Two-Ton Tommy and his criminal cohorts

I’m not a fan of Gatsby parties and all that, really. But when my favorite pub celebrated its 80th anniversary with a ’30s themed party, I spiffed myself up into my best and joined friends in joining the Cloverleaf Tavern‘s octogennial festivities. The Cloverleaf was opened by George Dorchak, Jr in 1933, after the repeal of Prohibition. It holds the first liquor license in the town of Caldwell, New Jersey, best known to outsiders as the town Tony Soprano lived in. 

I found the ‘Leaf when my Uncle Paul said he heard they had a good burger, back in ’98 or so. The burger was memorable enough that when I began dating my wife Firecracker, I took her there for a burger and a hefewiezen. And a romance was born. (Between us and the Cloverleaf). Now we are both Triple PhDs in their beer loyalty programs, which means every draft we order comes in that bucket in my hand they call a stein:

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They had a hand-typed menu that evening with 80 cent sliders and pigskins- pulled pork topped potato wedges- plus $8 Clo-Vermontster burgers (a maple infused burger with maple bacon, which was a tad odd, but tasty) chicken in a basket, fish ‘n chips, and five 80-cent brews: Ballantine, Schmidt’s, Piel’s, Carling Black Label and Pabst, I think… we didn’t get that far! My stein’s full of Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere IPA, great stuff. They also had a cigar roller on the patio, and I partook of a mild one. I haven’t smoked in years, but it felt right. Here are some photos of my friends Kim, Gabi, Mike and Dave hamming it up in their duds.

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PS, my criminal nickname is a tip of the fedora to showboat boxer Two-Ton Tony Galento. One of these days I’ll write about him:

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Would you say I have a bevy of burgers?

Today at The Big Eat, I introduce you to my favorite local pub and burger joint, The Cloverleaf Tavern, where they offer a new burger every week. Some of them are a little odd, many are phenomenal, but none of them are boring.
The Cloverleaf’s classic comes perfectly cooked with a good sear on a chewy Italian roll with some of the best fries in the area- the “Trail cut” steak fry/fried potato hybrid, which gives you crisp and pillowy in every bite.
Check them out.

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Blitzkrieg Burger Bop

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The Blitzkrieg Burger at the Cloverleaf Tavern. a 5oz patty grilled medium rare, topped with a split, grilled Guiness-boiled bratwurst and Guiness steamed sauerkraut, slathered with spicy brown mustard on a delectable, chewy pretzel bun.
I told them to call it the BierGarten Belly Bomb, but they opted for Blitzkrieg. For that name, it should be currywurst with curry mayo, if ya ask me.

Anyway, this was a great burger. The steamed kraut soaked the chewy bun and the flavors worked together. They make one of the best burgers around, so the meat wasn’t overpowered by a slab of seared sausage.

The real Blitzkrieg was how our trivia time plowed through the Maginot line to get 1st place. Once again my nerd powers of random knowledge assisted us. We have a solid team, though we almost lost due to lack of Passover knowledge and a weakness in geography…

I drank some of BP’s toxic sludge

That is, Blue Point’s Toxic Sludge 7% Black IPA. It’s on tap at the Cloverleaf Tavern, which also has an excellent new chicken lettuce wraps appetizer with some spicy sauces. Something that healthy rarely tastes so good.

The beer is a bitter, piney dry hopped IPA with a smooth malty finish. “Like water off a duck’s back,” so saith the label. All proceeds go to bird rescue causes. Because “birds of a feather stick together, but their feathers shouldn’t.” It’s a tasty beer for a good cause. Not as good as Abita S.O.S. pilsner, but very tasty and worth a try if you like the hoppier beers.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

Cloverleaf Tavern’s Fat Burger & some beers

Now, in California I love me some Fatburger, almost as much as In-N-Out. One popped up in Jersey City and went out of business before I could try one, but I imagine the franchise dilutes the brand. I remember Fatburger being as tasty as a Steak ‘n Shake Steakburger, which is serious business. So when my go-to beer bar, the Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell, put a Fat Burger on the menu, I was intrigued; were they varying from their standard, reliable pub burgers? Nope, they were topping it with Taylor Ham pork roll, Monterey Jack cheese sticks, onion strings, and mystery sauce that looked a lot like Russian dressing. It was probably the ol’ ketchup ‘n mayo with some spices.

The Clover makes a good burger, but overcooks everything by at least one degree, so I ordered this medium rare. In the age of seven types of E.coli traveling from cow rectums to your mouth, that is something I rarely do at a restaurant unless I trust them. The Clover’s been okay so far, and I lived to tell the tale. I’d recommend never going more than medium on their burgers, because the flavor gets quickly lost. Especially on their more popular patties, like this one, the Mojo, and the Country Bourbon burger, because they have so many toppings. Their Buffalo burgers are more flavorful, but don’t deserve to be overcooked either. The Fat Burger tasted exactly as you’d expect, covered with gooey Jack cheese sticks- which still had crisp breading- and the rest. I’m always disappointed in pork roll at restaurants because they don’t get a char on it. Next time I’ll ask them to make it crispy. Same with bacon- who the hell wants limp bacon on a burger?

