This was the third pizza place at this location that went under. By the time it finally went under a few weeks ago, the owner was working mornings as a loader for UPS because he couldn't draw a salary from the restaurant and he was trying to keep the place open. I agree the kiss-of-death was the massive outlay during the period that the then "head chef" was trying to turn it into an upscale dinner place. Alas.
Taste of Smoke, Redux
Waited for the new place to shake out some of the opening kinks, and went today for lunch. This second location is a bit of a trek for me, but I’ve been known to driver 3-4 hours on a BBQ quest, so at 50 minutes from Princeton, it’s still not impossible. The place is at a strip mall in the eastern-most part of Jackson, far away from pretty much anything (although coming from the east, it would be pretty close to route 9.) The strip mall is one of those depressing ones, with a lot of empty stores, and it’s hard to believe they’ll be able to survive on neighborhood business. To succeed, Taste of Smoke is going to have to be a destination restaurant, and I’m not sure they’re quite up to that yet.
First an update to my original post (which was based on the double trailer rig setup on the other [western] side of Jackson) – the idea to have burnt ends at the storefront is apparently still in the game, but is now slated to start this winter. Their own lemonade hasn’t appeared yet. Their Texas sausage hasn’t arrived yet (this is something you DON’T want made in-house in New Jersey; you DO want it cased and smoked in Lockhart or Austin because of the availability of post-oak.) With that said, they’ve started having live music now and then – Blues, as befits a BBQ place. The Cobra Bros have already played there twice (Bob Del Rosso was their guest guitarist the first time!) and Sondra will be there with VyntEdge next weekend. The place is kind of tiny – the front counter section for takeout, a dining room with a dozen tables and a couple of TVs (and where they put the band) and a large back kitchen. The staff is friendly; the guy in charge (not Rory – he might have been at the rig today) seems to know what he’s doing (he used to have the restaurant next door) and is patient and careful in teaching the staff.
From my original post:
In the April post, I suggested the pulled pork had too little bark in the mix (you can always get more bark by breaking your shoulders into small pieces before smoking) and again it suffered from too little smoke. With that said, it is the best you’re going to find from Route 130 to Route 9.
A common thread: I’ve been thinking about what I perceive the shortcomings of the meat to be, and I think perhaps it’s that Rory is still thinking “Competition Meat” when perhaps he should be thinking “Customer-Friendly” meat. You **NEVER** over-salt, over-rub, over-smoke your competition meat – the competition is about the MEAT pure and simple and you don’t want to do anything to hide that. For commercial BBQ, however, your rub, your smoke and your sauces can be a bit more over-the-top because your customer isn’t judging your meat side-by-side with 50 others, but rather looking for what he would consider a “BBQ Meal.”
One meat I hadn’t tried before: the quarter chicken – part of what we ordered was the “Grand Sampler” and at $22 it was a huge bargain. 2 ribs, enough pulled pork for 2 sandwiches, enough brisket for 2 sandwiches, 2 sides, and a quarter of a chicken (either white or dark, your choice.) The quarter chicken could have fed 3 people by itself. It was juicy, smoky, and the skin had a some real kick to it. Do yourself a favor and try the chicken.
The sides were as anemic as last time. The beans were not quite as good (although the smell is to die for) and the Baby Back Mac is still a huge disappointment. The “Greens” turned out not to be collard greens or mustard greens, but green beans, and pretty boring. The slaw is good, cut tiny so it’s perfect for atop a BBQ sandwich, but lacks any real kick to it. A little more cider vinegar and a dash of rub would do it wonders. The sauce is still weak (the basic sauce is a Memphis-style thick) which is kind of what you would expect from a competition-driven pitmaster to whom sauce is gilding the lily, but should be remedied for the commercial world.
I’ll be back – and as with all BBQ, I suggest you try this place yourself because it may be more to your palate than mine.
The bottom line – this is REAL BBQ, worth having REAL BBQ discussions about. If it were a Famous Dave’s or even a Pom-Pom’s (after Pom-Pom let the pitmaster go,) it wouldn’t be worth writing a review about. I can’t recommend all the food, but I **CAN** recommend your going there and trying it for yourself.
Went back with a group and ordered a sandwich, a panini, and a wrap. All were excellent. A chocolate milkshake was also excellent. The exception to each of the meals were the fries. These are shoe-string fries, and those are very difficult to cook - you can "McDonalds" them and have them crispy but one-dimensional, or you can stop short of gold and crispy and have some potato taste in the center but there's no crunch at all. With larger cuts, of course, you can twice-fry, and end up with a creamy interior and crisp exterior. These were fried in oil that was probably a bit too cool. What we got were pale off-white fries; not limp, but certainly without any crunch. The interior was creamy but the crust was non-existent.
Went back, and the bread hasn't changed. Great sandwich. Filled to the brim with meat and cheese, without using veggies as the "filler" - they were in the sub as an accompaniment, which is what they're supposed to be. Perfect balance of oil and vinegar, too much salt (and I like salt) and overall a great sandwich, but the rolls are tasteless and tough. Maybe this should be a "chef-salad" place instead of a sandwich place...
From their website: We will be closing early at 6:00pm today, 6/27/2014, and closed tomorrow on 6/28/2014. Please join us on Sunday when we return to our regular hours! We hope to see you then.
Hi Jethro -
Went in a month later with several other people for dinner. Again none of the owners were around. Again the food was a disappointment. All the care that went into the start-up has disappeared. The place was apparently being run by a youngster who runs the cash register. On previous occasions he's been a bit grating, but now that he seems to be running the show, he's turned into a full-fledged turn-off. Loud (EXTREMELY loud) and oozing what he must think is charm but is, in fact, a swarmy "used-car-salesman" bravado, he is too busy telling everyone what to do to bother checking on the food. Again the pulled pork was dry. The pulled chicken was dry. The fries were old and soggy and should have been thrown out hours before they were served to us (the place was virtually empty.) The beans had been simmering too long at too high a temperature and instead of being a surprising treat (see my original post from December) they were now a dull, thickened mess.
We'll try it one more time, in another month, but in the meantime, we'll stay away, as you should. A quarter of all new restaurants fail in the first year (not the 80 or 90% that's often quoted) but most of them do it in the SECOND HALF of the first year, and FunniBonz is squarely on the path to follow the trend. Hope for a turn-around - they were wonderful when they were watching the store...
