Old San Juan Makes The Blue Collar Foodie Say ¡Wepa!

One of the phenomenal luxuries of living in Bergen County New Jersey is the never ending list of culinary quests that one can embark on, within mere minutes of their residence.  There are very few cuisines that a simple Google search cannot turn up five or more restaurants within a reasonable proximity.  So, when I do have the opportunity to visit a restaurant that is sharing a scarce delicacy that I normally have to venture into New York City for, I get rather excited, especially when I score a Groupon for said indulgence.   The style of gastronomy that I am referring to is none other than Puerto Rican food, and the establishment that is delivering this tantalizing fare to the Bergen County area is Old San Juan, located at 165 Route 46 West in Saddle Brook, NJ.

From the outside, this restaurant seems quite unassuming, mainly due to ear defiling noise and the unpleasant eye contamination that occurs when your next door neighbor is a bustling freeway.   Thankfully, once you enter Old San Juan you are whisked away from this suburban netherworld and brought to a veritable wonderland of peace and tranquility, complete with the heavenly aroma that only accompanies the wonderful cuisine of the islands.  When Kat and I entered the restaurant we were instantly greeted by a smiling face and escorted to our table promptly, which is always appreciated.  Furthermore, the modern, fresh, and clean interior design seemed to comfort Kat and I, almost immediately.

Old San Juan

Old San Juan Exterior

Once we were seated we were given menus from our waitress and she took our drink order as well.   Old San Juan, like most non-chain restaurants in New Jersey does not have a liquor license but they do allow you to bring your own bottles of wine or beer.  In addition Old San Juan offers an added bonus of B.Y.O.B Sangria, which allows you to supply the wine which they will serve with their own blends of fruits, creating an island inspired cocktail that pairs perfectly with Puerto Rican Food.   Kat and I perused the menu and after some serious deliberation we made our selections and signaled the waitress to join us once again.

If you have ever used a Groupon before you are well aware that there are specific guidelines to follow for each and every Groupon that you purchase and in order to take advantage of the substantial discounts, these rules must be followed.   I always present my Groupon to the server before I begin the ordering process.  The reason I do this, is because some of the regulations can be somewhat convoluted and the wait staff will be able to guide you down the path that allows you to use your Groupon at the end of the night.  There is nothing worse than attempting to pay for a bill with a Groupon and finding out there is an issue with using the deal, because of something you ordered.  Our Groupon stipulated that we could order 1 appetizer and 2 entrees, so we chose the Tostones Rellenos de Pernil , Stuffed Plantain with Pork, for $10.95.  Kat then ordered Churrasco, Skirt Steak, for the reasonable price of $21.95, while I decided upon the Pargo Rojo Entero, Whole Red Snapper, in a garlic sauce, for a sensible $23.95.  Each of our meals came with a choice of rice and beans, plantains, or a salad as a side dish, but considering that going to a Puerto Rican restaurant and opting to not try the rice and beans is tantamount to giving a purple nurple to a UFC fighter, we wisely chose the rice and beans to accompany our meal.

Roast Pork stuffed Plantain

Roast Pork Stuffed Plantain

When our appetizer arrived, I knew we were in for a treat.  Not only was the presentation of this traditional Puerto Rican dish exquisite, it smelled so damn good I almost divorced Kat on the spot so I could marry the chef, regardless of his or her sexual orientation.  Kat and I each took a forkful of the mountain of roast pork that was erupting out of the crispy fried plantain, which soon joined the pork on our fork, and took our first bite in unison.  The noises that we made after that first bite are usually heard in sleazy hotel rooms located on highways, not restaurants, but we did not care, because it was that good.  The textures married perfectly with each bite while the flavors hopped, skipped, and jumped across our taste buds.   When our waitress delivered our appetizer she pointed out that our table was equipped with homemade hot sauce that she warned was very hot.  Kat and I might as well be the co-presidents of the Hot Sauce Fan Club, so we did not heed the waitresses warning at first and added a little bit too much hot sauce to one forkful of yummy which started a five alarm fire on our tongues that was not easily quenched.  After our battle, we experimented with different amounts of this forceful yet flavorful sauce and found just the right quantity to use, which added tremendous taste without scorching the earth.

