Raymond’s Burger and Brunch

I love a good burger. Lately my local favorite is at Elevation Burger (full review) where they use grass-fed organic beef. But it’s a fast food style joint, with a limited menu, so sometimes you want a little more variety available. Nearby on Church Street, you’ll find organic at the expensive bistro named Market, which I’ve yet to try. A few steps further and you’ll find everyone’s favorite brunch place, a gastro-diner and soda fountain named Raymond’s that’s served Montclair for over 20 years, and they make a fine burger. It’s a bit on the pricey side, about twice as much as Elevation, but filling and worth it if you want a bigger menu.

I’m giving Raymond’s short shrift. Their burger is probably the least amazing dish I’ve had there, aside from some unimpressive smoked salmon scrambled eggs once. They usually knock the ball out of the park, such as with their fantastic, Southern Belle-approved Shrimp & Grits, massive slabs of tasty meat loaf, a Fried Green Tomato BLT that I didn’t want to end, and their famous baguette French toast. The first bites of the burger were great- a buttered sesame seed bun, extra pepper jack cheese, good beef flavor. But it lacked some char, yet didn’t have the greasy goodness of a griddle burger either. It was almost closing time, and perhaps the cook was rushed. It was cooked to order medium, and next time I’ll get medium rare. That might make all the difference. I’m very judgmental of a burger, and they certainly shamed the Cloverleaf Tavern for Best of Essex. But I was hoping for a slightly larger Elevation Burger, I suppose.

They did a good job, but it wasn’t as good as their other offerings. I’d definitely try it again, perhaps with their usually perfect bacon to add some needed grease. They made an excellent egg cream, and their sparkling pomegranate lemonade- Firecracker’s favorite- was delicious as usual. The garlic mashed potatoes that came with her meat loaf were rich and perfectly seasoned, the sauteed spinach as well. The serving was enough to make lunch for tomorrow, even though we hadn’t eaten for eight hours. I’ll crock up the unevenly cooked french fries- some perfect, some undercooked- to it being near closing time as well. One suggestion for a burger special- put those fried green tomatoes on top. That would be something. The bun is a little weak to handle the large burger patty as well, but it’s tasty enough. So, not a perfect burger worth a special trip for, but not a disappointment. If you get dragged there for brunch and for some reason don’t want their hard to beat breakfast dishes- some of the best I’ve had- you can safely get a good burger here that is more of a tasty pub burger than the usual diner type you can get all over Jersey.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

The gamble of the diner burger

Diner burgers run the gamut in New Jersey, but most tend to be firmly packed, overcooked and dry. The State Line diner in Mahwah is an exception. They make a juicy, tasty burger of ground round that is exceptional in the diner realm, but nothing amazing when compared to specialty burger joints, even Five Guys. It had little crust because it was grilled, but was quite juicy and had good flavor. I prefer the English muffin to the plain bun or potato roll because it is less likely to fall apart or soak up juices, and the crispness and char of the toasted crannies lend a better mouth feel.
They offer the standard trio of fries, pickle and coleslaw, but I opted for their thick cut onion rings, which had a nice crisp batter. They were well cooked, the slaw was good but a tad dry, and the pickle was a little soft. Nothing’s worse than a soft pickle, right girls? The burger is worth your while if you’re on Route 17 near the New York border, however. They are a good diner all around. Sadly, I wrote this after a disappointing burger at the Nutley diner- overcooked, rather tasteless, and stuffed on an oversized Portuguese bun that overwhelmed it. They made great sweet potato fries, though. Nope, I didn’t take a picture of it, it was that disappointing. To be honest, I had the Mexican burger with jalapenos, cheese, tomatoes, salsa, but it might as well have been on meat loaf.

