Some Hog!

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Even native New Jerseyans make mistakes: driving south on the Parkway on a Friday evening in the summer, expecting a decent bowl game from Rutgers, and going to Point Pleasant on a weekend.   But when my in-laws fly in from Washington State and want to go to a beach with a hoppin’ boardwalk, from North Jersey there isn’t many options within a reasonable driving distance.  And so Point Pleasant it was, and while it turned out to be a beautiful day and a great time, it did take me an hour to find a parking spot after dropping them off.   I ended up near the train station in town and flip-flopped it down to the beach from there.   Loaded with stuff, it would have been torture, but having dropped everything with the family, not so bad.  Jersey beaches, almost in their entirety, without the stupid politics that people play about restricting access (Sea Bright!), are some of the best in the country.   Growing up near the shore for a young boy:  couldn’t beat it.   There are days that I miss it desperately, for many reasons, but also because the fact that I’m so far from some great barbeque places.  So when the family wanted to hit up dinner after a long day in the sun and water, we pulled up the Jersey Joints page to look for a great place near us.  And being in Point Pleasant, we hit the trifecta, as not only does it have a barbeque place, but three!.   Counting the Beach, we’ve got The Hickory Hog, Woodchuck’s, and Shore Points. None of which I have tried before, although their days are numbered.  They have a a Taking the Point BBQ Tour written all over them.   But today, purely by random, we chose The Hickory Hog, and we are glad we did.

If you have been sleeping for the last four years, you might have missed the move.  The Hog has been in its current location for the last four years, next to Gerard’s Booze Palace (my words!), so you can take a small detour, grab your favorite beer or wine, and walk on back.   Order an extra appetizer with the money that you save.   The old place is now occupied by Woodchuck’s, with no relationship between the two, although it could lead to a little confusion.  The Hickory Hog is owned by Mike and Maureen Cassidy, with each seeming to have their own domain within the restaurant.  Maureen can often be seen

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Steve and Maureen

outside with the diners and, I’m going to guess, had the major say in the decoration of the restaurant.  It is not decked out like many barbeque places with tin signs, crude jokes about pig parts, or neon lights.   It seems more like your home dining room with bright, clean walls and lots of natural light.  As I spoke with her, I could really tell how proud she was of the restaurant and how much she cared that we all were comfortable and happy. The kitchen, though, is Mike’s domain, and he is a pedigree.  Working with smoked meat since he was sixteen, he started at the infamous Southern House, a local favorite that unfortunately burned down in January of 2003, leaving a vacuum for good barbeque.  In 2007, the two decided to open up their own place, the Hickory Hog.   Now, think this:  would you want barbeque from someone who has cooked only barbeque for the last 30 years.  Uh, yeah you do!

If you go to the Hog, make sure you ask for Rose as your server.  I’m sure that all of the servers are terrific, but Rose is special.  Rose makes you feel so welcome.   Like Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s welcome!  Like “Be Our Guest” welcome!  She did not actually sing, but coming from a hot beach, hungry like wolves, with kids in tow, she was awesome.

