Tommy Salami vs. Zee Germans

In Germany I first experienced the joy of the beer garden. A summery outdoor park with picnic tables, where beer and festival food are served, but most importantly the German feeling of gemütlichkeit. It loosely translates as coziness or belonging, and a “leave your troubles at the door” attitude. And I was glad to find this spirit alive and well in Jersey City at Zeppelin Hall, a biergarten in Liberty Harbor. It’s a new development on the waterfront, not far from the Grove Street PATH station and another favorite haunt, the Brownstone Diner & Pancake Factory.

Turkish: No, Tommy. There’s a gun in your trousers. What’s a gun doing in your trousers?
Tommy: It’s for protection.
Turkish: Protection from what? “Zee Germans”?

That wasn’t a gun in my trousers, it was their curry wurst! It was nearly as tasty as the one I had a Curry36 in Berlin. That’s a late-night joint in Germany that serves excellent crinkle cut fries and currywurst. When I carried this foot long monster sausage from the counter, a group of frat boys cheered, “You got the big cock!” So I carried it at waist level. Firecracker was not amused, but she took the picture. The rest of the crowd was much less boisterous, probably because the Saints were kicking a mudhole in the Jets’ ass on the big screens. Instead of a bun, you get some spaetzle and potato salad with your wanger. It’s pretty good. I much preferred the wiener schnitzel that Firecracker ordered. It was a pork chop instead of veal, but nearly as tender and perfectly delicious. The lightly spiced batter was excellent. I’d get that, or a platter including it, next time.
They claim to have 144 taps, but their beer selection doesn’t run that high. There’s some duplication. They have a solid selection of German beers- including Spaten Oktoberfest and other tasty brews like Aventinus, which has a caramel malt flavor, and Belgian beers like Kira white, which was refreshing and light. However, they were missing the perfect beer for a German beer garden in America- High Point Brewing Company’s Ramstein Blonde Weiss. Or better yet, their Oktoberfest Lager, which is currently rated #1 Oktoberfest beer on Beer Advocate. Ramstein Blonde is brewed with Bavarian yeast and hops that they import exclusively, and founder Greg Zaccardi trained in Bavarian breweries before coming home to create this excellent craft beer. So what better suits an American German-style beer garden?
Because I’d love to try one of their beers in the immense $12 pitcher-sized mugs you can get at Zeppelin Hall. They also serve an Imperial pint size, but the big ones got us buzzed with one glass. I believe it’s the biggest beer I’ve had alone- though I shared a 96oz. one at House of Brews last year! The beer hall has an indoors for inclement weather and plenty of seating. It’s kid and small dog friendly, but they have some rules like “no birthday cakes,” which I found puzzling. Firecracker wants to have her birthday there, so I’m going to call and see if they order them for you, or what.
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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?

Greasy Spoons: Raising Cane’s

I don’t rave about too many chains or franchises; I’ve been taken to Sonic and Waffle House, but when you’ve got diners up the wazoo they’re not all that special. However, one I wish would make it north of the Mason-Dixon line is Raising Cane’s, a chicken restaurant. All they make are chicken fingers! But as the adage goes, they do it well.
If you want a chicken sandwich, they’ll put them on a bun for you. And you get some tasty Texas Toast and fries with your fingers, along with their signature Cane’s sauce for dipping. I first had them after a night of drinking at The Chimes near LSU in Baton Rouge, and they were delicious. And this time, they were the first food I wanted when I landed in Louisiana. Sure, if we’d hit the Quarter I’d have gotten begneits or a mess of boiled crawfish, but fast food was required- and Cane’s is simply the best drive-through restaurant I’ve been to in a long time.
Their chicken fingers are lightly breaded and extremely juicy, not greasy, and the tangy sauce compliments them perfectly. The Texas toast could be a little crispier but it’s a fine side, and their fries are top notch for crinkle-cuts. About the only ones better I’ve had at a fast food joint are at Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and even then it’s a close battle! Cane’s is that good. And their story is about as entertaining as the food itself.