Skirt Steak With Chimichurri Sauce

Skirt Steak With Chimichurri Sauce

Shortly after we finished our appetizer our main courses arrived.  As our dishes were delivered, we noticed that once again the presentation was lovely and the portions were generous to say the least. Kat’s skirt steak was at least 12 ounces and my Red Snapper probably weighed in at 2 pounds.  Kat and I began to eat our entrees and all semblance of conversation ceased for at least 5 minutes.  We were mesmerized by the food that was brought to our table.   My fork tender, juicy, Snapper was swimming in a butter garlic sauce that heightened the snapper’s natural flavor tenfold.   Kat’s expertly prepared, tender steak was served with a Chimichurri sauce that was delicate yet delicious, not overpowering like so many others I have tasted.  As for the rice and beans, it would not be a complete Puerto Rican meal without them; they were the perfect side dish to an amazing meal.

Red Snapper With Garlic Sauce

Red Snapper With Garlic Sauce

If you are like me and you are looking to explore the world one plateful at a time, I highly recommend Old San Juan.  Everything we tried was terrific and prepared exactly how we asked for it.  In addition, even without the Groupon, the prices are reasonable and the service was fantastic.   In the lovely words of the land that inspired this beautiful meal, ¡Wepa!

 

Puerto Rico

Even the Fish Loves Puerto Rico

Old San Juan on Urbanspoon

 

The Blue Collar Foodie Takes Some “Sage” Advice From a Fellow Fair Lawn Foodie

As a foodie, I am always looking for new and alluring places to fill my craw with tempting culinary treats, and therefore I am continuously taking advice from other epicurean adventurers about restaurants that I “must try.”  This time around, this sage advice, you will soon see why that pun was horrendous but I could not help myself, came from one of my friends on Yelp.com named Mark C.  Mark suggested that I bring my stomach, and my wife, to Sage, see I told you that pun was bad, located at 17-15 Broadway, in Fair Lawn, NJ for as Dr. Sheldon Cooper would say, “A real Italian treat.”   It took me a while but I heeded this advice as Rihanna should have in regards to her punch drunk beau Chris Brown, and visited Sage last Sunday.

Welcome to Sage

From the outside this restaurant is slightly unassuming, due to the fact that is highway adjacent and the facade of the building itself if somewhat old and shabby looking.  Please do not let these shortcomings taint your overall impression of this establishment; because once you cross the threshold of Sage’s doorway, you are transported away from this meek and dated ornamentation, into a contemporary land of fresh clean paint and modern furnishings.

The first thing I noticed after the décor was the ample and plush seating that filled the rather spacious dining area.  If you know me, you know that I like confined spaces like Jim Jones likes shoveling his sidewalk, in order to understand this joke you may have to read this Patch.com article that was mentioned nationally on TMZ.    So when Kat and I were offered the choice between a table and a pimpalicious, my words not the servers, booth, we immediately opted for the booth which was damn near cavernous and uber comfy.

Once seated our server Jason approached our table and handed us our menus and informed us of the specials for the evening, before taking our drink orders and leaving us to peruse the bill of fare.  Since Kat and I are fat kids at heart, we had already scoured the interwebs for reviews and the menu for Sage’s dinner offerings, so we had a decent idea of what we would be ordering.  Once we placed our closed menus on our table, which is of course the international signal telling our server that we were ready to order, Jason was there faster than you can say Unique New York three times fast, go ahead give it a whirl, I will wait.  Okay, that was just for my enjoyment, that phrase is really hard to say and you probably did it at your desk at work and now everyone knows you are crazy, so let’s just say Jason was good at what he does and move on from this embarrassing moment in your professional life shall we.

