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A Culinary Tour of NJ (with a stop in NYC)

I was just in Jersey for ThinkTank1’s wedding (congrats!), and spent most of my free time eating. I hadn’t been there for a few years so I had a lot of catching up to do. Some stuff was as good as I remember, some wasn’t, and a few places were brand new. Here’s the rundown.

New Jersey

Dunkin Donuts
After years of gushing praise about their coffee from several CT agents, I finally got some – a regular iced coffee with cream and sugar. I was really disappointed. It tasted like a glass of whole milk with a splash of coffee and some sugar on the bottom. I thought it might’ve been one time screw-up so I ordered it again at a different DD – same thing. McDonald’s iced coffee is WAY better. My local guide said DD’s coffee has gone downhill in recent years. I have a hunch it was due to their push into supermarkets.

I also got a French cruller that was alright, and a butternut which was just OK. I guess I forgot the one I love is the chocolate butternut, which are very rare. The regular ones are strangely lemony. I should’ve stuck with the chocolate glazed; they really can’t screw that up.

Pete & Elda’s Bar / Carmen’s Pizzeria

96 Woodland Avenue

Neptune, NJ

This place has been rock solid for years – exactly how I remembered it. It’s got the thinnest crust pizza I’ve ever seen, but it’s not just a gimmick – it’s very good. They have a deal where you get a t-shirt if you can eat an entire XXL pizza by yourself. I’ve done this a few times, but decided to pass this time. Besides trying not to be a glutton, the t-shirts tend to be ugly as sin. The only mark against P&E is that the water was foul – I had to get a soda to mask the taste.

River’s Edge Cafe

35 Broad St.

Red Bank, NJ

This is where the wedding reception was. I had the salmon in a lemon dill sauce with rice and string beans – it was excellent. I expected the salmon to be overcooked since this was for a large crowd, but it was perfect.

The big endorsement is from ThinkTank1 and his lovely new bride, who chose it for the reception. For those who don’t know Jersey, downtown Red Bank is pretty much the only cool part (although East Rutherford had a cool area – see below). There are several restaurants here, but they keep returning to this one and have eaten most of what’s on the menu. The prices look very reasonable and the food was great, so I can’t blame them.

Zebu Forno

20 Broad St.

Red Bank, NJ

Whenever possible, I choose the mom and pop coffee house over Starbucks or other chains and – big surprise – I’m almost never disappointed. Zebu Forno is a small chain with a handful of locations, but we could definitely use more of them. I’d say they most closely compete with Panera, but I dug this better.

I walked in and was greeted by an incredibly cute and friendly girl. I ask if they take credit cards, but it’s a $10 minimum and I’m only getting coffee. “How much do you have on you?” $4. “That’s good enough.” At this point, I’m in love.1 In fact, now I have to take out cash just to tip her a buck for being so understanding. And cute.

I got a double mocha, which was good. The next day I went back for breakfast. This place has a huge menu of all sorts of stuff, and amazingly it all looks good.2 I went with the pork roll with egg and cheese on a roll. It wasn’t real Taylor Ham with the thick, round slices, but it was still tasty and the roll it was on could not have been better. And I got yellow American cheese, not the white I’m always stuck with in California. So damn good.

Eros Cafe/After Athens

17-19 Park Ave.

Rutherford, NJ

While they have a full lunch and dinner menu filled with Greek cuisine, we came here for coffee and dessert. It’s got a cool atmosphere (yes, this also means hot girls) and is open late – 3AM on Friday! Personally, I think they should’ve changed the channel when the Greek station started playing some gay shirtless voguing videos, but at least it wasn’t in my face. And that’s probably normal for Greece.

I got an iced mocha, which was OK, but I felt they skimped on the chocolate. TT1’s Mexican hot chocolate was good. For dessert, I got a strawberry crepe with vanilla creme. The problem here is that I expected the strawberry filling to be hot, which would have made this perfect. Since it and the creme were cold, the whole thing was just luke warm and turned cold quickly.

So overall the food was just OK, but they had a lot of other stuff that looked good, like a chocolate peanut butter brownie cake, creme brulee, etc. I would definitely return, if for no other reason than it’s open late. It’s a much cooler, hipper alternative to a diner. One tip: they don’t bring you your check – you have to go to the counter to get it. On the plus side, we never felt rushed.