Working at Cane’s is a rite of passage

As Firecracker told me many times, her fellow LSU alumnus Todd Graves came up with the idea for a chicken finger restaurant as a business class project, for which he received a C minus. He didn’t let that deter him, and worked up in Alaska at a salmon cannery (according to Wikipedia) to raise funds to start the first restaurant. He named it after his yellow Lab Raisin’ Cane, and since 1996 the place has been a hit- they have many locations, including as north as Minnesota I now see, and they made $97.3 million selling chicken fingers last year. Not bad for a C-.
I like his business model of opening near major universities, and I hope Rutgers in New Brunswick, or even Princeton makes the cut sometime. Since it’s a drive-thru I can’t see it at NYU, so you New Yorkers will have to rent a zipcar or something. It’s worth it! Boston is a big college town, so maybe they’ll be next.

Abita Brewery Tour

I’ve come to terms that most of my trips revolve around beer. I’ve been to Germany and Ireland, with Belgium next on the list. The second Saturday of every month is reserved for Ramstein Brewery’s Open House. So, when traveling in the Gulf region, I simply must stop by Abita Springs for the Abita Brewery tour. They hold them every day at 2pm, and have a few on Saturdays. And they make some of the best craft beers in the States.

Southern hospitality at its finest

The tiny town of Abita Springs, just north of massive Lake Pontchartrain, has been known for its spring water for centuries. The Choctaw Indians believed in its healing powers, and nowadays, it makes for a crisp clean tasting beer. Abita bottles 80,000 barrels of beer and 5,000 of root beer. The brewery is probably best known for their raspberry wheat, Purple Haze, outside of Louisiana. Locally the Amber is their flagship, and they have several varieties and seasonals.

Oh, heavenly row of taps

Unlike New Jersey, where the Alcoholic Beverage Commission is a corrupt dinosaur meant to protect the exorbitantly priced liquor licenses sold the the highest bidder, at Abita they have a row of taps you can serve yourself from before the tour begins. I tried everything except the root beer, which I’d had bottled before. It’s quite good, but doesn’t mix with regular beer in my opinion. The rest- well, even their Light beer (heavens forbid!) is good. I sipped some. Life’s too short to drink light beer.

“Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.” -Ben Franklin

I wasn’t a fan of their Turbodog the first time I tried it, but here, fresh from the tap, it was delicious. It’s a dark brown ale, malty with chocolate and coffee notes, a big-bodied brew that’ll satisfy the Guinness lover in you. The Jockamo IPA is a mild, classic Indian Pale Ale that packs a lot of flavor without hopping you to death. On the other hand, the Restoration Ale- proceeds of which go to restoring the damage done by Katrina- is a full California-style IPA that frankly, gives the IPA champ Dogfish Head a serious run for the money in my opinion. The Amber classic is a Munich-style dark lager with lots of flavor, and would be the entry-level beer I’d recommend. It’s crisp and clear with good flavor, without the sharp notes that take getting used to.

Sonny Day (no sign of Little Neddie Niederlander)

The tour showed off their impressive brewing operations, one of the biggest I’ve seen. The bigger boys like Sam Adams and Brooklyn Brewery tend to tour their specialty breweries and not the main event. This was the real deal. I met with brewer Sonny Day (not the same guy Steve Martin played in ¡Three Amigos!) and we talked about their operations. I also promised to bring him some Genesee 12 Horse Ale- but sadly, it is no longer made and High Falls Brewing doesn’t offer tours. Sorry, Sonny! Abita is up to 90,000 barrels according to Sonny, and I’m glad they’re growing. They truly make some of the best American beers you can get your hands on.
Their Harvest Brews are worth looking out for- we just caught the release of their new Satsuma Harvest Wit, a Belgian white made with real local satsuma juices. It’s very tasty, but the one everyone goes crazy for is Strawberry Lager, one of the best fruit beers I’ve ever had. Firecracker’s Dad managed to locate us the last six-pack in the Baton Rouge area, and I’m forever thankful. But to be honest, my favorite is the Pecan ale that comes out near autumn. It’s just so unique, smooth and definitely tastes of pecans! By the way, it’s pronounced pe-CAHN. My first trip down South, I learnt the hard way that a pee-can is something you piss in, and a pe-CAHN is made into pie. Don’t get me started on why they call ’em praw-lines, either.