It’s been fifteen years since I was last in Gus’ Diner on Rt 33 in Manalapan. Back then it was about 6 counter seats and 8 tables and, as I remember, only served breakfast and lunch, closing in the mid-afternoon. The burgers were pretty good; the breakfast fare was pretty good; the service was pretty good… you get the idea. Everything was incredibly inexpensive.
There was a major renovation (about a year or two ago?) and Gus’ now looks like a mini-diner of the “Granite and Mirrors” variety rather than a hole-in-the-wall. Frankly, it looks like the typical new place that serves twenty wraps and fifteen panini and thirty salads, all priced at $18, and all tasting the same…
Yesterday, I had time to stop by, around 5 PM (they’re now open until 11 PM,) and found the place a pleasant surprise. The place is bright and airy and scrupulously clean. The utensils are old but absolutely spotless. The staff is friendly and helpful and EXTREMELY professional (the litmus test for that is “Does the staff check up on you enough to service you WITHOUT being annoying?”) The interior is bigger than it was and holds many more tables, without seeming cramped. The left side of the menu is what I expected: Wraps, Panini, Salads, Club Sandwiches, Burgers, and your normal mix of NJ Diner hot entrees, plus a good breakfast menu and a case of “baked on premises” desserts. The right side of the menu was a surprise: Wraps and Panini were $9 with fries; burgers started at $3.75 (fries are extra) and most of the dinner staples were under $10. There was also a page of Dinner Specials (including soup or salad, beverage and dessert) for under $20.
I didn’t have a lot of time, and had plans that precluded a large meal, so I tried my “go-to” test of a pizza burger, medium well. I’ve said here before that the first time in a new place I’ll order “medium well” to gauge how the place judges done-ness. First good note: my server asked if I wanted milk or half-and-half with my iced coffee. No little plastic containers – an old-fashioned stainless mini-pitcher came out. Second good note: they know how to make a pizza burger – many recent places can’t figure out where the sauce and cheese go, and make a gooey mess. Third good note: the burger was consistently cooked (see some of my other posts for diners that serve raw spots in their meat because the grill guy doesn’t know his grill.) Fourth good note: the burger was EXACTLY medium well (slightly pink interior) and was absolutely juicy.
For anyone who grew up in Essex county in the 60’s and 70’s, this was the closest I’ve had to a “Gary’s” pizza burger (Springfield Ave in Maplewood.) It wasn’t huge (probably 5-6 ounces) but it was just big enough. It wasn’t in the same class as a “Don’s Drive In” burger, but I’ve been searching for that for 20 years and haven’t found one yet. The coleslaw was merely okay; the pickle was extremely good.
I’ll be going back to sample the full menu; if they can do this with a burger (at $4.55) then I’m curious to see what else they can do. In short, a wonderful surprise.
Perhaps this is a one-time aberration, perhaps this a beginning of a trend, but it's certainly something to watch: an absolutely unacceptable BBQ sandwich at Funnibonz.
I was in that strip mall around 1 PM on Saturday, and stopped by for a quick bite. All I ordered was a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw, no sauce (I put the sauce on AFTER I've tasted the BBQ - all the varieties of Funnibonz sauce are on the tables) and the pork was terrible. It was dry, it was chewy, and it had no flavor to speak of - no rub and no smoke.
I didn't see any of the owners around - as I walked up I had seen Jim get into the Funnibonz delivery wagon and pull out - so perhaps there was some fumble in the kitchen that would have been caught had there been someone better in charge.
This is not something I would have expected from this place, and certainly not on a Saturday lunchtime. With that said, this was the first time I have ever seen the place empty, and the focus may be shifiting to the catering side, to pay the bills. I certainly hope it's purely a one-off, and not a harbinger of things to come. I'll drop back very soon - hope others will stop by and prove me wrong - I'd hate for this Mecca to be suffering from lack of attention in the basic function of the restaurant: smoking meat.
The new location:
It's way over on the east side of Jackson - right near the Lakewood Country Club, just off 526. Probably twice as long a drive from me, but those of you nearer the shore (or even nearer Freehold) will find it closer.
My hope is that if Rory starts doing some interesting things there (like the promised burnt ends) he'll send a portion of them out to the trailer location. Burnt ends need a brick-and-mortar place with refridgeration - you can do your brisket for 12-16 hours, and assuming you started with a packer brisket with a full point, you have trim the point off and then start cooking that AGAIN to get your burnt ends. Not something you're going to do in one sitting, on the side of the road. Most guys do the trim, and then that becomes the NEXT day's meat to cook for ends. With some synergies like that, when the new location opens, BOTH locations will benefit.
Answer: that might be a GREAT idea for this summer - I've got three smokers here, and we might want to do a Chowhound get-together where anybody who wants to cook some BBQ comes over in the AM; anybody from chow who just wants to EAT some BBQ comes over in the afternoon, and we do a day of hanging in the pool, swapping food stories, and eating what everybody cooked... Used to do that kind of thing with the old Compuserve wine forum back in the early 90's - had people coming from as far as California and Georgia....
Finally made it to Taste of Smoke today, and after eating lunch there and taking home all sorts of things for the dinner I just finished, I still don’t know what I think about the place.
First let me say I’ll be going back, AND I’m excited about trying the Q when they finally get the new store open ( I heard today they’ll be doing burnt ends, more sides, their own lemonade, etc. AND got a description of the smoker they’re going to use [had to tear down a wall to get it in.]) There’s one other real BBQ place in the area (funnibonz – see reviews at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9221...) and to have TWO places within 30 minutes of the house is outrageous good fortune. There’s no such thing as BAD real BBQ. Let me also say that those of you who have read my other BBQ reviews know that I start with a couple of caveats: I like more smoke than is considered the competition-level standard, and I like more salt in my rub than is the norm. Take my preferences into account when reading the descriptions – I try to adjust when writing them.