Cluck U Chicken
This used to be my favorite chicken chain. I’d always get a chicken parm sandwich, a Roman (mozzarella and a garlic cream sauce), or a Red Roman which combines the two. The chicken breasts they used were huge. Now they’re advertised as 1/3 lb. and they’re pretty clearly pounded flat to seem bigger. And the Red Roman wasn’t as good as I remembered – I should have gone for the regular Roman.

My regular side order was their real, red skinned mashed potatoes in a turkey (or was it chicken?) gravy. Now it’s just instant mashed with brown gravy. And to top it off, they serve Pepsi instead of Coke. Sigh.

It’s clear they’ve been doing a lot of cost cutting in the years since I last visited. If they kept the quality high they’d have more customers. I might give them another chance, but I really regret picking this over White Castle as one of few places I got to (re)visit.

New York City

We used Yelp to help decide where to go, based on which places had the most reviews while maintaining a decent rating. We also took into consideration how easy it would be to get from one place to the next, considering it was a Friday night. It worked out great; short, but sweet.

The weather could not have been better – about 65 degrees and, dare I say it? Balmy! Yes, balmy in NYC in October. I’ve never seen so many hot women in NYC, they definitely dressed for the warm weather and a Friday night on the town. I guess I usually visited during the day or a weeknight, but NYC never struck me as a city of babes. I was happy to be shown its better side.

Katz’s Delicatessen

205 East Houston St.

New York, NY

We were debating whether to return to The Carnegie Deli, where I previously had the best sandwich of my life (and the best knish). But Katz’s was higher rated on Yelp and we’d never been there, so what the heck.

We took a cab from Port Authority. As we entered the place, a security guard gave us a ticket. You hand it to the cashier when you pay, who marks it for the guard when you’re leaving. I’d wonder what happens when you don’t get anything, but I imagine they take you straight to the looney bin.

It was a no brainer what to get – a pastrami sandwich on rye. The only question was mustard or Russian dressing. I’m a Russian dressing guy.3 We walk up to the meat cutter and tell him we want pastrami. He walks off without saying anything. Then I see him returning with a whole, steaming pastrami. It must’ve been right out of the smoker. He slices some off for us to taste.

Heaven. Now I know what gave Meg Ryan that orgasm in When Harry Met Sally.

We get our sandwiches and a beverage and sit down to what is now the best sandwich of my life. Now, to clarify, Carnegie Deli pastrami is also awesome. Both delis make it themselves. Both are leaner and more tender than anything I’ve had elsewhere. I think the Katz pastrami was more moist, having been so fresh. A big point is that the Carnegie sandwich is noticeably larger; it’s the king of the mile high sandwiches. Katz’s was smaller, but still big, and it only cost $14.50. I remember paying close to $20 for the Carnegie sandwich, and that was in 2002! A lot of people say the Carnegie sandwich is too big and impossible to finish. I’d agree if I didn’t eat the whole damn thing, then polish off half a knish the size of a Nerf football. But I’m a fatass. That said, I did feel really full after Katz’s sandwich, and we were happy to have a bit of a walk to our next place.

Pommes Frites

123 2nd Ave.

New York, NY

For those not familiar with them, the big deal about about Belgian fries is that they are fried twice. They’re traditionally served with various mayo-based sauces. This place was good, but I have a specific idea of what Belgian fries are, and these weren’t it.

Back when the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica was cool, there was a Belgian fry place called Benita’s Frites. These were square-cut fries, crispy and greasy on the outside, soft on the inside. The perfect fry. They offered about 20 different sauces like garlic mayo and remoulade.

The fries at Pommes Frites are good, but they’re more like steak fries and aren’t that crispy. They also have a large sauce selection. I had the roasted garlic mayo, which was a little too sweet; I would have preferred a regular garlic mayo. We also had a pesto mayo, which I must admit was spot on.

They also offer poutine, a French Canadian treat that consists of fries with brown gravy and fresh cheese curds. I’ve had it at Peel Pub in Montreal and it’s great pub food. If this place wasn’t the size of a broom closet and I could guarantee a place to sit, I would definitely try that next. But standing around on the street with a cone of hot fries and gravy is just too much of a hassle for me. They definitely need a much bigger seating area.