And how can we forget seasonals? They had their potent Red Ale this time, and it’s quite good. The best Red Ale I ever had was a homebrew by a co-worker, but the Abita and Sam Adams versions are quite tasty. Another good find is the Andygator, a Helles Doppelbock served only in kegs. We’ve found it at Mara’s Homemade in NYC before, but it’s available in Louisiana at discerning beer bars like the Chimes. Andygator is a bright punchy bock and great on a summer day. The problem with Abita is that it’s hard to pick just one; if I had to pick a favorite beer of theirs, the Jockamo IPA is one of the more complex and surprising brews, but a year or two ago they made an Abita Select Altbier that I couldn’t get enough of. This year the Select was a good pilsner, but that Altbier will always be remembered by my grateful palate.

Sshhh…

If you visit the Abita website you’ll notice they are big on food pairings, and even offer a cookbook. Louisiana is as much a cuisine as a place, and Abita makes such a variety of beers to go with every favorite from a spicy crawfish boil, fish fry, hearty gumbo to sweet stuff like pralines and pecan pie. I wonder if they’ll ever made a peach brew with delicious Ruston peaches, sort of like Dogfish Head’s Festina Pêche? That would be something, since Abita is really king of the fruit beers as far as I’m concerned. Try a Purple Haze sometime- it certainly tastes of razz but it ain’t the cherry cough syrup flavor of my least favorite Sam Adams brew, Cherry Wheat. Abita is available on tap at many bars in New York City and New Jersey like Oddfellow’s Rest, Acme, the Delta, Fat Annie’s Truck Stop, House of Brews, and elsewhere. Give it a try, you won’t be disappointed. I garawntee!

Ragtime’s Big Bayou Burger

The Burger Battle of the Best continues…
Ragtime, a nice Cajun pub in Arlington VA offers the Big Bayou Burger, “a burger made of ground beef, pork and shrimp, covered with swiss cheese, Creole gravy and three grilled shrimp.”

Oddly not as good as it sounds; burgers use ground beef because of the fat content, which makes them juicy. Remove too much, and it becomes dry; that’s why they’ll tell you to use 80% lean as the leanest for burgers, and 73% might be even better. Because fire melts all that fat and it drips off. When you take lean pork and shrimp and add them to the mix, you get some good flavor- the burger did have a shrimpy fish flavor- but you lose the familiar texture and juiciness. This would have been a lot better with just beef, and topping it with the shrimp.

Was it bad? Hell no. Just a lot different than I expected, and I’ve had shrimp burgers before at Joe’s Garage in Minneapolis; no idea what they cut them with to keep them moist, probably salmon, but they were very good. Here the jambalaya side was very good, the Cajun chicken pasta was well-received, and the mac ‘n cheese was killer. I had crawfish bisque that was a delicious starter, so the Big Bayou Burger was a bit of a disappointment. I guess I could have drowned it in ketchup, but I shouldn’t have to. Stick some onions in the mix, or leave the shrimp chunky and put chunks of cheese in too. Shrimp is all about texture, and grinding it takes that away. The garlic shrimp toppers were awesome. I should have just gotten shrimp etoufee! It’s a nice hangout for Louisiana transplants in the D.C. area, and serves a good beer selection.