Sage's Olive Bread

Olive Bread

I ordered the Veal Luigi which is described as veal topped with spinach, mozzarella and a sun-dried tomato sherry wine sauce for $23.00, and Kat decided on Tortelloni Bolognese special described as cheese tortelloni topped with homemade meat sauce and fresh grated Parmesan cheese for $20.00.  Each of our meals came with a house salad which of course came with our choice of dressing.  Furthermore, my meal was supposed to come with a side of potatoes but being that I knew I was going to write this article I had to upgrade my side dish to a bowl of pasta with marinara sauce, because seriously a food critic that goes to an Italian place and does not try the house gravy is about as trustworthy as a skinny chef!

After our orders hit the kitchen Jason returned to our table and delivered a basket of bread that at first glance seemed to be quite ordinary.  Before leaving, he lit a candle and placed it on our table, recognizing that Kat and I were on a “date,” which was extremely appreciated and enhanced the ambiance of this establishment even more.   With the guidance of the romance inducing flicker of the candlelight I lifted the napkin that was covering the superficially conventional bread and I realized why Jason added the candle to our table.  The soft light the candle provided had little to do with my wife and more to do with the loaf of homemade olive bread that I just uncovered.   As I reached for this stunning temptress, I could have sworn I heard the pleasant sounds of a harp playing a melody, while my hand slowly extended towards my prize.  This 1980’s movie cliché was completely necessary because words cannot express the explosion of flavor that this bread packed per slice.  Sage already had a hold of me and the entrée had not even touched the oven yet.

Sage's House Salad

House Salad

While savoring my second piece of the simply divine olive bread, our salads arrived and Kat and I were offered fresh ground pepper which we gladly accepted.  The salads were not robust but a decent size for a side salad.  The house dressing was expertly made and the salad was dressed to perfection with just the right amount of this flavorful concoction.   Kat and I made short work of the greens and I of course needed to splurge and have one more sliver of the olive bread before awaiting our main course.

When the main course arrived I could tell just from the aroma wafting off the plate that Sage was going to complete its almost flawless performance in style.  Both entrées looked and smelled remarkable, and appeared to be fairly large portions which this foodie loves to see.  Jason offered, Kat and I fresh grated Parmesan cheese, which we graciously accepted.  When our dishes were garnished Italian style, we only had one option, and that was to dig in.  My veal was tender and succulent and seasoned to perfection, topped with a sauce that most likely cascaded like a waterfall from heaven into the kitchen of Sage.  Kat’s tortelloni tasted amazing as well, thanks to the skillfully prepared Bolognese sauce that had just the right consistency.

Veal Luigi

Veal Luigi

In addition to the wonderfully attentive wait staff, the soothing ambiance, and the delicious food, while we were eating our main course, not only did the owner come by our table to check on us, but the Chef himself made his rounds just to make sure our food was prepared to our liking.  After our meal was complete, we opted to decline desert because we did not want the essence of the meal we had just consumed to be washed away so quickly.  With the check in our hand we paid our bill, a modest $50.00 might I add, and left Sage with full bellies and happy souls.

Tortelloni Bolognese

Tortelloni Bolognese

I implore all the foodies in the Bergen County area to visit Sage not once, but often.  This area is littered with mediocre eateries that linger far past their expiration date, yet we are constantly losing incredible restaurants due to apathy.  Sage is not only quite inexpensive for the quality of food they are serving, but they, like most New Jersey eateries, are a bring your own bottle establishment, which saves you even more money.   So, in the immortal words of Billy Joel, grab “A bottle of red, a bottle of white.  It all depends upon your appetite.  I’ll meet you any time you want, in our Italian Restaurant. “

Sage Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Blue Collar Foodie’s Ethiopian Epicurean Exploration