  1. No, it doesn’t take much. []
  2. Although there’s no way I’m getting pizza from a coffee shop/bakery. []
  3. BTW, in a Jewish deli, Russian dressing is very similar to thousand island dressing. In the lazier ones it’s identical. But it looks or tastes nothing like the bottles of Russian dressing you see in the supermarket, which appear to be a combination of ketchup and sweet and sour sauce. []
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Movie Roundup (spoiler-free)

I’m lazy, so here are some 30-second movie reviews:

Star Trek: The IMAX Experience - First, there’s no reason to see this in IMAX, as there are no large format shots like in The Dark Knight. Second, keep in mind that I’m a Star Trek fan (I’ve seen all the movies, and even every episode of Voyager and Enterprise), but not a scholar. The movie starts out great, but as I saw more changes to the original storyline, I started questioning the writers’ choices. There are a few silly decisions for plot purposes, too. But overall, a good film, even if I’m not sure I agree with its immediate jump to #62 on the IMDB all time best list.

Angels and Demons – Starts out a bit slow, and a bit of the same old, same old. A lot like Davinci Code, but I think Davinci was more consistently paced (if significantly more blasphemous). By the third act I was hooked, though, and overall I thought it was decent.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine – I liked this, even though I had the same issue I wrote about last year. And in addition to the wrong sized actors, they take liberties with Wolverine’s official origin story. That said, Hugh Jackman, Liev Shreiber, Danny Huston, and Ryan Reynolds give solid performances. The rest of the supporting cast, however, doesn’t add much. If you like Wolverine, I’ve got good news: there will be four more X-Men films. They include a Wolverine sequel1, a Magneto origin, a Deadpool origin, and X-Men: First Class, which I assume to be the first group of mutants taught at Xavier’s School for the Gifted. In other words, an X-Men origin.

  1. Working title: Wolverine Does Japan []

Adventureland Review (spoiler-free)

Adventureland is not what I expected. Granted, my expectations were set solely by the movie poster. From that I gathered:

  • It takes place in the ’80s at an amusement park.
  • The stars are unknown (to me), but supporting cast includes Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig, and Ryan Reynolds.
  • It’s from the director of Superbad

You’re thinking ’80s movie parody, right? Maybe Wet Hot American Summer? Or perhaps an Apatow-ian version of One Crazy Summer, The Great Outdoors, or Meatballs.

It’s actually much, much smarter than that. It’s not so much a comedy as a coming of age story. There are laughs, for sure. Some big ones, even, but most of it is from subtle character commentary and reactions.

It utilizes a quintessential ’80s movie theme, however: a smart, young everyman who’s not confident with girls meets a cute, experienced, down to earth girl with problems at home. It’s more complicated than that, of course, and more realized than any comedy would portray.

However, the biggest differentiator from teen comedies is that these aren’t teens. We’re used to characters who have just graduated high school or are finishing senior year. But Adventureland‘s main character has just graduated college, and all the other characters are clearly over 21. Like in real life, this significantly changes the dynamics. It’s a refreshing change that makes it very easy for me to recommend this movie to adults. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Street Fighter IV Fight Sticks (and X-Arcade Modding)

This past weekend I got to play Street Fighter IV on an Xbox 360. I only played two matches before deciding I must get this for my PS3. It also seemed like a good time get my X-Arcade stick out of hiding for this. For some ridiculous reason, though, I thought I’d see how the old stick stacks up against the new crop coming out. I learned a lot and I’m sharing it here before I forget it all.

The following is a summary of the sticks to buy for fighting games and the parts to use to mod/upgrade your X-Arcade stick for SF4. At the end, I’ll list any references that I don’t link in-line.
Continue reading Street Fighter IV Fight Sticks (and X-Arcade Modding)

The Day The Earth Stood Still: IMAX: Review (spoiler free)

Having seen the original, then the trailer for the remake, I came in with low expectations. I recommend you do the same. It got 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, which seemed a bit harsh after watching it. Then I remembered Rotten Tomatoes lists the percentage of critics who recommend the film. This is not a critic’s choice. I’m not sure this is even an average moviegoer’s choice. It’s simply better than we expected, which may say more about our expectations than the film.

The original is an absolute sci-fi classic. It was very easy to improve on the circa-1950 effects, and they did. However, even though this is billed as an IMAX movie, they don’t have any IMAX scenes; they just reformatted it for the bigger screen.