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Ray’s Hell Burger


Ray’s Hell Burger made the news a few weeks ago when President Obama and VP Biden made a surprise trip to this gem of a burger joint tucked into an Arlington strip mall. While part of me rolled my eyes over the slow news day reporting, I’m glad it made the news. Because Ray’s is top contender for my #1 burger this year. They are simply fantastic, affordable and not as crazy crowded as you’d assume.
My burger experiences center around the New York area due to where I live, so I was very glad to be able to hit this place on Memorial Day weekend. Firecracker and I went on a 6-state road trip while traveling to a wedding, which led us to D.C. A quick search on Google got us the address, and thankfully friend Kim warned us about the lack of signage. Good things are worth hunting down, and it was crowded even on a Sunday, so if it had a big sign we’d probably still be waiting. The place is rather tight with highboy tables and the line was only 5 deep when we got there, but tables were scarce. We found one outside, and the weather was great.
They do have some decadent burgers available with foie gras for $18- a hell of a lot cheaper than a similar burger at NYC’s The Burger Shoppe (full review)- but we opted for simpler fare. I got the B.I.G. Punisher, topped with fresh jalapenos, mushrooms, a cilantro-jalapeno pesto, caramelized onions and cheese; Firecracker got a bacon and cheese monster, and Maggie went for the au poivre burger with a delicious sherry cream sauce and mushrooms. We got the cheese puffs as sides, and I grabbed a Sasparilla to drink.
I ordered mine medium rare, and as you can see from the lovely red juice on the bottom bun, they cooked it right. The gals had theirs medium and medium well. I like a juicy burger and Ray’s delivers. They grind the meat fresh all day and you can taste it; this was on par with Anthony Bourdain’s downtown Les Halles burger (full review) where they grind sirloin to order. I still think Bourdain has the top spot, but Ray’s is one hell of a contender, and in the D.C. area this has got to be the best. The meat flavor is spectacular, and the toppings accentuate without overpowering. Even the Punisher had just enough heat to tingle just enough. We didn’t even explore the huge selection of cheeses they have available. I’d eat here every week if I lived nearby. And I think Maggie is going to!
This from the city that birthed Five Guys Burgers and Fries (full review), that paragon of fast food. D.C. might just be the burger mecca. There’s even a Les Halles, but I don’t know if theirs is as good as the John Street location’s. But I do know this- no matter what your political affiliation, you owe it to yourself to drop by Ray’s Hell Burger. The sesame bun may be a little plain and sometimes it can’t handle the monster burger inside, but we forgive that for one of the best tasting burgers I’ve yet had.

Tribeca Film Festival: Midgets vs. Mascots

I like to attribute the success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie not to Johnny Depp’s inspired performance, but to the fact it contained monkeys, midgets AND pirates. This trifecta of awesome made it impossible not to fail. The sequels forgot the midget and the monkey were important, and that’s why they suck. So when Firecracker and I were sitting at an outdoor table at the Village Pourhouse, and a gal handed us tickets to see Midgets vs. Mascots (official site), we had to go. There was no other course to take.
Why? Because little people rock. Jordan Prentice, from In Bruges (“they’re filmin’ midgets!” full review) stars in this Tribeca film festival audience favorite, and he was fantastic in that comedy from last year. So is Gary Coleman- “the Shaquille O’Neal of little people” and a host of less-known but very funny people. The mascots are a bunch of pathetic slobs, but real enough that you believe them. Bunny, the fragile furry freak and Gator, the sweaty slob whose belly is hanging out of his costume.

The premise is that a famous Texas little person mascot named Big Red dies and wants to give $10 million to one of his two heirs, so he has them gather 5 little people and 5 mascots each, to perform a bunch of crazy challenges. It’s somewhere between Scavenger Hunt and Jackass– taking the tried and true “inheritance challenge” formula and throwing as much offensive humor as they can into it. Sometimes it tries a little too hard to be offensive, like when the little people argue that “midget” is as bad as the n-word in a crowded restaurant, but most of the time the low-brow humor hits the mark.
It has loads of gratuitous nudity, Jackass-level stunts such as alligator wrestling, and plenty of character-based humor from the mascots- who range from loser slobs and furries to a gut-bustingly funny silent bobblehead- and the “midgets,” including Gary Coleman, playing a delightful parody of himself, Jordan Prentice being crude and sarcastic, and relative newcomer Terra Jole getting clobbered left and right. That poor girl. The movie plays at being a documentary, so everyone plays “themselves,” and you really feel bad for her sometimes.
The ending is a tad weak, but it delivers on comedy most of the time. Nice to see Jordan Prentice again- he was hilariously depraved. I hope it gets wide release, but this is the kind of movie that will explode on DVD or cable.