An ode to the vanishing char-broiler



My love of burgers started in the womb. My mother used to send my father for grilled hot dogs, burgers, and fried clams at the Three Acre Grill in Lyndhurst, a grease pit lost to urban development. /The photo is from the ’40s, when dining and dancing were offered; by the late ’60s it was less fancy. Beef patties broiled crisp, frankfurters seared with grill marks, that blend of tantalizing char and rich fat melted under flame. Science has proven it is more addictive than cocaine, but at least it won’t make you look like these guys.
Growing up, we’d stop for a summer treat at one of Route 3’s many char-broil grills. The long-gone Red Chimney was my favorite, with its ridiculous ’50s-era smokestack and counter-top dining. When it was gone, the historically named Anthony Wayne, after Revolutionary War Brigadier General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, took its place. They seared their thin patties on what fry cooks would call a “salamander,” a brutally hot grill that finished burgers in minutes, then they slapped them on gummy white hamburger buns. You could get American or cheddar, but the hot burger relish was what made them memorable to me. They served orange whips and the usual deep-fryer fare, but the burgers with their crisp, carcinogenic broiled crust were the star.
The Anthony was in a horrible location in the armpit of where three major highways merged, and required dodging multiple lanes of traffic full of mall-seeking moms and teenagers headed for their driving tests at the Wayne DMV. You truly risked death to get one of their burgers, and it made them taste even better. You’d want one for the road, wrapped in wax paper. The little cozy restaurant was decorated log cabin style with pictures of the Mad General and his exploits. I bet in the old days they had fake flintlocks and Daniel Boone accessories festooning the rafters with the odd ratty stuffed raccoon. It too, has been relegated to Jersey grease stain history.
So when I was driving to High Point State Park for a hike with Firecracker and saw the garish brown and orange cabin decor of The Elias Cole, I knew I had to stop there for a bite. I’d seen the place years ago when I hiked there with Milky, but we were broke and they take CASH ONLY. Wow, they really take this retro thing seriously, don’t they? Inside, we grabbed a booth and were served by friendly waitresses wearing bunny ears, for the Easter holiday. It was like stepping back in time to my char-broil days of youth- I prefer that term to “salad days.” The menu was simple: burgers, franks, shrimp in a basket; the char-broil staples. This being Saturday, they had dinner specials of hot roast beef, chicken or pork with mashed potatoes and gravy, and several older couples were there to partake of the plates piled high with meat-stuffs. We of course, went for the cheeseburgers.
They come on a freshly baked French sandwich roll, and they make the burger shaped to fit it. It’s capsule shaped, and seared with a fine grill crust that brings memories of summer when you bite into it. Just juicy enough and full of classic beef flavor, topped with two slices of American cheese melted to the roll and optional lettuce, tomato, and pickle, this is a classic roadstand burger with great taste. The roll really helps, crisp on the outside and still soft enough to absorb juices and squish down to make the burger easily edible. They also make great fries, standard and sweet potato. In fact, the sweets are some of the best I’ve had, better than the Cloverleaf Tavern, my previous fave.
You owe it to yourself to visit the highest point in the state of New Jersey- 1800 feet above sea level, and home to the Veteran’s obelisk monument- and then drive on down to the Elias Cole on Route 23 for a burger. Who’s Elias Cole? I don’t know. It’s not the name of the current owners. But it’s a fitting name for a classic char-broiler joint like this. It rings of the ’50s era frontier revival that these roadside restaurants thrived in. Some googling suggests he lead an Ohio regiment of volunteers in the Civil War. Next time I’ll ask.
Some other char-broils I recall are St.Paul’s excellent St. Clare Broiler, where I used to get liver and onions with Deneen “The Neener” Gannon in my Twin Cities days; she loved a good diner and the St. Clare reminded me of Jersey. One I have yet to try is the Montclair Char-Coal Broil on Valley Road, which is newer but has the right style. They’re a dying breed, killed off by fast food chains that barely serve things that can be called meat anymore. Do your mouth a favor and visit one of these anachronisms while they remain, and remember what a burger was supposed to taste like.
But most importantly, if you visit High Point State Park, be on the watch for zombies and vampires, which infest the place:

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© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Krug’s Tavern – still the best

Open since 1938, once owned by Raging Bull boxer Jake “The Bronx Bull” LaMotta and still owned by his family, Krug’s Tavern in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood is housed in an unassuming and dilapidated building that could be mistaken for a run of the gin mill bar full of cranky old men drinking piss-yellow beer out of tiny glasses. Inside, it has that kind of feel. A few high top tables, a long mahogany bar with patched red vinyl stools. A poster of LaMotta behind the bar, amidst the bottles of Tullamore Dew.

But if you venture in the flimsy storm door and linger, you’ll find an energetic blue collar crowd stuffing the place at lunch hour, from electrical workers and hard hats in uniform, the boys from the docks in their tracksuits, and cop brass stretching their conservatively cut sport coats. The kind of place where crook and law alike will belly up to the bar. Behind which sits a glass case brimming with meatballs the size of grapefruit, which will soon become a legendary burger for those with king size appetites. Order one and they’ll flatten out that softball of fat speckled chuck on the griddle and sizzle it low and slow so it remains juicy even if you order it well done.

When I was a kid, there was a diner car named Nunzio’s, run by an eponymous, mustachioed fellow who could’ve jumped in a pair of overalls and white gloves to play Super Mario. He served a juicy burger on a Kaiser roll that remains the paragon of burgers to me. He wouldn’t serve me one on Friday during Lent, either. I had to get peppers and eggs on a roll. Krug’s burger hits that nostalgic memory in the bullseye. They serve theirs on a large sesame seed bun that is just barely up to the task. It stays together, but you eat your burger wondering if you’ll have to finish with a knife and fork, especially if you’re generous with the ketchup.

Places that manage a juicy griddle burger are uncommon these days. Ann’s Snack Bar in Atlanta makes an even bigger patty than Krug’s, their infamous Ghetto Burger- a full pound of well-seasoned beef topped with chili and cheese, the size of the paper plate it’s served on- and Jimmy’s in Harlem steams theirs under a steel ice cream cup. Both are worth visiting, but if you’re in New Jersey, only Krug’s will do. Oh, I love the burgers at the Cloverleaf Tavern. If you get them medium rare, those perfect chewy rolls handle any number of toppings, from their Cajun Crunch burger topped with house-made spicy potato chips, to the Fatburger with Monterey Jack cheese sticks and Taylor Ham pork roll. But Krug’s is all about the beef.

I’ve had bacon cheese burgers at Krug’s, and most recently, a Taylor Ham & cheese (pictured above). It is that rare burger that is not overwhelmed by a crisp and smoky slice of bacon, or two slices of fat and spicy pork roll. All you taste is good, juicy, ground beef. What a burger should be. They pack 3/4 of a pound into that bun for $6.50. Bacon or Taylor is a buck extra. Fries and battered onion rings- both excellent, crispy and always fried in fresh, tasteless oil- are extra. And enormous. Their mozzarella sticks are house made, never frozen, fried to bursting, crisp and gooey as they are meant to be. They have a good selection on tap, with Harpoon and Sam Adams available as well as the American trinity of Bud-Miller-Coors. They serve Cokes in the can, and your meal begins with a fresh sour pickle and two hot cherry vinegar peppers arranged in vulgar fashion.

I’ve written about Krug’s before for Serious Eats, and it is always a memorable experience. They are consistent, and I’ve never had a bad burger. Doing it since 1938 must help. The place ain’t pretty, but it’s got character. There’s a biscuit shaped elbow of pipe jutting through the tiles in the men’s room. A ’58 Thunderbird rusts on flat tires in the parking lot. Loud men lunch here, venting out the day’s woes. But it’s an original, and without pretense. My kind of place. Next, I’ll give you the rundown on my favorite seafood joint- not Legal Seafood, despite their excellent food- but a little hole in the wall in Garfield where a bowl of fried clams and a beer won’t set you back more than six bucks.

© 2012 Thomas Pluck