Hangover Helper at the Brownstone Diner

After Firecracker’s apartment-warming party I slept until noon- a rare vice for me- and when we woke, the sun was like Larry Miller said- “like God’s flashlight.” So we went to the Brownstone Diner in Jersey City for their justly famous pancakes.
This is peaches and walnuts with a side of sausage. I couldn’t wait to take a photo. I dove in to their peachy syrupy goodness and never looked back. They were delicious. Fluffy, soft, buttery goodness; never spongy or dry, always full of flavor. Firecracker had peanut butter & chocolate chip, her usual. With a banana to try to make it healthy. That was good too- I prefer fruit with my flapjacks.
There was of course a line at brunch-time on a Sunday in hipsterville, but it wasn’t a long wait at all. They keep things moving, the service is prompt, and the kitchen operates like a well-oiled machine. good coffee, great ‘cakes. So filling, and reasonably priced. I found out about this on Diners, Drive-Ins and Douchebags with my nemesis Guy Ramsey Ferry, but friends Rob & Suzanne live in the area and knew it. We went previously, and I had one of their enormous omelets. This may be my favorite Jersey Diner, and we have a LOT to choose from.
They can definitely call themselves a Pancake Factory, as they serve a full house with great efficiency. Maybe they extrude them like Play-Doh and slice them? It doesn’t taste like it. They are some of the best. Next time- burgers. Diner burgers always disappoint me in their mediocrity. I bet the Brownstone will surprise me. I will report back!

The English Breakfast Burger at the Tick Tock Diner

In the immortal words of the Simpsons: we cook it in rich, creamery butter, and we top it all with a fried egg. We call it the Good Morning Burger… (drool noises)

At the Tick Tock Diner near Madison Square Garden in NYC you can get something similar- the English Breakfast Burger. First they take an English Muffin – my favorite sandwich delivery system- and they toast it, of course. Then each slice gets its own sausage patty, a slice of tomato, some sauteed portobello mushrooms, and a sunny side up egg. They get to share 3 slices of crisp bacon among them. They will make your heart sing with joy, before it explodes in a spray of blood and cholesterol.
Best eaten with a knife and fork, and with a side of fries or home fries to soak up all that lovely yolk. Because it comes sunny side up by default. The tomato and mushroom each the Full English Breakfast. The tomato should be grilled, but it wasn’t- so ask for it to be grilled if you get one. It’ll taste even better.
They also make decent regular burgers- good diner fare, nothing to write home about, but well priced. If you’re near the garden this is the best bargain for sit-down restaurants. If you want food quick, go to Gyros II and get a Gyro Platter for $9. They’re immense, very tasty with nutmeg-spiced meat and a sweet and tangy tzatziki sauce- and served fast.
But if you have time to sit down, the Tick Tock diner on 34th & 8th is hard to beat for the area. Good eats for only slightly inflated prices. Avoid Lindy’s at all costs- $5 for coffee, it’s a tourist trap. The Tick Tock has good service, good food, at good prices. It’s my go-to place when seeing a show at the Garden or a movie at the nearby Loews.

Big Daddy’s Texas Tommy

I’ve been to Big Daddy’s Diner before. near Union Square, it’s a reliable and convenient place to nosh with friends after seeing a movie or a show at nearby venues. They make monster burgers, blue plate specials, and serve everything with tater tots. The retro decor ranges from vintage cereal boxes from the ’70s to ancient beer cans and old bumper stickers like Impeach Nixxon, mocking the Exxon logo. Service is a bit slow but the food is very good, and if you have a black hole in your belly that needs fillin’, their servings are huge compared to the somewhat similar and also nearby Fat Annie’s Truck Stop, aka F.A.T.S., which has its own charms but ain’t as decadent as Big Daddy’s!

They recently expanded or at least redesigned their colorful menu, and Firecracker noticed a big ol’ weiner called the Texas Tommy this time. I hadn’t had a hotdog in nigh on a month, so I opted for the ol’ hot beef injection. Besides, with a name like that I can’t exactly ignore it. Serendipity like that must be embraced and devoured. The Texas Tommy is a foot long Usinger’s hot dog covered- nay, slathered– with spicy ketchup, melted cheddar and bacon on a toasted bun, with a side of tots or fries. Firecracker ordered cheese tots and mine were caught in the crossfire.