I really, REALLY want to like this place. The people are sincere, knowledeable, and friendly; the location is so “foodie-destination-outrageous” that it needs to be in a movie; the rig is a work of art. I’ve been cooking BBQ for a bit over 20 years now, and to see serious, committed BBQ come into it’s own in this area is a dream come true. I may not even have to retire to Wilson, NC…
First the plusses:
The ribs are wonderful. I didn’t find any of the fattiness problem rickster71 mentioned last September. I’m posting a picture; although the smoke ring doesn’t look like there would be enough smoke, there was. The meat had competition-grade pull-back to it, but was perfectly tender, extremely aromatic, and beautifully seasoned. Unlike the post from September, today I was told they use hickory plus a BLEND of aromatic hardwoods, and that blend is perfect for the ribs.
The brisket is very good. I like Texas-style, post-oak, big smoke (think anyplace in Lockhart, particularly Black’s) and the pitmaster at Taste of Smoke doesn’t like the color oak imparts to brisket, (plus you can’t get post-oak in Jersey) so I’m not going to get the style I want here, but that doesn’t stop the brisket from being very good. It’s juicy, extremely tender, and although it’s not sliced particularly thin, it falls apart on a sandwich. Here, the downside is the perfume of the aromatic hardwoods – while perfect for the ribs, they don’t give me enough assertiveness for the brisket.
The beans are, as others have said, worth trying. I don’t know what it is about beans lately, but everyone is doing a non-traditional version, just like they started doing with mac and cheese a while back, and the version at Taste of Smoke is absolutely worth trying. They’re listed as “BBQ Baked Beans” and the BBQ smell is what knocks your socks off when you first open the container. Like the beans at funnibonz, they are an amalgam of bean types, but that’s where the similarity ends. My personal taste runs to the ones in Robbinsville, but taste both and decide for yourself – it’s a win-win test.
I have to note here that I do not at all apologize for talking about side dishes. I agree with Jerseygirl111 more than I do MGZ, and even go a step further: in locales where there are a huge number of great BBQ places (Lexington, Memphis, Wilson, KC) it’s often the sides that set a place apart. If you are going to offer BBQ, you have to perfect at least the sides and maybe a couple of desserts as well. It’s part of the culture; it’s part of the heritage; it’s part of the cuisine.
Next the “Neither Plus nor Minus” stuff:
The pulled pork suffered from too little bark (I got a sandwich, plus three large containers of take-out, so it wasn’t just an “unlucky portion” problem) and too little hickory. The meat itself was wonderful and sweet and tender, but it didn’t scream BBQ at me. My wife actually preferred it to that at funnibonz, (and I’m trying not to make this into a “competition review” but with two real BBQ places so close, comparisons are going to come up,) but she likes mine best – over the years she’s gotten used to my “too much smoke” style.
As almost everyone else has said, don’t bother with the Baby Back Mac. It’s not a Mac and Cheese, so you can’t cry that there’s not enough cheese (although there should be) but the only good thing I can say about it is that the mac was perfectly cooked; tender and not at all mushy (I arrived around 1 PM.) The problem is that somebody left the flavor out. The rib meat was lean, a bit dry, and not flavorsome enough to carry the dish. Personally I use hog jowl and smoked ham hock in mine, but perhaps that’s overkill. In any case, it could use a good dose of sharp cheddar and a double dose of BBQ rub.
Second minus - the sauces. A BBQ place can't be judged by its sauces (even Famous Dave's has some really good sauces) but they have to be mentioned. The hickory sauce and the honey sauce are totally one-dimensional and don't begin to come up to the standard of the meat. The SC yellow is much too sweet and lacks balance. My wife is a SC yellow fanatic and this was so poor that she threw it out. The sauce labeled "Hot Sauce" actually seems to be an Eastern NC sauce, made with pepper flakes and cider vinegar, and was the best of the four, but not many people outside Eastern NC are fans of this style. If you are not, then bring your own sauce when you come here.
I’ll be going over to the new place once it’s open, and will probably post again; in the meantime, best wishes to Rory and the staff – as others have said, it’s ABSOLUTELY a place to keep an eye on. The basics are all there; what this place needs is for ownership to listen to the voice of the foodies on places like chowhound, and to react. It’s perhaps good business to stick with what seems to be selling (today there were 15 troops from McGuire behind me in line and from what others have said, the place is ALWAYS busy) but luckily BBQ people are a bit nuts and want perfection (“nuts” in a nice way – the only BBQ guy I ever met who wasn’t even close to being a people person was Willingham) and I hope Rory and the team will see our comments as cheering on a really good place into becoming a great place.
Nice to finally meet you, NOT!!! That's ME in the picture, getting my sandwich there and $150 of BBQ to go, to write my review that will be posted in a few more hours. Went to the place because you and JerseyGirl recommended it and I find your reviews especially valuable... Didn't expect to see my ass on the board, however....
Two other people at the bar; four tables in the bar-area dining area (to your right as you walk in) and three tables in the main dining area.
I gave the Town Diner two weeks to shake out the kinks and tried it today. Two weeks didn’t do it. Judging by the number and seriousness of the flaws, maybe I’ll try it again mid-summer. Maybe never.
The place has the same basic look as the WGC did after the make-over, and that’s a huge plus. The one change is that the bar-area high-tops are gone, and normal diner booths are in their place. I thought that was a good sign, in that the Town Diner seems to be comfortable as a diner, and doesn’t send mixed signals like the WGC did.
So much for the good news.
Cleanliness: The WGC was spotless and after the Clairmont with its dusty rugs and dirty silverware, that was a huge WGC plus. The Town Diner is filthy, and that’s not the fault of the owners and managers; it’s the fault of poorly trained staff. I sat at the bar (have to call it that instead of “counter” because it’s a standard bar setup, not a diner counter) and when the hostess seated me, she told one fellow eating his lunch at the counter that staff had to eat in the rear. He left, she took his plate, and for 22 minutes his crumbs, errant french fries, and ketchup smears sat on the counter until another customer finally sat at that seat and complained. During this time there were three people behind the bar (one server for the bar and two whose jobs I couldn’t guess) and they were much more interested in basketball on one of the 4 big-screen TVs than cleaning up.
