I’m surprised hipsters haven’t discovered absinthe yet. A spirit with hundreds of years of history, mystique, and malignment, only to be banned in many countries of the world due to a false hysteria before it was finally realized that it is no more dangerous than any other alcohol. Out of sight, out of mind, and slowly making a comeback. Very slowly. It was made legal in the United States again in 2005. Since entering the world of cocktails and mixology, I have found absinthe to be one of my favorite spirits. Maybe it is the history guy in me. It is actually a large chunk of the History of Liquor class I teach at Brookdale Community College several times a year. So, where does the Strasburg Railroad in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania come in? Well, on October 15, they are hosting an evening absinthe cocktail tasting aboard one of their first class train cars. Talk about getting a taste of history.
Yesterday afternoon I found myself thinking, “I wonder if there are any Pokemon lurking at the museum?” What I was referring to is the Strauss Mansion, headquarters of the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society which was built in 1893. A few hours later, the president of our board texted me asking what I knew, and if there was any way to set our place up as a “Pokestop”. I told her it was all random, where they pop up and what locations get assigned as various roles, but I would check it out. I swung by today and sure enough, our museum is a Pokestop…and I also caught two Pokemon while I was there. If you don’t know what Pokemon Go is, then you have probably been living under a rock for the last week. As this game sweeps the nation and the world, businesses have come up with ideas to turn game-players into customers. Some have offered meal deals for people who play at their restaurant, as well as encourage their location to be used as a safe spot. This notion needs to get museums and historic sites thinking along those same lines.
Restaurant: West Lake Chinese Seafood Restaurant
Date: July 8, 2016
Location: 1016 State Route 34, Matawan, NJ
Unlike Crown Palace, this sit-down Chinese restaurant does not hearken back days of old. There are no uniformed waiters or expensive umbrella cocktails. Actually, West Lake is a BYOB, something which acts as a saving grace as you will see later on in this review. While takeout places are a dime a dozen in Monmouth County, those fancy sit-down restaurants are getting increasingly harder to find. And usually when you do find one, the food is average and you end up paying copious amounts more than you would have for a delivery order. West Lake is kind of in the middle here, as it pulls you back and forth. The food is excellent, but is the value worth it? At what point do high prices send you out of the restaurant and back to reaching for the takeout menu when you want Chinese food?
Will asked me where I wanted to go for lunch on my birthday, and my first instinct was to grab Filipino food at Phil-Am in Colonia. We had been there several times before, but I was just feeling like some hearty, meaty, no frills ethnic food. It was at this same place where I first tried Dinuguan, something which caused all the workers behind the counter to stop and turn around. I was told no non-Filipino had ever ordered it. Not surprising, considering it is too adventurous for most small-minded Americans. Dinuguan is a mixture of offal (which depending on the restaurant can include pork organ meat like liver, kidneys, lungs, intestines, etc) cooked in a very rich sauce of pig’s blood and spices. Also not surprising is how oddly wonderful this dish is. What is peasant food in the mother country, a dish derived from needing to stretch out the entire animal to feed your family, is a delicacy (at least to me) here in America.
Restaurant: Ocean Bay Diner
Date: June 22, 2016
Location: 1803 State Route 35, South Amboy, NJ
New Jersey is the diner capital of the world. This is both a good thing and bad. It takes a lot for a diner to actually stand out as being one of the best. New ones are opening up all the time with average food and bloated prices. Some of the older, vintage ones have seen better days but are still worth going to for their charm. For me, diners are graded on a different quality scale. I don’t think anyone is going to one for a fine dining experience and Zagat-worthy food. Most of us just want a decent sized portion of adequate fare and a price we can live with. Well, prices of everything are going up in the Garden State, including food. Some diners are now charging what you would expect from a fine-dining establishment, and cranking out some sub-par dreck. Enter the Ocean Bay Diner, conveniently located on Route 35 on the Cliffwood Beach/South Amboy border. Offering everything you could hope for, and open 24 hours, this may have just become my new late-night spot.