Being that my collar is blue and my wallet is usually emptier than Al Bundy’s stomach this time of year, I try to cut down on frivolous spending where I can.  Unfortunately, this usually means that going out to lavish restaurants during the holiday season is off the menu, pun intended.  However, when my lovely wife Kat, who before meeting me was the complete opposite of foodie, surviving mostly on Mac and Cheese from a box and pizza, suggested that we try Ethiopian food for dinner, I dug deep into my pockets and found the money to oblige.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia

Before Kat could change her mind, I invited our foodie friend Rory, and made a reservation for three at Mesob, located at 515 Bloomfield Avenue Montclair, NJ using Opentable.com.  Since none of us had ever experienced Ethiopian cuisine before, I perused the internets for any and all information regarding this gastronomic treat.  It seemed that not only did Mesob in Montclair get nothing but great reviews, but Ethiopian food in general seemed to be a hit all across the interwebs.   I could not believe my eyes; apparently Ethiopian food is the one of very few topics on this planet that the internet has nothing bad to say about, much like cats and naked women.

I studied the menu with the concentration of a seven year old creating his Christmas list, so when we arrived at Mesob later that evening I had a general understanding of the food that I was about to consume.  We did have some issues finding Mesob on Bloomfield Avenue, but we knew the general area thanks to our trusty I-Phones, so we fought the world for a parking spot in downtown Montclair and snagged a spot about two blocks away in a parking garage.  We walked towards Bloomfield Avenue and located the store front quite quickly on foot.  The sign is somewhat small and in a strange font, so look for the red awning and you will be fine.

Mesob

Mesob

As we entered this modest yet roomy establishment a drool enticing smell wafted over us as we spoke to the hostess about our reservation.  We were seated within seconds of our arrival and offered menus by the welcoming wait staff.  As we situated ourselves, a waiter come to the table with a carafe of water,  glasses, and a bottle opener for the cold six pack of craft beer and cider that we had brought with us, since Mesob is a BYOB establishment.  The waiter opened three bottles for us and left the bottle opener at the table while we discussed the menu amongst ourselves.

Dining Room at Mesob

Welcome to Mesob

On the ride over, I had already discussed the possibility of ordering the Taste of Mesob, which includes 2 starters, 2 chicken dishes, 2 beef dishes, 1 lamb dish, shrimp tibs, and any 3 sides from the vegetable entrees, all for just $95.00.  I know this is slightly more expensive that my normal frugal foodie finds, but it is slightly harder to find Ethiopian food in this area than it is to find burgers and ribs.  Kat and Rory whole heartedly agreed with this veritable smorgasbord of Ethiopian cuisine, the only task left was to pick which mouthwatering dishes would eventually don our plate.

After a longer deliberation then the jurors in the O.J. Simpson case, we decided upon, the Timatim Fitfit (chopped injera, Ethiopian Bread, mixed with fresh diced tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapenos, olive oil, and lemon juice served cold) and the Katenga (rolled strips of injera coated with Ethiopian pepper  and clarified spiced butter) for our appetizers.  We then chose the Dora Kay Wat (a tender chicken leg simmered in a spicy sauce seasoned with spices and herbs served with a hardboiled egg) and Doro Tibs (scalloped Chicken breast marinated and sautéed with red onions, garlic, jalapeno pepper, fresh tomato, herbs, and spices) for our two chicken dishes.  Followed by our lamb dish Lega Tibs(cubed boneless leg of lamb marinated and sautéed with onions, garlic, jalapenos, fresh tomato, herbs, and spices)  AS the for the beef courses we decided upon, Bozena Shiro (cubed prime beef simmered in spicy pureed yellow split peas) and Minchet Abish Kay Wet (finely chopped prime beef sautéed in Ethiopian clarified butter and summered in a spicy sauce seasoned with spices and fresh herbs).   If this did not seem like enough food already we still had to choose three veggies, Gomen (Fresh collard greens), Difen Misie Alicha(brown lentils), and Buticha (chickpeas with red onions, garlic, jalapeno peppers, olive oil, lemon juice, and spices.)  Mesob offers varying degrees of heat for dishes that are traditionally spicy so we ordered a few mild, a few medium, and two hot, so we could try them all.  As a side note, this impressive list of food barley scratches the surface of the menu provided by Mesob, which leads me to believe as the Governator once said, “I’ll be back.”