And even though the f/x are much better1, they don’t make up for the changes to the characters’ personalities. The boy, played by Jayden Smith, went from likable to slappable. As for the alien visitor Klaatu, played by Keanu Reeves, well, they removed his personality altogether. To quote Ebert:

He is so solemn, detached and uninvolved he makes Mr. Spock look like Hunter S. Thompson at closing time.

The acting is fine throughout (assuming Smith and Reeves were told to act annoying and wooden, respectively), but solid performances and nice effects can’t save it from bad characterization and plot holes. One of the dangers of making a film more realistic and up to date is that it invites more scrutinizing; unless you’re really thorough, the audience can see the holes better. These guys weren’t so thorough.

Again, the original is a true classic, currently #197 on the IMDB Top 250. For the $17 I spent on the IMAX ticket (plus gas), I could have bought a copy of the original on Blu-ray. I suggest you do that instead.

At Amazon:
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Special Edition) [Blu-ray] (1951)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Two-Disc Special Edition) [DVD] (1951)

  1. For instance, you can’t see wires holding Gort’s arms up []

X-Files: I Want To Believe (Spoiler-free)

When the movie was released over the summer, I was a little surprised by the lack of interest. I realize it had been 10 years since the original movie and 6 years since the series ended1, but I would have thought the lack of material would have raised interest. I can only guess that the trailer did a poor job selling it because the poster had people talking.

For me, the marketing made no difference. I simply thought: I’ve already watched about 150 hours of X-Files – why would I stop short of what could be the final 2? This is the basis for my recommendation; if that’s not good enough for you, well, OK.

Now it’s available on Blu-ray and I’ve finally seen it – the extended cut, no less. It turns out I wasn’t prepared. I forgot a lot about the series. I watched it with a friend who had also seen the series, and we were expecting closure on topics like Mulder’s alien-abducted sister, conspiracy plots, etc. There is almost none of that in the film. It’s pretty much a standalone episode with a little “where are they now?” thrown in. I felt like I was shorted.

Then I visited Wikipedia to research a couple references I didn’t fully remember. This was, uh, enlightening. As it turns out, just about everything I wanted closure on I had already gotten – in the series. I just forgot it all.

So if you’re going to watch this, but like me haven’t give the show much thought in the last 6 years, do a little pre-reading on Wikipedia.2 Reading the main X-Files article will obviously help, but if you’re short on time, there are two character histories that will save you a couple major “Wait… what???” moments: Fox’s sister Samantha Mulder and Baby William.

Once you do that, and you go in with the mindset of “cool, I’m getting one last standalone bonus episode” then seeing I Want To Believe won’t be a big disappointment.

And “one last” sadly seems to be the case. Chris Carter said that if this was a big success he’d make another X-Files movie about the foretold alien invasion of earth in 2012. Obviously, that would be very cool. Unfortunately, judging from the IMDB box office numbers, IWTB was less a big success and more a “let’s hope this thing breaks even after DVD sales”.

Where to next?
So it looks like this is really the end, as The Lone Gunmen didn’t exactly take off.3 My recommendation: Bones.

It’s about a female doctor (Temperance Brennan, aka Bones, a forensic anthropologist rooted in hard science and skepticism) partners with a male FBI agent (Seely Booth, who relies on psychology and hunches) to solve homicides. There is constant sexual tension between the partners, but no gratification. Heck, they even made Booth Catholic. It may not be X-Files, but it’s as close as you’re gonna get.

At Amazon:

The X-Files Store
The Bones Store

  1. And mostly without Mulder and Scully for the last two seasons []
  2. Alternately, the DVD (or at least the Blu-ray) has an exhaustive episode recap for every episode in the series, plus a video clip for each. You can go through it and get really caught up, but it will take you hours. At that point, you may want to rewatch the whole series. It’ll only take you an hour a day for 6 months. []
  3. Thinking about TLG pisses me off. I postulate that it would have been fantastic if it carried the dramatic tone and conspiratorial plot of X-Files instead trying to turn it into a screwball comedy. They were my favorite characters on the X-Files but were turned into complete jokes on their own series. The episodes were mostly standalone – and goofy, yet these guys were the kings of conspiracy! What happened to The Lone Gunmen was a creative tragedy that could have been easily avoided. []