Restaurant: Woody’s Ocean Grill
Date: June 17, 2016
Location: 1 East Church Street, Sea Bright, NJ
Though I am always in the area, I very rarely eat in Sea Bright or Long Branch. Past experiences have shown me that all most of these restaurants care about is pushing expensive drinks and then feeding you over-priced but below average food. Restaurants and businesses cater to the nearby area’s wealthy clientele. Woody’s Ocean Grill may be one of the exceptions. At the urging of a coworker who wanted to grab dinner following the graduation at the school we both work at, we decided to give this place a try. She actually used to work there back when it was Ichabod’s. We walked in to a place which was literally “wooden” everywhere you look. It was beautifully designed to mimic its namesake, though you could also take it to be an innuendo if you wanted to. The prices were much lower than I expected for the area. Cocktails were around $8, while my draught Blue Moon was only $6. While I thought some of the appetizers were a little on the high side, I couldn’t really complain about the entrees.
Restaurant: Nancy’s Village Cafe
Date: June 16, 2016
Location: Peddler’s Village, Courtyard Store 7, Lahaska, PA
When you visit Peddler’s Village in Lahaska, Pennsylvania, be prepared to shell out some big bucks. This applies to both shops and restaurants. However, there is one place which has been in business forever and is off the beaten path. I tried it for the first time a few days ago. It is Nancy’s Village Cafe, and is not located in the main area of the shopping complex. Instead, it is across the street, and almost hidden unless you were looking for it. I had walked by it many times, never bothering to give it a try. But after several average or sub-par dining experiences over the years, I wanted to check it out. I went with Will, his mother, and brother. Immediately we were struck by how affordable the prices were. It seemed to be an old-fashioned neighborhood eatery, even though it is technically located within the massive tourist attraction. When you first walk in, there is the grill, and then a charming section of seats on the right side. Sandwiches for $7 or less? Yes, please.
I am not a marine biologist, but working for Brookdale Community College’s Ocean Institute means I am in the water with school groups from all over the state almost every weekday in May and June. It did not take this somewhat shocking story from Monmouth Musings a few days ago to tell me that something is definitely going on in the Jersey Shore’s waters. I am referring to the Shrewsbury and Navesink Rivers, as well as the Sandy Hook bay area. I have had this job for two years, and when we conduct seining programs with children, we have always pulled up clear jellyfish. They don’t sting and the kids enjoy holding them and seeing how they slide around in their hands. We then put them in a small pool with our other specimens before releasing everything at the end of the session. However, two weeks ago, I started noticing a prominence of Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (which I will just refer to as “red jelly”) floating around us and washing up on the sand. These were usually few and far between in recent years. No one has gotten stung yet, and they are easy to maneuver around and avoid. But it did strike me as odd at how many there were that just seemed to appear out of nowhere. Now on Wednesday, when a man was stung by a Clinging Jellyfish in the Shrewsbury River (noted in the above link), something which is native to the Pacific Ocean, that is when my alarm was raised.
Restaurant: The Loving Hut
Date: June 8, 2016
Location: 952 NJ-34, Matawan, NJ
I’m a carnivore and happy about it. It was Will who wanted to give The Loving Hut, a vegan restaurant, a try. I obliged. I had been there about four years prior, right after they first opened. There was some online coupon deal and it seemed worth trying. The food was alright. The decor and service were, well, weird. There were white walls, white floors, white tables, and I remember the servers dressed in white too. I was afraid to touch anything because I thought it may have just been sterilized. It felt like a hospital. There was no one in the place, and the noise level was deathly quiet. Fumes from the tobacco shop next door seeped through the walls. Even as an occasional cigar smoker, I found it nauseating. The servers were wide-eyed, robotic, and soft-spoken. Fast forward to the other day, and the experience was a little bit different. The decor has changed, with a little more color and some pop. The service was friendly and helpful. The food also was a tad more memorable. For this review, I will toss my rather harsh opinion of vegans, the vegan lifestyle, and vegan politics aside. This write-up is about the restaurant, and only the restaurant.
Restaurant: Shanghai Bun
Date: June 4, 2016
Location: 952 State Route 34, Matawan, NJ
Shanghai Bun has two menus. There’s the one for wimpy Americans with the typical assortment of lo mein, fried rice, and egg rolls. Then there is the one with the authentic Chinese food, featuring dishes with pork intestine, shredded beef stomach, and jelly fish. There’s actually plenty of “normal” meals on the authentic one as well, such as noodles and dumplings, but you still should be adventurous. If you come to a place like this and order sweet and sour chicken, I’m sorry, but you’re an idiot. I’m not expecting anyone to magically turn into Andrew Zimmern and order eel or something along those lines, but how about trying something you cannot get anywhere else? Something which will take you out of your comfort zone a little? That’s what you have to do with a place like this. If you’re not willing to, then stay the hell home.