dumbed down the food to appeal to bland American tastes. From my admittedly unscientific analysis, I conclude that that's all a bunch of cahcah (cahcah means crap). The restaurant continues to serve mind- and tongue-numbingly good Sichuan food.

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