Menu: This is a “trendy” Greek Diner menu. A full page of salads, a full page of wraps, half a page of paninis… you get the idea. There are some old-fashioned diner staples (open-faced hot sandwiches; meatloaf) but no “chicken croquette”-kind-of-food; the things you ONLY find in old-fashioned diners. The prices are lower than what the WGC had been charging but not cheap (salads $9-14, wraps and paninis $9-10.) Based on some menu items’ names, I suspect this is an offshoot of the Dynasty Diner in Tuckerton and they simply took the menu from that place and duplicated it here.
Bar: There’s no full bar yet (the hostess said there’s an “Open Bar” coming and I home she’s right but she probably meant “Full Bar” – not sure she’s ever worked in food service more complex than McDonalds before; it took her thirty seconds to make change and couldn’t answer a question while she was doing it; I didn’t see her count on her fingers, but wouldn’t have been surprised.) There’s currently beer and wine, and they have mimosas and kir on the menu.
Quality of food: Others have said the food is boring; that was its BEST feature. I ordered a pizza burger, medium well done. The coleslaw was boring (WGC had great coleslaw.) The pickle was a nothing. The sauce was straight from a can. The cheese was boring. The coffee was weak and boring. The fries were the frozen nonsense that seems to have a crust of fried flour on them – no taste, no crunch, no creamy center. They’re the fries that give French Fries a bad name (that’s not salt on the fries in picture #1, that’s the fried flour or cornstarch.) The burger itself was a travesty. The best news about the sauce was that there was so little of it (see picture #1 again) and the bad news was that despite being ordered “medium well” (which is what I always order when checking out a new place) the burger was raw on the inside (see picture #2.) Two weeks should be enough time for a grill-man to learn his grill. This one is up much too high, and when the outside of the burger is done, the inside is still raw.
Service: Others have noted that the service is “cheerful.” That’s very nice. On the other hand, I don’t need a grinning idiot saying “very good, sir,” I need the counter cleaned; I need ketchup, salt and pepper delivered with the food (the ketchup never showed up at all;) I need a cashier who knows how to make change; I need a grill-man who’s cooked once or twice before.
This place is a disgrace on so many levels. If two weeks wasn’t enough time to train the staff, then either postpone your opening or spend a couple of extra bucks and hire people who have worked food service before. The Town Diner, as it stands now, is an insult.
Had wanted to stop by Brother Jimmy’s for a while now and had been procrastinating, but a few weeks back, they showed up on Amazon Local with one of those “$20 for $40 worth of food” coupons, and that’s often a sign that a place might not be around too much longer, so figured it might be now or never.
Should have waited until “never.”
As has been said here, Brother Jimmy’s is a “mini-chain.” They have six places in NYC (including in Madison Square Garden) and I believe one in Miami and have a branded presence at Yankee Stadium with a stand and some carts. The original one is in the east 70’s, and perhaps 20 years ago their food at that place was true to their “North Carolina BBQ” focus. Today, their focus is a little different: on their website’s “About” page, the words “Brand,” “Venue,” “Merchandise,” “Condiments and Apparel for-purchase” abound, and the word “food” doesn’t occur once.
The place looks like a great student hangout but I wonder how many students can afford the prices, which aren’t unreasonable for a northern BBQ place, but without drinks and tip, you’re going to spend $20 per person and I’m not sure the college kids can do that on a regular basis. There are two dining areas, both on the large size, and a good sized bar. Jimmy’s is also a “sports bar” to the extent that every square foot of wall space not given over to quaint “BBQ signs” is taken up by TVs showing basketball…
Now to the food. Being by myself, I simply ordered two lunches – one pulled pork sandwich and one southern ribs mini-platter each with a side; in my case, collard greens and mac & cheese, being the two sides that need to be spot-on in any decent BBQ place.
Let’s start with the good news: The collard greens are very good. They have a little crunch, they’re not at all bitter, without being overly sweetened. The pickles, that come with both lunches, are good, and for the same reasons. The pulled pork is mildly sweet with plenty of bark mixed in with the meat.
Okay, a pretty short list. Want a bigger list? Now for the bad news:
The cornbread (served with the ribs) is not overly sweet, but nothing special. You can do the same with a mix. The pulled pork, which while, as noted above, is nice tasting, is missing any smoke flavor. Think “Famous Dave’s.” The Mac and Cheese was grainy, not cheesy enough, and had no more flavor than the stuff out of a box. The “Southern Ribs” (they sell “northern” – BBQ’d and then grilled with a sauce and “Southern” –which are Memphis Dry Ribs) (There used to be a third type, but they seem to have made the “Brother Jimmy’s Dry Rub Ribs” into the “Southern Ribs” and gone to 2 types) were a true disappointment. Somebody needs to explain to the pitmaster (if there is one) that “Memphis Dry Ribs” refers to the lack of sauce – there’s no reason to make the RIBS this dry. It’s really is HARD to make a St Louis rib this dry… Again, no smoke flavor on the meat but a lot of smoke-ring visible, which often means mixed wood in the smoking or even pellets.
The lemonade I had was watery, but not overly sweet (an unexpected plus). The sauces at the table consisted of the three sauces and the one “hot-sauce” [think Tabasco or Texas Pete’s] you could buy on your way in or out (there was no mustard sauce and I know there used to be one – perhaps they realized it wasn’t NORTH Carolina style, or perhaps they had just run out.) The Original Sauce is Memphis-style, not North Carolina; much thicker, sweeter, and hotter than a NC Piedmont sauce or a Lexington sauce. The “Carolina sauce” is an eastern Carolina sauce (Cider Vinegar, hot pepper flakes, and water) with too little vinegar and too much water. The “Chipotle” sauce (yeah, I’m sure you see a lot of THAT in North Carolina) was no hotter than the original sauce; it’s only real difference was that it didn’t have the molassas that the original sauce has.
I want to see more people eating BBQ and if it takes tourist-trap places like this to get them started, then so be it. It’s accessible, the staff is cheerful and pleasant, and nothing here will kill you.
Okay then, that’s my review: “Nothing Here Will Kill You”
Yup. (there's also one in Marion, but I think they do the mail-order out of the Murphrysboro one.)
Second visit, a week later. This time, I already had some ribs shipped in from Mike Mill’s place (17th St. Bar and Grill) that we were going to have for dinner, and wanted lots of takeout from Funnibonz to go with it.
