Friday, November 19, 2010

New Jersey Nostalgia

I haven’t posted anything in a while since I returned to Budapest, but that reflects on me more than Budapest. I’ve been busy tying up ends on various writing work, and not going out an awful lot. I tend to eat out mainly when I am on the road, and in Hungary I mostly eat at home, and for a few months that means a dull diet from which carbohydrates have been more or less expelled. Yup. No pasta, no spuds, no mamaliga, no rice, no bread. After a few months of this, I should be able to crawl through keyholes and hide under chairs once again. Not my favorite state of affairs, but one I can manage as long as I have a lot of steamed cabbage, and in Hungary it isn’t hard to find cabbage in the winter. And we don’t have any gas in the building, and won’t for a few weeks. This hasn’t been so bad since the fall has been mild, but soon we will have to turn the electric heaters on, to the delight of the Budapest Electric Works and their bill department. And we can’t cook very well, beyond using a microwave and a hot plate, and the hot plate has to do double duty heating up water for the two of us to take something resembling a bath every now and then. In other words, it sucks. Which is not the point of this Blog.But it makes me nostalgic for some of the chow I wolfed down while I was in the States and Canada, so since I cannot stroll into a Hackensack burger joint and order a one dollar depression era style onion burger, I can at least write about it. If you ever find yourself stuck in New Jersey, which is the state most New Jerseyites consider themselves to be found in, one thing is cruelly clear: the restaurant scene sucks. OK, not entirely – ethnic food in ethnic neighborhoods like Palisades Park and Paterson can be superb. Working class lunch joints shine. But the Garden State is a sprawling suburb connected by horrid highways linking mall to mall to suburban tract houses. People living in one town generally don’t explore a lot in other towns. If they want something good they tend to use it as an excuse to hop into the maws of New York City just across the river. And I don’t drive. Finding anything truly great is rare and worth tooting about.Which is why I was happy to discover the Seafood Gourmet Fish Market in Maywood, New Jersey. Basically, it’s a fish market with a dining room in the back, and somebody who knows how to cook fish in the kitchen. A simple idea, but it works. I had to impress both my parents – who are never wildly enthusiastic about trying any place that they didn’t try before 1970 – and Fumie, who is possibly the most critical consumer of seafood in the world, having graduated from Tokyo Harbor to the Danube bend in fish Eating Studies.We began with clam chowder – creamy New England and tomato based Manhatten style – and a lobster bisque. It was so freaking good that my Dad bought a quart of the bisque in the fish market on the way out for him and Fumie to eat the next day as well. I had seafood pasta – scallops and shrimp tossed with arugula on angel hair pasta.Better than anything I can find in Zuglo, damn sure. Just next to Maywood is Hackensack, which is a virtual museum of a town that seems to have stopped developing sometime after World War two. I know it well because I worked here as a municipal garbage collector for the city of Hackensack for a year after high school, slagging cans into a rolling garbage truck manned by a Black Gospel Choir and an alcoholic Micmac Indian from Canada. I know every lunch counter and deli in Hackensack, because we were always given free lunch if we illegally took away their garbage, saving them from the usurious mafia-run private garbage companies.
Hackensack is the home of White Manna hamburgers, which I have drooled over elsewhere, but on the advice of my nephew Max - who has very strict and carefully researched opinions about Jersey Guy food - my sister decided to throw caution to the winds and took us to Cubby’s BBQ.
Cubby's is a bizarre little eatery in south Hackensack, nestled picturesquely amid used car lots and industrial garbage incinerators. The owner of Cubby’s is a Vietnam Vet, and the place is decorated as a testament to his obsession with American soldiers missing in action during our many wars. That’s an interesting theme for a restaurant, and one that you could really pull off only in New Jersey.
Cubby’s is about Jersey Guy Food: huge portions of meat, preferably in the form of BBQ Ribs or cheeseburgers. The obsession with huge portions explains why so many suburbanites around New York resemble those Belgomorphs I wrote about. If you finish this food, it finishes you. And if you have ever been to a place that does real Texas or North Carolina BBQ, you will look askance at the Damn Yankee obsession with slathering everything in a thick, sweet BBQ sauce, as if the meat isn't good enough to stand alone.Well, at least some people like it. And thus, even though I had been dutifully limiting myself to no more than five French fries a meal at any diner, I am now relegated to high fiber cabbage for the rest of the foreseeable future. Farewell, oh low brow fantasies of lunch at International House of Pancakes, where the boysenberry syrup stains my soul as well as my new shirt.

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