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman: Review

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman I started reviewing Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs a while ago. It got so long I decided I could write a series of posts on or inspired by the book. Like anything that ambitious, I eventually realized it’s too much work and I should just write a succinct review. I just tried that and I still fell short. See, my aim is to get you to buy the book, and just not for the pennies I might get from an affiliate sale, but because I think it’s awesome. So here’s why you need to buy it:
  1. It’s laugh out loud funny and never boring.
  2. It’s insightful on many interesting topics, assuming you find our culture remotely interesting.
  3. Its chapters are pretty unrelated, and broken into subchapters and sidebars, so you can pick it up and put it down easily.
  4. Wherever you go with it, people ask you about it. Often female people. It makes you look cool (or at least interesting).

Basically, if you know anyone like me, buy it for them for Christmas or Hanukkah or something. They will love it.1

If you’re still not sold, here’s an excerpt I feel is fairly representative:

My obsession with serial killers began when I was ten years old. My fourth-grade teacher told our class that we should never hitchhike, because the only people who picked up hitchhikers were perverted serial killers. This advice was complicated by what my fifth-grade teacher told us the following year; she said that we would all have driver’s licenses in a few years, and the one rule we always needed to remember was never to pick up hitchhikers. This was because all the hitchhikers were serial killers. According to what I learned in public school, every person on every freeway was trolling for destruction. I used to imagine nomadic, sadistic drifters thumbing rides with bloodthirsty Volkswagen owners, both desperately waiting for the first opportunity to kill each other. Hitchhiking seemed like an ultraviolent race against time.

  1. Thanks again, Doubledeuce! []

Ghost Town

I saw Ghost Town this weekend and was sorry to see how poorly it did in the box office. I enjoyed it more than Righteous Kill, Lake View Terrace, and Burn After Reading (although that was pretty decent), which all beat it. Ricky Gervais is of course funny, but he also shows us he can act (granted, he already did that in the Extras series finale). Anyway, if you like Extras or the British Office, you’ll enjoy this.

Wall-E in DLP

Wall-E

Yesterday I braved the crowds and the alarming number of children at the theatre, attending this movie.  Kids at a children’s movie, what a concept.  However, the movie was a real pleasure and definitely worth a viewing.

More importantly, I found myself in a DLP theatre, by mere circumstance.  Wall-E in DLP is a real pleasure, and not to be missed.  Couple that with a very generous admission price of 5.00 before 6PM and I had an all-around great experience.  The theater is located in La Palma, Orange County.  You can find it by going to the DLP website and searching your local area code.  As always, my only gripe is that the theatre does not list the DLP theatre separately from its print counterparts, so you have to call ahead to find out where you need to be before the 6PM bell tolls.  Try DLP, you’ll like it.

I also experienced that rarity: a breakdown in the DLP projector halfway through the movie.  However, I can report that unlike the days of old, the system reboot only took a few seconds; no need to bring up the houselights while the white-clad team of   repairmen descended on the clean room housing the projector.   The movie continued and I can report that it’s worth your time.

I’ll let someone else with a good graphics background report on the movie itself.  I am only an awe-struck theatre-goer that appreciates quality work.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster Review

This was an eye-opening documentary on steroids. There was a lot of info here, exploring the issue from many angles, and I learned a lot. Documentarian Chris Bell makes it personal with family interviews; both of this brothers are steroid users, which of course is a real shock when they’ve got nicknames like Mad Dog and Smelly. Bell makes it clear he’s been morally opposed to steroids his whole life. I don’t know if his situation injected bias or not, as I don’t know how it was edited or what was left out. In the end, though, I think viewers will be more likely to try steroids than they were before watching this.

This is because the film portrays the short term effects as mostly reversible, provided you’ve got a penis, or aren’t afraid to grow one if you don’t. It can’t list any long term effects because there’s a wholesale ban on steroids, so we will never be able to study them. This leaves the audience with a list of the long term effects such as having your own reality series (Hulk Hogan), becoming a movie star (Sylvester Stallone), or being elected governor (Elliot Spitzer Schwarzenegger). Hmm, I guess it could be use for sports, too.

The only way I can think to combat this is to point out that chicks don’t dig overmuscled meatheads, and steer them towards eating disorders instead. Of course, with cheerleaders literally getting their panties in a bunch over some roided out football player, this could be an uphill battle.