However, the burger was good overall. It was not a knock your socks off combo, but the cheese sticks really livened things up, and keeping it medium rare made sure the beefy flavor of the burger wasn’t drowned out. Their sweet potato fries remain the best around, crisp outside and deliciously soft inside, much like their Trail Cut fries, crescent wedges of crisp potato with an almost creamy mashed potato within. You really can’t beat their fries at a pub around here, and their beer selection is excellent. I had a 21st Amendment Back in Black IPA with mine, and it was smooth and not too bitey, almost like a black lager with lots of hops. I enjoyed it a lot. I had a fine, smooth Ipswich Oatmeal stout for seconds, but it wasn’t as memorable as standards like Samuel Smith. 21st Amendment makes some interesting brews, and their sixpack cans are available at ShopRite, so I’ll be getting more soon. The Fat Burger may only be around for a week, so go to the Clover soon if you want it. Or make one at home! Why have cheese sticks on the side, when they add crunch and rich cheese flavor to a burger? You might as well exercise for something.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

Cloverleaf Tavern: Best of Essex

The Burger Battle of the Best continues…

I feel like I ought to write about the Cloverleaf Tavern, because it is one of my favorite local haunts. It’s been around since the ’30s and was a men’s club for a short time, giving it some old time cred, like a speakeasy. Today it’s my favorite beer bar in New Jersey, offering up a solid selection of bottles and drafts, along with a memorable pub menu. They are currently in the running for several awards in the Best of Essex county competition, and I think they are definitely the winner for best tavern.

The All-American Burger with Trail Cut Fries

Best Burger is a tough one, though burgers are what first drew me here. Years ago, my Uncle Paul recommended the Cloverleaf and Tierney’s of Montclair for bar burgers, and of the two, the Clover is definitely the winner. Tierney’s makes a decent small bar burger but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. Their beer selection is limited and I haven’t gone back since. At the Cloverleaf, I’m working on my M.B.A.- Master of Beer Appreciation- a rewards club where you get a $15 gift card every fifteen beers you scratch off their list of craft, exotic and classic brews. When you complete all 45, you get a shirt, and your name on the brass plaques on the wall. And you can begin your PhD, of course.

The Country Bourbon Burger

They have a nice burger selection, from tasty sliders to their classic All-American burger, and their flagship, the Country Bourbon Burger, which has Maker’s Mark Gourmet BBQ sauce. They are both fine burgers, topped with crispy or caramelized onions, quality cheese, and placed on their signature brioche bun toasted on the grill. The Black Jack – Cajun spiced with Pepper Jack cheese- is my favorite. They make their burger patties by hand and they are good and juicy. They offer a Buffalo burger if you want a leaner, beefier flavor. They are above your average bar and diner fare, and while I’ve had better burgers at gourmet establishments, for the price you get something much better than expected. I’m just spoiled. I almost always get a burger here, so that tells me they are doing something right!

Their fries are worth talking about. They make the usual waffle fries, but the trail cut- the little wedges pictured- are excellent. Crisp and tasty outside, tender within. They also make the best sweet potato fries I’ve had, managing to keep the outside crispy. They use fresh oil so your fries are golden and never over-browned. The pickle and cole slaw staples are tasty and worth eating. You’ll have a clean plate if you get a burger here.

Shrimp Po’Boys and Sweet Potato Fries

Their specials vary from local faves like steamers, to their version of a shrimp po’boy- tasty enough but so far from the original that I’d skip it. Their signature appetizer, their bubbling crab dip, is one of the best I’ve had. Creamy and rich, but the crab isn’t overwhelmed. The chilled oysters are a bit pricey and nothing to write home about, but the other appetizers never failed to please, and the portions are admirable. I haven’t had a steak here yet but will try one, as they are nominated for best steak. The only disappointment I’ve had was the meager Rueben sandwich, which could have been more filling. I should have gone for their Bourbon Chicken, which I know is satisfying.
I’ve spoken of their beer selection, but it bears repeating. They have a nice row of taps that feature local brews like Flying Fish and Ramstein- including their maibock and Oktoberfest brews- plus a rotating selection of classic and craft beers. Abita, one of my fave breweries from Louisiana, got featured here this month. They also have their own tasty Alt Bier that I like a lot. Special seasonal brews like ale brewed in Calvados barrels, or Imperial Cherry, or Creme Brulee Stout are always available for the adventurous. They have a well-designed website and announce special events on Twitter, so check them out. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them a gastro-pub but they do have a great kitchen and may surprise you. Besides, what’s a great beer without something to wash down?