First thing I noticed was that at 12:15 on Sunday (pretty much the same as the prior week) all the tables were full and the line went back to the door. I found out later that yesterday (Saturday) was the busiest they had ever been and they actually sold out of some things. Good news. The place seems to be catching on. The staff is one-week better trained and seem to be working more as a team now. The packed place wasn’t a hurdle this time, and ordering a regular order (mine was a lot of “by the pound” stuff and took a little bit of time) was painless and there was very little delay in getting served.
While waiting, they offered to show me the smoker. A picture is attached – it’s a diamond-plate massive smoker designed to take whole logs. The smoke-box is the door in the lower right. There’s not a huge offset (they make commercial smokers where the box is not part of the main unit, but is rather connected to the smoke chamber by pipe) so it makes watching out for hot-spots a little tricky, but while I was standing there, whole turkeys were being taken out, and I’ve never seen better looking birds.
We ordered a couple of pounds of pulled pork, some Texas smoked sausage (which they were out of last week,) mac and cheese, coleslaw, collard greens, BBQ beans, Sweet Potato Pudding, and a medium sack of cornbread.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: the mac and cheese was still the disappointment of the meal, albeit for a different reason. Not grainy and oily this time (a change in the cheese?) but there was an off-putting after-taste. The owner/Pitmaster has said he’s about to change the pasta, so I knew to expect it, but my younger daughter (the best palate in the family) noticed it right away and described it as “chemical.” Note that neither my wife nor elder daughter noticed it at all, so for most people, I don’t think it’s an issue, but the owner has a great palate himself, and is dedicated to making his place the best of the best, so expect him to get this right.
The “I still have no clue” news: neither daughter number two nor I have been able to decide if the smoked baked beans are great art, or just so unusual that you have to keep thinking about them. We’ll both keep tasting and thinking about it. An enjoyable task.
Now the really good news. First, to be on the plate with Mike Mills ribs (remember he’s the “Magic Dust” guy) most BBQ is going to have to be at LEAST excellent to keep up. FunniBonz pulled pork absolutely held it’s own – same notes as last week’s tasting. The Texas smoked sausage was excellent, but they don’t do that from scratch – they ship it in from Texas (an absolutely perfect way to supply what can’t reasonably be assembled from scratch here.) The collard greens were as wonderful as last week. The coleslaw had changed much for the better – finer slice, better for putting on the sandwich. The cornbread was excellent, but PLEASE understand this is not that super-sweet cornbread that many people prefer – this is a moist, softer-than-expected, beautifully mouth-filling bite that requires butter, or drippings, or sauce, or all of the above and will show off THOSE tastes with the backdrop of cornbread. It’s not the star of the show, and doesn’t want to be; it’s exactly what you want as PART of a great meal.
Now the insanely good news. Sweet Potato Pudding. Let me say it again. Sweet Potato Pudding. It’s not a dessert and it’s not mashed sweet potatoes, and it’s not that overly-sweet thing your Aunt Ethel makes that tastes of sugar and spice and anything but sweet-potatoes. I don’t know exactly WHAT it is, but I’d go half and hour out of my way just for this, and I’m not a huge fan of sweet potatoes. I eat them because you can’t NOT eat them at a real BBQ place, and because you have to learn to cook with them if you’re going to do BBQ yourself. The killer of this dish is that it tastes predominantly of sweet potato, and you find yourself LIKING sweet potato. You find yourself LOVING sweet potato.
I normally cook BBQ at least once a week during snow season, but I suspect this winter I’ll be spending more time traveling to Robbinsville and less time standing in the snow, trying to keep one of my smokers at a stable temperature. Anybody interested in a second-hand smoker, real cheap? Quite a selection…. :)
You and I agree almost all the time - will put this on my "Must Try" list just to get a feel for the place and will post. Anything else we should know since we give the place a run?
Don't get up there much (we're down near Princeton) but I'll put this on my "Must Taste" list - after all, a guy named Maroni from Chicago ("That's a Trick Question!") has got to know real Chicago-style Italian beef.
Before you condem NJ as unknowing about BBQ, however, get out of that Essex/Union/Hudson area and come down to Central and South Jersey. You've got some national BBQ teams in Jersey, and an increasing number of real-deal BBQ places in the lower two-thirds of the state. The board has any number of threads on the subject.
New BBQ place in Robbinsville. Real Deal, and not a chain. Discussion going on here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/922121#
First things first. This is a welcome addition to the area; not since the early days of Pom-Pom (before they cut corners and laid off their pitmaster, eventually going under) has there been real BBQ around here, and believe me, this is real BBQ.
Necessary things second: many of the observations below are colored by my own prejudices when it comes to BBQ. I like my meat oversmoked. I prefer vinegar-based sauces on pulled pork. I like more salt that sugar in my rubs.
With those things out of the way, let’s talk about FunniBonz. The place is new and clean and sensibly set up – more than half the space is kitchen and serving area, speaking to the expectation of a great deal of take-out (which accounted for much more than half the sales during the hour I was there, between noon and one PM on a Sunday.) The staff is friendly and helpful. They’re still not completely up-to-speed on BBQ, and only 90% complete in learning the ins and outs of the menu, but the place has only been open a week. There’s obvious training-while-doing going on, conducted by the owners, and it’s non-obtrusive, done in a fun “pop-quiz” way.
Okay, so how about the food? Since this was a tasting trip and not a “meal” per se, I ordered two sandwiches (intending to simply taste the meat) and a couple of sides (which don’t come with sandwiches but can be ordered ala carte.) The brisket is good, but not remarkable. It’s smoked over hickory (post oak being unavailable [and even if it were, it would require a dedicated smoker since you don’t want your pork smoked over oak]) and that means the deep Texas-style smoke flavor is missing. It’s juicy and tasty, with sufficient smoke-ring but it’s not what I’d come back here for.
The pulled pork cannot be faulted. Juicy and flavorful, the taste of the meat itself predominates (which speaks to the real passion for BBQ of the owners – this is not merely a canvas on which to paint with sauces like Famous Dave’s or too many other chain BBQ places.) I’ll be back to order by the pound when I don’t have two days to smoke my own.
