B Spot Burgers: Michael Symon's place in Cleveland, OH

B spot wall

We're big fans of (Iron) Chef Michael Symon. He makes us laugh when we watch The Chew. His humor is at times juvenile, and he cracks up at the most ridiculous stuff. This is very entertaining to us (probably because I exhibit the same qualities). Motivated only by this fandom and curiosity, and a hangover, we took the 20 minute drive to B Spot, his fast-casual burger chain. Not the one in downtown Cleveland, since that one is in a depressing-as-ass casino, but rather one of the ones in the suburbs of Cleveland. Way out somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

B spot neighborhood

Did I say nowhere? It could have been anywhere. We pulled into a complex that was designed in a boardroom, presumably to resemble Mayberry-in-Hell. Think "The Truman Show." Or "Long Branch, NJ." Or anything that refers to itself as "Shops at the Promenade." At least there was valet parking on this crappy, dreary, raining day.

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Habit Burger: Fair Lawn, NJ at the Promenade

Habit burger burger

The burger build-out continues. The latest entry into the increasingly saturated market here in north Jersey is Habit Burger-- a California-based chain, poised to compete squarely with Shake Shack, Smashburger, and the other upscale fast-casual blahblahblah burger joints.

When we I saw a photo of the burger on BoozyBurbs's twitter feed, well we I just knew we I had to check it out--even though he they opted for avocado as a topping (actually, we I made fun of the burger on twitter for a while before we I thought to try it--busting his their boozy balls is a favorite past-time of ours mine). How does this burger (without avocado) stack up against the competition? Pretty well, we I think.

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Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza: Fair Lawn, NJ

Anthonys coal fired pizza

Curiosity got the best of me. I sorta knew that Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza wasn't producing the type of pizza that I'm interested in, but something about a sunny 68 degree day and hearing about a bar that opens to the outside motivated me to give it a shot.

You will likely be greeted by a full restaurant. Filled with families, anti-social loners like me, and groups of young professionals from the surrounding offices. To say it was doing a brisk business at 12:15 on a Thursday would be an understatement. The place was really jumpin'.

For good reason. I got the sense the place is run well and managed well. A very welcoming restaurant.

I was greeted at the door, both on the way in and out. There are several TVs all around the dining room, which has a view into the pizza-making kitchen. The restaurant is cheerful and comfortable. Music was on the sound system, at just the right volume. The classic rock selections seemingly from a page out of a WNEW playlist from the early 80s. A large communal table in the bar area separates the dining room from the rowdies, and some outside tables--along with half the bar seating actually being outside--make for some interesting seating options. Certainly this is a family-friendly restaurant, but with just enough sophistication and stimulation to maintain a crowd of couples and groups of friends.

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Shake Shack: Paramus, NJ

  Shake shack burger

The backlash was inevitable, wasn't it?

Whenever something rises to mythical levels, people line up to tear it down. In mobs. Usually on Yelp, and almost always using the curious phrase "over-hyped," which is apparently universally loved by lazy writers, and those who don't understand that some people like things and others don't.

I'm not one to jump on backlash bandwagons, as that type of behavior is for sheep. But after a recent meal at Shake Shack, I can't say that I walked away very excited. Indeed, I may now, as of this moment, be a part of the backlash.

The fries.

Many words have been typed into the internet regarding those twice-cooked fresh-cut fries of theirs. Mostly negative words. It seems that people like the frozen crinkle fries better. I can't recall the frozen crinkle fries from my meals at the original Madison Square Park location, but I can imagine that I would like them better than these here fresh-cut fries.

Shakeshack fries

But, BUT, that's not to say they were objectively bad, or cooked improperly. They were actually executed quite well. I couldn't help but think they would be delicious next to steak au poivre, soaking up some creamy peppery sauce. They'd be right at home on that plate. But next to the burger, for some reason, which I cannot explain, they just don't work very well. Maybe it's that I'm looking for more of a fast-food type of fry. You know, frozen. See, the thing is, there's nothing wrong with frozen french fries--although many will disagree.

Some burger places have taken to offering 2 sizes of fries: huge and extra-huge. The smallest size at Shack Shack is clearly a serving large enough for two people. I would really, really like the option of a smaller order, because the fact of the matter is I will mindlessly eat them all. This is not preferable.

But what the hell is with this burger?

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The Counter: Burgers in Clifton, NJ

Counter burger2

As I sat at the bar, looking around, commiserating with other customers who were feeling just as neglected and baffled as I was, I tweeted:

I was debating whether or not to post about this place. The experience was horrible. The burger, conversely, was quite decent. But now that I see that The Counter extended special invites to local bloggers (and possibly Yelpers), from which positive "reviews" will very likely come (that's the dance, folks--positive press, bought and paid for), I figured it would be a good idea to temper the water with the experience of a paying customer. You know, someone like you. Someone who didn't have special treatment, special access, or free food.

Back to that experience.

I sat at the bar for 5 minutes (I timed it, because I could immediately sense things weren't going to go well), completely ignored by the bartender, who was of course standing only 3 feet away, before I got up to ask the people at the hostess stand if I was supposed to take one of those paper menus that they have there. I wasn't. They gave me a regular menu and I sat back down at the bar. Another 5 minutes went by before I was acknowledged.

"Five minutes, well huh that's not a lot of time, Mr. Important-pants" you say. Any business owner, or business-minded individual, will tell you that 5 minutes (well, 10 minutes in this case, technically), is quite a long time to not acknowledge a customer. At a bar, especially.