Buticha

Buticha

After ordering what seemed like enough food for ten people, we sat back and enjoyed the soothing ambiance that is Mesob.  Traditional Ethiopian music played softly in the background while we looked around the restaurant noticing all the Ethiopian textiles and artwork that adorned the walls.  The wait staff only added to the calming vibe with their soft spoken tones and eager willingness to help.  If Mesob reflects the tranquility of the Ethiopian lifestyle, it makes perfect sense why the peaceful Rastafari movement chose this country as their spiritual homeland.  Mesob was winning me over and I had not even tasted one bite of food yet.  That is until the appetizers arrived.

Our Appetizers

Our Appetizers

The first bite of Ethiopian food I would ever eat came in the form of Katenga.  Katenga consists mainly of Injera, which is a white Ethiopian flatbread, similar to a crepe.  This choice was rather fortuitous yet somewhat kismet because Injera is an intricate part to Ethiopian cuisine.  It is not only eaten by itself as an appetizer but also is used as a plate to hold the Wat or stews that we ordered as our entrée and as a utensil to bring these stews to your mouth.   The Katenga was fantastic and unlike anything I have ever eaten before.  This spongy, sour, flatbread that easily defeats my favorite American multipurpose utensil, the spork, made us realize that we had waited entirely too long to embark on the magical food adventure that we were just starting.

Injera Plate

Injera Plate

After our appetizer dishes were cleared from the table, a massive round dish covered in a gigantic piece of Injera was delivered to our table.   Then another waiter brought a large serving tray occupied by petite bowls full of the entrees that we had ordered.   One by one, the waiter pragmatically spooned the courses onto our Injera plate, making sure that the dishes did not mix, while explaining each dish as he moved along.  What we were left with afterword was the best smelling art I have ever had the privilege to be in the company of.  At first, all of us were speechless, scared to damage the beautiful canvas that our waiter had just created on our table.  But our curiosity and hunger got the best of us, and we dug into this masterpiece of Ethiopian delights.

Ethiopian Food Art

Ethiopian Food Art

As stated earlier the injera is your utensil so no forks, spoons, or knives are presented with the meal, but if you don’t just where your mates’ hands have been, you can request silverware.   Kat, Rory, and I opted to eat Ethiopian Style and began to rip small pieces of injera up and taste each dish one by one.  I was astonished by every varietal of wat that was served to us.  I thought that some of the concoctions would taste too similar due to the comparable spice palettes within each dish, but I was happily mistaken.  Each stew tasted different, yet somehow they all danced together on my tongue like a finely tuned chorus line of yumminess.   As we tried each and every dish, it seemed that the last one we ate was our favorite until we tasted the next one.  Every bite brought new and exciting flavors and none of us could stop eating long enough to speak.

Ethiopian Spork

Ethiopian Spork

I could attempt to describe all the fantastic food that we shared that night at Mesob and smack your brain with a laundry list of adjectives for each creation that was expertly prepared by the Mesob Chefs, but I won’t.   Instead I will tell you that this foodie voyage is exactly why I love food so much.  I most likely will never have the opportunity to explore Ethiopia but thanks to the delightful people at Mesob, I can experience at least a piece of their culture one scrumptious bite at a time, and I assure you each bite is delectable.

Shrimp Tibs

Shrimp Tibs

I understand that Mesob’s prices might scare some of my readers away, but this restaurant is not just about food.  Mesob offers you a chance to immerse yourself in a culture that is widely ignored and forgotten.  If the food was half as good and the wait staff a quarter as pleasant, I would still happily pay the price of admission.

Judgment:

Overall:                  4.5 out of 5

Taste:                         5 out of 5

   Presentation:            5 out of 5

 Value:                     3.5 out of 5

Mesob on Urbanspoon