A couple of quibbles: I almost never have to salt BBQ – the salt content in the rub takes care of that; in FunniBonz rub, however, salt is not the top ingredient (sugar is) and both the brisket and pork needed a little salt. Perhaps putting a shaker of rub on the tables (like they do at 17th Street) might be a nice touch. Second quibble: there are many varieties of cole-slaw, but the one that works least well on top of pulled pork as part of the sandwich is the “fresh,” coarsely cut, “snappy” kind, which what is served here.) Several times I found myself tearing the sandwich apart because my bite put me squarely in the middle of a nickel-sized piece of unyielding cabbage.
An observation: I intended to simply sample a few forkfuls of each meat for my notes; however, somehow I managed to finish each sandwich…
The sides: I started with the mac and cheese and the collard greens (two Shibboleths of real BBQ places) and found the best and worst of the meal. The worst (mac and cheese) was not bad, just disappointing – it was nothing special and just a tiny bit grainy and a tiny bit oily. Even with the addition of much-needed salt, this was not a success. The collard greens, however, were remarkable. It’s easy to cut the bitterness of collard greens by either overcooking them (and changing the water along the way) or by adding too much sugar. FunniBonz falls into neither of these traps, serving up greens that would be considered first rate in Wilson, NC. There is just enough of the “bite” remaining to cleanse the palate, just enough “green” to remind you of what you’re eating, and just enough sweetness to keep you gobbling. After these two, I went back up to the counter and ordered a biscuit, a piece of fried corn, and the BBQ beans. The biscuit was tasty enough, but the bottom was a bit tough. With butter, or with food, it probably would have been fine, but simply as a stand-alone item in a tasting, it was not. The fried corn was a victim of the season; corn loses 50% of it’s sugar to starch in the first 8 hours after it is picked and any corn you can get in Robbinsville, NJ, in mid-December is going to lack sugar. I want to try this again next August. The Smokehouse Baked Beans were the joker in the deck of the entire tasting. Two and a half hours later, I’m still trying to decide if these were the best thing I ate all day, or if they were just so unusual that I’m scoring them higher than they should be. In either case, order them, and decide for yourself. Don’t go in expecting pinto beans (or little reds) in a dark, thick, molasses sauce with gobs of onions and ham hock. These are what I believe are pink beans and black beans, first done in the smoker, then cooked forever with red and green bell peppers, in a very thin sauce. It’s a fresh taste, and perfectly balanced.
Since FunniBonz started as a sauce company, it’s only fair to mention the four sauces they put out on the tables (and sell at the register by the bottle.) The original sauce is a fairly thick (think Memphis) sauce, with too little vinegar for my taste, but absolutely brilliantly balanced flavor. I know a dozen people who will make this their go-to sauce and I’m buying a case as stocking-stuffers. The “Spicy” sauce is equally brilliant – it’s not easy to add kick to a sauce and retain the signature flavor, but FunniBonz does it. The “Fiery Chipotle” sauce is the weakest of the three, through no fault of its own; it’s a sauce designed for people who equate “hot” and “good” and I suppose it would succeed for them. The SC mustard-based sauce is quite outstanding. It’s sweeter than a traditional SC sauce, but again the balance is brilliant. The person responsible for all these sauces has a great palate, and although style-wise they aren’t going to be my personal favorites, I’ll be keeping a bottle of each around (we presently have 14 different BBQ sauces in the fridge, including 6 homemade ones) for company.
I wish this place great success – we need a real BBQ place in the area and I firmly hope the area will support this one; we see places come and go, but for this one to go would be a real loss.
I'm very sorry I didn't have a chance to post a follow-up review I had only half-written, due to some travel plans. We re-visited the Windsor Grande, as I said we would, in early October and found the place changed very much for the better. We ate there three times in a week, once for dinner, once for a burger at lunch, and once for the bar tapis menu in the late afternoon, and each was at least a 7 out of 10.
I've been writing on Chowhound since Jim Leff started it in the mid 90's. Under various logins I've been an "official" book reviewer, I've been a beta-tester of various versions of the board, and in all those years, I always wrote about the food, about the viewpoint, about technique, and about ingredients. This is the first time in almost 20 years I've felt compelled to write about the ambiance of a restaurant and I only do it now because a place with some of the best food in the state has apparently decided to play host to the Bowling-Banquet crowd on weekends, to pay its bills. Enough. The review follows:
During the season, we're up at the cottage a bit at best, but then spend virtually all of September there, when Madison is at it's finest. This month we've (as usual) tried a slew of new (to us) places, and gone back to our absolute favorites, Bar Bouchee in Madison, and Le Petit Café in Guildford, at least twice a week. Tonight, for the very first time, we tried Bar Bouchee on a weekend night. Never, EVER again.
There are restaurants where the chef just can't do his best work in the madness of a Friday or Saturday night crowd. In one-man-shows like Le Petit Café, this is perfectly understandable. Chef Ip cooks brilliantly for 10 tables but more than that and there is a bit of his usual attention to details lacking.
Bar Bouchee is to be commended for the quality of the food on a Saturday night - you wouldn't even know the night of the week by what you put in your mouth; however, management (or the lack thereof) absolutely ruined what should have been a great dinner. Eating out on the patio, as we always do, is normally quieter and less stressful than eating inside. Tonight, however, next to us was a party of three couple, loud, drunk, and with that new-money self-centeredness that shouts (quite literally) "Look At Me!" They were there, finished eating, when we arrived; they were still there drinking when we finished dinner and ran for the hills (without after dinner drinks, of coffee, or dessert which is unheard of for us) and are probably there still, shouting and drinking.
Other tables left quickly, after pointed looks in the direction of the offenders did nothing. The waitress did nothing but continue to serve the drinks (I wonder if CT has no bar-owner liability law) and the manager never even came outside, even after we voiced our complaint while rushing to get our check and get away from this disaster.
We'll be back next season, but for weekends, the sports bar up Rt 1 is probably a more quiet and relaxing place. Frankly it's also probably a more suitable place for the sextet at the next table, but if they want to make BB theirs on the weekends, then farewell Bar Bouchee. See you only during the week. You obviously don't need us any other time.