What makes the Texas Tommy so good is the Usinger’s hot dog. Recently we had a bland foot-long chili dog at Bourbon BBQ in Wyckoff- they should switch dogs. Because when it comes down to it, no matter what you put on your weiner, the meat is what matters. That’s why Lucky Dogs purveyed from carts on Bourbon Street are best consumed while drunk. They’re big, mushy, and all you really taste are the toppings. Not so with the Tommy. Tommy’s meat is snappy, spicy and smoky, and no matter how much cheese and bacon coats it, the flavor shines through. So the next time you head over to Big Daddy’s, wrap your lips around Texas Tommy’s Twelve Incher.

If you don’t want to jam a foot long in your gullet, they have enormous and tasty burgers ranging from the spicy Daddy-O with jalapeno jack & bacon, to the Big Mac Daddy which mimics the fast food classic with ingredients that won’t be classified hazardous by the EPA any time soon. Plus they have giant grilled chicken sandwiches as pictured here, Blue Plate specials such as chicken pot pie, mac ‘n cheese, and ribs, they serve breakfast all day, milkshakes, malted, sundaes, pies, and they have a small but respectable selection of beers on tap (Blue Moon, Sam Adams lager & seasonal, Etc). Sure, it’s pricey and you’ll be seated next to hipster gals who look like the spectacled dude from “Flight of the Conchords” under wallpaper with KISS and the Kool-Aid Man on it, but when you want to be trashy and decadent, Big Daddy’s is the place to go.

View Larger Map

The Salem Oak … and Diner

500+ year old oak.

Today we wax historic, for travels had me pass through the small town of Salem, NJ en route to Baltimore this week. It’s just off exit 1 on the NJ Turnpike, the last exit before the Delaware Memorial Bridge. You could make a day trip and visit nearby Fort Mott and Finn’s Point, which date to the Civil War. I visited them the last time I passed this way, and only heard about the 400 year old oak tree afterward.

This gives you some scale, with the tiny cyclist.

Now there are older trees; there’s a 3,000 year old bristlecone pine in Yellowstone, whose location is kept secret, to keep idiots from trying to pick souvenirs of its bark. You can’t even take fallen pieces of wood from that part of the park, because of souvenir hunters. This one just happens to be the oldest known tree in the state, because it was standing when the Quakers made this patch of land a graveyard in 1675.

South Jersey, especially the side along the Delaware, has a long history and colonial settlement predates Philadelphia. There are towns with storied histories, like the Othello side of Greenwich, supposedly named because a Moorish princess married a man there, and their progeny settled in that half of town. That’s from William Least Heat-Moon’s excellent road book, Blue Highways: A Journey into America, so if it’s complete bullshit, blame him. I haven’t managed to get down there yet. There are Weird NJ favorites like Shellpile and Bivalve not too far from here, and a muffler man statue in camouflage is between here and Cape May on Route 40, if you’re coming that way.

The Oak Tree is thought to be more than 500 years old; according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Salem “was established in 1675 by John Fenwick, an English Quaker. The Friends (Quakers) Burial Ground in Salem has the Salem Oak— a tree 80 feet (25 metres) high that is said to be more than 500 years old— under which Fenwick signed a treaty with the Delaware Indians.” It’s quite a sight, being 88 feet tall and covering a quarter acre with shade. At least according to the plaque.

Across the street is the aptly named Salem Oak Diner, established much later in the 50’s. It’s a classic dining car that was expanded in back. They have a decent menu- we were there for breakfast and Boss Man had a bacon & egg on a bagel with home fries. I’d eaten so I didn’t sample their expansive diner menu except for some fruit, but it’s a nice clean place and worth skipping the nearby Cracker Barrel for, if you want to see the tree.

The classic New Jersey diner.