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Although I love to try everything on the menu, my family was not cooperating with me.  I haven’t reviewed a restaurant before with the whole family, so the ground rules weren’t really laid out well before-hand.  I wanted everyone to order something different, so I could nibble and graze, but they weren’t having any of that.  They wanted their own dishes, and most of them wanted ribs.   Even the kids, who love their father very much, were being stingy with sharing.  I had to muscle in more than usual, but I did come away with some success.  As an appetizer, the table shared the onion loaf, which was a favorite at the Southern House, and brought back by Mike.   It’s very similar to the Blooming Onion but with less spice and shaped like a loaf pan.   Similar dipping sauce.  It was gone in a few minutes.  Next time, I’m going for the pub pickles.  Like I said, most of us ordered the ribs, as they came recommended by Rose.  Although the wet ribs were great, the star of the show was the Memphis dry rub ribs.   The rub, although sharp and flavorful, did not mask the smokiness of the meat.   The two blended so well together that they were the hit of the table.  George and Barbara, my-inlaws, said that they were better than any of the ribs in Spokane, and how they wished that they had a barbeque place like this near them. Although Washington is not the Mecca of barbeque, they have been all around the country and really enjoyed them.  My daughter, who loves pulled pork always, ordered the Carolina pulled pork sandwich and gobbled that up.   But not before allowing Daddy to pick off a piece of pork.   Tangy with hints of mustard and vinegar made the pork one of my favorites from the menu.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t any brisket or chicken on the table for me to grab, so it’s something to look forward to when I come back.  For the sides, the cole slaw and the baked beans, which I always seem to get, were sweet and good.  But my youngest son, got the mac and cheese which is one of the restaurant’s most ordered items.   Although new to giving feedback, he told Maureen, “I wouldn’t change a thing about the mac n cheese.”   So if you have a fourth grader, and he or she digs the mac n cheese, it got very high marks from my son, Brennan.

Terrific!   Radiant!    The Hickory Hog is a place with an experienced and proven pitmaster, serving up great food in a restaurant that treats their customers like their own family.  It was the perfect place for my family to unwind and enjoy a meal after a long day on the beach.  Many thanks to my family for putting up with me talking throughout the meal, snapping photos of their food, licking at dabs of barbeque sauce off the plate, and foraging for bites.   Many thanks also to Mike, Maureen and Rose for their warm hospitality.

 

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Shore BBQ Tour, Part 2: High (Water) Marks for Surf BBQ

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The next stop was Surf BBQ, which is about 12 minutes east, down River Road into Rumson.   The building had been McGuire’s before Surf, and Briody’s before that. Back in high school, I had taken a girlfriend to Briody’s, but before we could order, we were asked to leave because we were too young to be in a place that served alcohol.  Briody’s was now gone, but I was returning to the exact location where that embarrassing moment occurred.  The outside looked the same except for the pig on the surfboard logos, but once you walked in that door, nothing was the same. First impressions are everything,  an opportunity to germinate the feelings and ideas you want your customers to have throughout the experience.  Walking through the entrance, you are met with the brick, timber, and rough, communal picnic tables that transport you to barbeque places that have been around for generations.   Just not in New Jersey that is.

Owner, Victor Rallo, a successful local restaurateur , clearly wanted to create something different from anything else in the state.  The menu, developed with the help of renowned pitmaster Bill Durney of Hometown Bar-B-Que, is posted on blackboards on the wall, and follows the mantra of other successful restaurants:  Do one thing and do it well.   It is not expansive, but it’s not boring either.  The line moves quickly, but sometimes you don’t want it to.   There is something to be said for having a rocks glass in hand, looking up and drooling over the possibilities, and talking with your line neighbor, who you just met.  Once the decision is made, the meat is ordered and served by the half pound at the counter to the right.  While we in New Jersey may not be used to this way of ordering in finer restaurants, it follows many of the authentic experiences in the South.    If that still doesn’t satisfy you, here are some other advantages:  the bar which is within reach to the left is stocked with great beers and whiskeys, you can see the chefs at the window pull and prepare your meal, you know exactly when you are going to get your meal, and you can socialize and share with others your anticipation of the feast you will soon be having.  Barbeque is a social experience.  Enjoy sharing it!

Although having the right atmosphere and the right menu is important, if you don’t have a passionate and conscientious pitmaster to see it carried out successfully, and, perhaps even more importantly, help it evolve, you will not get repeat customers.  Victor has found that pitmaster in Alex Smith, formerly of Mighty Quinn Barbeque.   A young, but experienced chef, he has traveled extensively around the country to speak with and learn from numerous other well-known pitmasters.   I was given the opportunity to speak with Alex and was very impressed about his knowledge, attention to detail, and attitude towards the art.  He knows the products as they come in the door and treats the quality of the meat respectfully when he cooks.  Alex understands that this genre of food is a community, and that pitmasters and chefs from around the state need to share and communicate with each other in order to help grow the industry.  He said that it takes time for New Jersey to develop its own barbeque identity.   The barbeque community of New Jersey needs to see itself as a family in order to share cooking techniques and recipes, and advocate for what New Jersey has to offer.