We watched this place, a stone's throw from the Princeton Junction station, being renovated for quite a while. It's the site of the old "Good Friends" restaurant and the renovations seemed to take forever. For a long time there was yellow tape around the whole lot spurring a number of pretty pathetic jokes about restaurants with crime-scene tape around them. Then it opened and there were never more than three cars in the lot at a time.
Well it took a while, but tonight, while dropping daughter #1 at the station, we decided to try dinner there before her train. I'm the guy who didn't buy Apple or Amazon or Google when they were cheap; I'm the guy who thought social networking was a kid's fad; now I'm the guy who laughed at a place because of "caution tape" and didn't try sampling the food.
First, the three downsides: there's not enough parking (yes, I KNOW it never used to have more than three cars at a time, but now the lot is completely full all the time;) the tables are a bit close together and reminiscent of an extremely small middle-school lunch room; the place is a bit noisy - tables packed together, all of them full, and all wood: walls and floors...
Okay; that out of the way, I don't even know where to begin, and those of you who read my posts know that I'm never at a loss for words. First, this isn't one of those "Asian Food" restaurants where everything is served with soy sauce and ginger and that makes it generic "Asian." If "All Asians Look Alike" is finally a deplored racial slur, then "All Asian Food is the Same" should be equally be deplored. The Asian Bistro has four chefs (including the owner) who each specializes in at least one cuisine and together they handle Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese. Of those, Vietnamese is the least represented with only one dish, but it's Pho Beef Noodle Soup - an outstanding example of Vietnamese style, and a dish I have on my "to try here" list for next time. (If you like Thai, you'll find Vietnamese wonderful - it's similar to Thai in many ways, but has a different take on the meat in most dishes.) The rest of the cuisines are more widely represented, and the menu is large.
The restaurant has a "serve yourself" station and tables upstairs, and a full-service dining room downstairs. It's BYOB, and opens at 11 for the lunch crowd. Take-out is available and they are social-media conscious with specials on the usual sites.
Tonight, the girls had Sushi (available as full plates or a la carte) and I had a "Two-Halves" - a selection of two dishes out of twenty that span the national menus. The first thing on the table was a selection of 5 cold mini-salads - the equivalent of coleslaw in an American restaurant. The difference is that in most places (the old Clairemont Diner as an exception) you'd never go five minutes out of your way just to eat the coleslaw... I'd come back here for the brocoli salad or the wonderful cabbage/carrot salad (vinegar and sugar so completely balanced that you don't taste sweet and you don't taste sour) and the other three were wonders if not the hiddy-acts-of-god that these two were.
My "Two-Halves" came with a small salad and a choice of eggroll or steamed dumpling. I tried the dumpling (it was actually two) and it was the first thing on my plate (which was a "compartmentalized" tray again reminiscent of a middle-school cafeteria) that I tried... I have been eating steamed dumplings for almost 60 years and I didn't know the dough could be this tender and still hold together. Incredible.
I have been burned so many times by "appetizer places" - places where the appetizers are brilliant but the dinner itself is only just north of mediocre, that I tried my entrees with trepidation. I had the Drunken Noodles with chicken(Thai) and the Bulgogi (Korean, which is my favorite among the Asian cuisines - there is so much French in the Korean [and to a slightly lesser extent Vietnamese] that it's an amazing early "Fusion" well before an American chef stepped into the fray and 'coined' the term.)
The chicken, although not plentiful in the drunken noodles, was absolutely perfectly cooked. You can't fake the basic kitchen techniques - how often have you tried a chicken dish in a restaurant and your teeth don't even know when they've started biting into the chicken? The sauce was perfect; the noodles tender. This dish alone would have brought me back.
The Bulgogi was the best I've ever eaten. Too often it's prepared like "Spicy Beef Stew" (another Korean dish on the menu I'll be back to try) but here it's smoother and has subtle seasoning hints that would have been lost had the chef cut corners and used the stew sauce...
The accompanying photo (if it actually uploads this time) shows a meal for 3 at less than $40. Remarkable.
The Asian Bistro is not a place I'll go to when I drop off or pick up a daughter visiting from college; it will be a destination restaurant for us. I can't believe how much of a fool I was for letting the joke of the "warning tape" keep me from trying it sooner.
In West End Long Branch, Max's (NOTHING like the existing Max's hot dog place,) the Bull Pen for great burgers, and Joe's Inkwell (the original old building with head-shop out front and the silliest menu of late-night food that somehow satisfied;) farther up, of course the Quay and the original (best gotten-to-by boat) Clam Hut. I see someone mentioned the Little Kraut - I think the last time I was there was at least 30 years ago and it was already in decline... Burgers were great at several of the bar-restaurants that occupied that location built up on the sea-wall in Sea Bright... JM's RiverEdge for the two seasons (79 and 80?) that the late Tony Marsalla was cooking there... going south, Christie's and Gallegers (for the popovers) at the Asbury Circle...
Haven't been to Teddy's for about a year but it was always a great choice when in Cranbury. Talk about a town where everything is at least "Good" and several are exceptional (including the pizza place and the ice-cream place,) I've always been surprised that Cranbury isn't more of a dining destination.
You very clearly understand my point about the Windsor Grand - it's like someone took Teddy's and put Molto Bene's menu in it's place without the skill set to cook and serve it and expected the crowds to line up out to the curb...
After months of "Opening Soon" signs, and "Now Hiring All Positions" signs, the sign read "Now Open" so we went.
The Windsor Grand Cafe sits on the site of the old Clairmont [not related to the REAL Clairmont] Diner on Rt 130, just south of Rt 571. Prior to the Clairmont, the USA diner was located here in all its various incarnations. Sitting as it does, less than a mile south of the Americana Diner (an extremely popular place, lord knows why) things have been hard on diners at this location. The Windsor Grand tries very hard to pretend it isn't a "Diner" but so far, if you'll pardon the pun, the location is still hard on it's "diners."
The place looks very nice - the basic layout is the same but it's been cleaned up and sparkles. The dusty old carpet is gone, the place setting look like knock-offs of fancy dinnerware, and every surface shines. The menu looks like it has 30 pages, but there are but four, bound in layer upon layer of clear, heavy plastic.