A cocktail list exists, which I suppose is a positive, and that was as good a place to start as any to. Yowza. It's populated with concoctions that would be best consumed by 22 year olds. Sweet, horrible-sounding drinks they seemed. The Counter is certainly not trying to appeal to people who are even vaguely interested in cocktails. With the exception, perhaps, of the "Margarita Fresca" (Sauza Hornitos, agave, lime juice, per the menu). Aside from not containing triple sec, and therefore not actually being a Margarita, in the "Fresca" style or otherwise, it was certainly the obvious choice for me, and the best-sounding on the list. I also figured I should watch it being made, just in case things went south. They did.

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The Big King: Burger King

I can't remember the last time that I liked a newly introduced fast food product. I think any interest I may have in fast food stems more from the fact that I grew up eating it (occasionally), rather than some sort of a true culinary appreciation. Kinda of like how people who grew up around Bergen County rave about The Fireplace in Paramus or White Manna in Hackensack (reality check: White Manna isn't very exceptional, and The Fireplace is just awful). So I like what I am used to: double cheeseburgers, Whoppers, Cruncy Tacos Supreme, and, well, that's about it.

Rest assured, there's nothing wrong with enjoying something, whether it's food or music or a movie or a pair of sneakers, because it reminds you of your childhood and warms your soul. Nothing wrong with that at all.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Burger King's new burger, the Big Muck King, however, does no reminding or soul warming; it's simply not good.

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Burger King: Satisfries

In an unfortunate turn of events, I found myself at Burger King the other day. The whos, hows and whys aren't important.

That's not to say I have a philosphical problem with Burger King, or fast food in general. Everything in moderation. Eat what you like, and don't let anyone put you down for your taste.

That said, I sure as hell didn't like the new "Satisfries."

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Wendy's: pretzel bacon cheeseburger


I can't recall where I had my first pretzel bun burger, and I sure as hell haven't had many. But I do recall having one at the long-closed Shades of Hoboken, in Hoboken, in what I have to assume was about 2006. That one sandwiched a thoroughly unexceptional "kobe" burger...another marketing-based trend that needs to die yesterday. It wasn't very good. That's 7 years before Wendy's caught on. And when Wendy's picks up on a culinary trend, it's a good indication the concept has run its course.

I like a good pretzel as much as the next guy. Hell I like Wendy's as much as the next guy. But pretzel bread is certainly not an ideal bread for a sandwich (even if the pretzel isn't mediocre and it's in the hands of a good cook). Wendy's seems to have set out to prove this, with their Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger.

There are several flaws with the new Wendy's pretzel bacon cheeseburger, not least of all being the pretzel bun, which is complete with an artificial looking split top.

  • The "spring mix" of greens is completely inappropriate for a hot sandwich. Delicate greens like these, when exposed to heat and grease, immediately start decomposing, turning into a wilted, sewage-y, pointless mess. Sturdy lettuces like iceberg hold up much better, if lettuce on burgers is your kind of thing...and it shouldn't be.
  • I've never been a fan of sweet sauces on burgers. Sure, ketchup is quite sweet. However, it has acid and salt to balance it out. That tomato flavor, however vague, is appropriate for a burger. But "smoky honey mustard?" Blech. Nasty stuff which should be relegated to turkey sandwiches to give them flavor and moisture. I suspect the mustard choice is by design as some sort of tie-in to that...
  • ...pretzel bun. What a disaster. The thing is tough, dense, and heavy. These textural flaws overwhelm the burger, even with that rotting lettuce and honey and gummy bacon fighting back. It has neither the texture nor flavor of a well-made pretzel. Well-made pretzels, by the way, are very, very easy to make. For f*ck's sake, it isn't even topped with big grains of salt!!!

Wendy's does have a reasonable fast food burger in their run-of-the-mill double cheeseburger with the standard issue bun. It's actually a go-to fast food sandwich for me (believe it or not, people who are somewhat worldly and enjoy the finer things can actually enjoy fast food every now and again, perhaps a little too often in some cases, and even when sober). 

If you're feeling like a Wendy's fix, stick with the double cheeseburger, and skip this travesty. I can hope the inevitable failure of this sandwich will put the final nail in the pretzel bun coffin, but I fear this craze is just starting to get traction. Has someone done a Cronut burger yet?

PretzelsProperly made homemade pretzels, eaten with mustard, loaded with salt, as they should be.

201 Magazine: Best of Bergen 2013

201 Magazine, the big, glossy magazine that you see in grocery stores (or in the mail...they seem to send it to people for free in addition to selling it), released their yearly readers poll. It's sprinkled with "Editor's picks" and "Celebrity picks."  I'm not sure I care what these folks have to say about restaurants, but I guess their opinion is neither better nor worse than that of any random person.

Either way, as usual, many of the restaurant picks are wrong, or just bizarre.

As I sometimes do, I'm going to put on my smug curmudgeon hat and provide the correct answers here, for you.

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Napa Valley Grille in Paramus: Closed

Napa Valley Grille, in Paramus's Garden State Plaza, closed its doors yesterday, apparently very suddenly, and presumably for good. 

The chain, which is going through some downsizing, is down to just two restaurants, according to its website

I happened to pop into Napa Valley Grille this past Saturday.  And I wasn't going to go back, because it was just a mess.

I can't say anything about the food, because we left before ordering.

I can say that the staff seemed to be preoccupied with themselves, rather than making sure their guests were happy.  A cocktail listed on the menu as having El Jimador (a 100% agave tequila) was about to be ruined with some crappy mixto, until I noticed called it off.  The bartender said that they were out of El Jimador, and then the other bartender interjected "just use Cuervo."

No, don't "just use Cuervo".  It's crap, and I don't want it. 

"We never have El Jimador.  I should probably tell the manager to take it off the menu."

Yeah, probably.

Neither seemed to understand the difference between these tequilas, nor did they care to.

Let's hope whoever buys that liquor license has sense enough to train their staff.