Once at the counter, you get a good look into the kitchen.  Everything is wood-burning, from the 3000 lb custom-made smoker to the adjustable grill, using a mixture of oak and fruit woods such as cherry and crab apple, at a rate about two cords per week.  No gas is IMG_0555used at all.  A new 6000 lb. smoker is in the back and was currently being seasoned by weeks of smoke and fat, getting ready for an inaugural load of brisket.  Surf currently cooks about 30-40 brisket per night, a load that bogarts the small smoker for long periods of time.  Not only will the new, larger smoker increase capacity, but will allow Alex to cook each meat separately, minimizing the disturbances that occur from having different cooking times.  This is an example of how the attention to detail and the ongoing effort to improve the product drives this place.

At the counter, I turned around to find myself alone.  The crew, after helping decide what to order, had bellied on up to the bar.   Mike K. and Chris “Fly Boy” Flynn, his friend, had met up with us and were soon catching up over beers.  This allowed me to order and watchIMG_0542 the prep without any disturbances.  Watching the young chefs select and slice the meat in front of you is part of the overall experience, and everyone was watching each other’s order being prepared.  With Alex overseeing everything, one grabbed a brisket and showed it to Alex.  After a getting a nod, the chef began to slice it and the juice flowed.  Dish after dish, with scrutiny, they placed the prepared order on steel trays lined with butcher paper, until it was complete.  We wanted to try everything, and ordered quite a bit, and yes, I was the only one there to carry everything over to the table.  Everything was great.  EVERYTHING!

Here are some of the dishes that we ordered and some of the comments from the Boys:

Brisket:   A fine, uniform layer of black pepper in the Texas style completely covering the brisket,  sliced thick with a nice fat cap.  Joe said, “It’s so tender, you could eat it with a spoon.”

Pulled Pork:  Smoky and moist with chunks of nice bark

Beef Short Ribs:  Only Mike and Chris ate it, as they didn’t leave any for anyone else!   Said it was their favorite dish.

Smoked Chicken Wings:  The drizzled peanuts were a hit.  Naked, allowed you to really appreciate the smoke.   When I had them for left overs the next day, the kitchen smelled so good!

Axaca Style Chicken:  Marinated in a brine for hours and hours.  I want the recipe of that brine!  The chicken was moist, tender and melted in my mouth.

Spare Ribs:  Sweet with lots of meat on the bone, tender but not fall off the bone (which is right!)

Smoked Bacon:  Cut thick and smoked.  Like candy.

Italian Sausage:  Smoking it makes all the difference!  Flavorful sausage only made better by the smoke.

Mac n cheese:  “Like eating a grilled cheese sandwich” (forgot who said that)

We were a week early and missed the special of the decade: smoked pastrami!  I gotta get down for that.

For those that are expecting an expedient “Part 3: Jersey Shore BBQ”, unfortunately you’ll have wait just a little bit longer.  All of us were so full from not being able to control ourselves, and from the wonderful hospitality of Victor and Alex, we were unable to continue on with the tour.  We had reached our capacity for great food, drink, and company and so decided to postpone the third and final leg of the Shore BBQ Tour and decided instead to visit one of our favorite bars of all time, Murphy’s Tavern, which is in walking distance.

More than any other place yet that I have visited in New Jersey, I have never been to a place whose goal is to have you love barbeque, as a food and a culture, more than Surf BBQ.  Everything, including the atmosphere, the menu, the attention of the owners, the pitmaster pedigrees, the cooking equipment and yes, even the line to order your food, seems to lend itself to this very important and all-encompassing goal.  I want you to walk away with that understanding.  The experience at the Surf is legit.  The food is extraordinary.  And New Jersey is better for it!