There are no "Diner dishes" on the menu. I mean the kind of dish you judge a real Jersey diner by. No meatloaf. No Chicken Croquettes. No open-faced turkey or roast beef sandwiches. Okay, so it's not exactly a diner, and it doesn't serve comfort food, so what is it? Well, the closest neighbor it resembles in terms of menu is the City Streets Cafe, almost directly across the street. The menu abounds in $30 entrees and $11 appetizers, but frankly, so far you're not even getting good diner food.
Service was abysmal but that can be expected on the first weekend a place is open. Our server was both incompetent and inexperienced (they should have kept that "Now Hiring All Positions" sign out a little longer) and forgot to put in the order for one of the appetizers. She also mixed up the side dishes so badly that we were charged for an "extra" side on one order while another order didn't get the side that came with it.
All that said, had the food been remarkable, all would have been forgiven, but alas, it was merely fodder. A Mozz/Tomato/Roasted Pepper appetizer with balsamic was uninspiring. The Mozzarella was creamy but bland; the balsamic was cheap Shoprite quality. The bread was good, and was perhaps the high point of the meal. A fruit salad entree was good sized, fresh and nicely presented, but I'm not sure that counts as cooking. The crab cakes were sauteed, and just a trifle underdone. Lots of crab meat, which was nice, but they were done in a too-hot pan - the crust (which was too thin) was done long before the interior was completely warmed, and there was no seasoning to speak of.
The coleslaw looked exciting, made with red cabbage but lacked any vinegar, seasoning or creaminess. The fries were okay; the onion rings a bit better, but the cheeseburger with onions and mushrooms was a disaster. I always ask for "Medium" in a new place until I can gauge how they define their "doneness levels" but tonight, half the burger was extremely rare, and the other half medium rare. The flattop obviously has hot-spots and nobody has learned them yet. The halves not being equally done is an opening-week kind of mistake, but that NEITHER was anything close to true medium was either a lack of concern for the customer, or complete incompetence. The place wasn't crowded - any diner short-order cook with experience could have done better.
Perhaps they are trying to under-season to appeal to the senior citizen demographic, but judging by the people I saw there, that isn't their clientele.
They have a liquor license, which will appeal to some. The wines are fairly priced with several available by the glass. Dinner for 3 (1 appetizer, 3 entrees, 2 glasses of wine) was $78 plus tip.
I could eat lunch for a week on that at the Hightstown Diner, only 5 minutes away, and have better food while doing it.
We may try it again in six months to see if the owners have made any changes, but frankly anyone who thinks being a "City-Streets-Wannabe" is a good thing is probably not going to improve.
Went back tonight and we tried three different burgers, the fries and the homemade onion rings.
The burgers were good sized and some thought went into the menu regarding variety; we tried a cheeseburger, a pizza-burger and a rodeo-burger. The burgers themselves were nothing special. Under-seasoned, someone obviously thinks that a burger is nothing but ground beef, but the beef itself is good, the fat content is perfect (moist without being "Johnny Rocket" or "Red Robin" super-greasy.) The pizza-burger came with the cheese OVER the sauce on top of the burger - a mistake. Either sauce over cheese on the burger, or sauce on the burger and cheese on the upper part of the bun and you can put on sufficient sauce; this combo forces you to skimp on the sauce and the result was a cheeseburger. The fries were okay and the onion rings were of that huge "layered" variety, where the onion never quite marries to the crust. To give them their do, there was no "onion-pull-out" but the separation was noticeable.
The two real problems were the deal-breakers. First, each order was supposed to be "medium." We do this with a new place to gauge how they consider "medium" and the next time each of us can pinpoint what to call our perfect "doneness" by their terms. At Hogback, each of the three "medium" burgers was markedly different: One was rare/medium-rare (still quite pink, almost red), one was medium (faintly pink) and one was medium-well (no trace of red or pink but not dried out). This is just sloppy grill work.
The final problem is perhaps the real tell: just as in the sub sandwiches, it was the bread that stood out, and in a bad way. Whereas the subs were on rolls with no crunch to the crust (nice taste, but no mouth-feel) the hamburgers were on great-looking sesame-seed buns with a nice sheen and great smell to the bread. What lacked again was texture. The rolls were tough. Not crusty, or crunchy, but soft and tough. One of our group likened it to trying to eat a sponge. Another suggested that ordering a burger and having to ditch the roll seemed a bit un-American.
If Hogback changes it's bakery (or if it does its baking itself, FINDS a decent bakery or hires a decent baker,) I'll give them another chance. Right now it's two for two that they can't tell good baked goods from bad, and in a place that specializes in sandwiches and burgers, that's a pretty overwhelming flaw.
A small outfit down in Cherry Hill is putting out four varieties of wing sauce that they claim are the best available. Their claims don't stop there. You can check their website to see the extent of their claims to superiority: http://blackwoodswingsauce.com/
These are butter-style sauces (that they churn their own butter was the first thing to catch my attention) and between the small batches, the oak barrel aging and the fact that their Tom's River warehouse was devastated during Sandy with no flood insurance, I wanted very much to like these sauces. Frankly, I wanted to *LOVE* these sauces. I heard about them when I stopped by to review the new Hogsback on Route 33 - one of their salesman was suggesting Hogsback use their sauces (for the record, Hogsback's own sauce has won awards out of their Bordentown shop for years.) I approached the salesman in the parking lot, and bought a bottle of each of the four sauces they make. I only got to sample three of them - the fourth (the Chipotle sauce) exploded when I opened it - an indicator that because Blackwoods doesn't use preservatives, VERY serious attention has to be paid to expiration date and conditions of storage.
Of the three I tried, the Mild Garlic Parmesan, the Regular and the Hot, none blew me away. Neither the Mild nor the Regular will excite people who like heat, and the Hot is very tame compared to other sauces. With that said, sometimes it's the subtleties that make a great sauce and heat serves to overshadow those qualities. Alas, the Garlic Parmesan tasted very little of either garlic or Parmesan, and there was nothing to stand out in the Regular sauce. The hot sauce was my favorite, with some depth and darkness, and not so overly hot as to be nothing but a "hot sauce" but with all that said, I'll continue to make my own. There's nothing here to love.
I'm glad I contributed my $30 to support people who are really trying to make something outstanding and recover from Sandy, but those will be the last dollars going to Blackwoods.