Friday, April 01, 2011

Southern Smokehouse - Second Try - Weeknight

It has not happened before that I have returned to a new to me buffet so soon after my first visit, but five days after I went to Southern Smokehouse in Linden New Jersey, I went back. After a long two part article about that first visit you may be tired of hearing about this buffet, but often a weeknight experience is very different than a weekend night at the restaurant and it is worth sticking around to hear a little more about his buffet.

We had business in New Jersey again shortly after our trip on the past Saturday. We decided we would go on a Thursday and started looking for another buffet to try. I had a couple of recommendations from readers but while they were in New Jersey they were fifty to seventy miles in the wrong direction. It would mean adding a hundred to a hundred and forty miles to the trip and that did not make sense to me. I did a few searches to see what I could find that might be closer but came up with a few Chinese buffets that when I looked at patron reviews were not appearing too promising. In the past when we have come to this area we have gone to Buffet Europa - which is now gone - and Makkoli, a very good Japanese sushi and seafood buffet. Makkoli on a weeknight is $20 a person and now that I am unable to eat rice and can eat very little of noodles, this was just not really going to be worth it for us. I enjoy that buffet but felt that I was only going to be frustrated now if I could not partake in what I enjoy so much there. My good wife and I discussed what to do. I jokingly said that we could go back to Southern Smokehouse. She said fine. I said, really after just five days. She pointed out that this would be a chance to try it on a weeknight and we rarely go down to that area other than on a Friday or Saturday. This would be an opportunity. I actually had been thinking about when we would go back because remembering the meal there kept enticing me. So that was the plan.

We arrived at Southern Smokehouse at 7:00 pm and as I said it was a Thursday night. The parking lot was not very full though there were a good number of cars. There was no line inside and we were told to sit where ever we wanted. Walking into the restaurant there were a number of tables full and while it was not crowded it was doing good business for a Thursday night - and the temperatures were dropping again toward freezing so people often stay home rather than go out into the cold for dinner (on a weeknight especially during a work week). The price on a weeknight is one dollar per person less - $11.95. (Cheaper than at Old Country Buffet considering that the drink in included in the price here.)

As you recall on my first visit my first impressions were almost spoiled by the location of the table that we were seated at. On this night we had the pick of two dining rooms. We took a table that was in the open and comfortable.

The server came over right away as we were getting settled at the table and asked for our soft drink orders. We told her and she was off to get them. We went up to the buffet to start the meal.

Last time there were two soups - one labeled chicken noodle soup and that turned out to really be chicken rice soup - and the other labeled New England clam chowder. On this night one soup was labeled cream of mushroom and the other had no label at all - it could have been either chicken noodle or chicken rice. With a swirl of the ladle as my wife took her soup she told me that is was chicken rice. I filled my bowl with the cream of mushroom. The cream soup had a skin formed on top - which can happen with cream soups. I mixed it well with the ladle and took the soup. The cream of mushroom soup was tasty. It was not very thick but it seemed just right. There were some lumps that settled to the bottom of the bowl that would come up with the spoon every so often. These seemed to be small lumps of the flour used to thicken the soup. The were not bad but should not have been there - actually this is another indication that this restaurant is making most of what they are serving from scratch and not from a mix or from a can. There were large pieces of mushroom in the soup and small bits of onion. Good taste was there and that is what is important.

When I wrote about this restaurant and what I "thought" the differences were between the weeknight menu and the weekend menu on the buffet I was going by the menus listed on their website. There were some differences that made the weekend menu "enhanced". I have to tell you right now that going back on a weeknight I could only find one difference on what was out being served and that difference is very, very small - and just about insignificant. The difference is on the salad bar.

We went up for salad and where the tray of romaine lettuce to make Caesar salad on the Saturday night, there was a tray of mixed lettuce. There may have been some romaine mixed in but it was mixed with iceberg lettuce. Next to that tray was a tray of mixed dark greens. The website menu says "Caesar Salad" on the weekend - and that was correct in a "technical" way. Except that the Caesar dressing was out in the same place as was the Parmesan cheese to put on top. So I made myself a "pseudo-Caesar" salad and really could not tell the difference. Romaine lettuce tends to be more expensive than iceberg - but those mixed greens tend to more expensive than both - so I have no idea why this difference other than the technicality that it is really Caesar with romaine on the weekend. Anyway, the salad was just as good.

It was time to go up for the start of the "main" course and I went right over to the grill and carving area. The flame grill was empty and that seemed to make sense as I was under the impression that the steaks were a weekend buffet item. There was a large tray of spare ribs, a whole roast turkey, and a tray of salmon that had a crust of what looked like cheese and breadcrumbs on top. This was exactly as it had been on Saturday night- so the number of carvings did not change.

As you may recall, I was somewhat disappointed in the ribs on the first visit. I looked carefully at the stacked tray. These ribs looked meaty and moist. They did not appear as those ribs on Saturday night had been - and at that meal none but one of six ribs was moist and meaty. I asked the server behind the counter for ribs and he placed two meaty ribs on my plate. I went over to the hot buffet servers and took some meatloaf. There was a tray of very nice looking onion rings near by and I could not resist and took one of those also. Just because - I took a few sweet potato fries - just a taste.

The ribs were as they should have been Saturday night. They were full of meat and they were moist. The meat still did not fall off the bone but it was not a struggle getting a good amount of it off. They were tasty. At the grill next to the tray of ribs this time there was a serving dish of barbecue sauce to add on top. I did not add any. The ribs have sauce cooked on which is fine for me. If you like a lot of sauce, it is there for the taking. I will tell you now that I went back later for more ribs - the tray had been refilled and piled high again. I asked for two more and, again, got nice meaty ribs.

The meatloaf was good too! The meatloaf is served sitting in a tray filled deep with tomato sauce. The meatloaf is under it. The meatloaf soaks up the tomato sauce and it comes onto your plate with the serving spoon covered in tomato sauce. The meatloaf was very good - different from some - not like the OCB meatloaf (which can be good too). It was not over seasoned. My wife describes it as tasting like "home-style" meatloaf. This is a good thing. (Growing up in my Italian American household, my mother made meatloaf with raisins and pine nuts mixed inside along with cheese. I never really liked meatloaf very much until I found out what meatloaf is like outside of my mother's kitchen - she was a good cook - I just did not like Italian meatloaf. So this is not like my "home-style" meatloaf and to me that is a very good thing!)

The onion rings tasted as good as they looked. They were crisp and the onion inside was moist.

I mentioned the steaks. I went up to the grill on my second entree trip up to the buffet and there was a man cooking steaks. I went over to the grill and stood there with my plate waiting for him to look up. He was picking each steak up off the grill and putting them on one plate. There must have been ten or fifteen steaks. I asked him for a steak and he said something that I could not understand and he took his plate full of steaks and headed off into the buffet area and then into a service area. Hmm? Were they just cooking steak for the staff? No one came over to me at the grill and I thought that perhaps he had said that the steaks were out on one of the hot tables. I left the grill to look. Did not find any steak and got tempted by something else. On my third trip up there were more steaks cooking on the grill. I went over to the server behind the counter and asked for one. He went over and took two steaks and put them on my plate. I really only wanted one but they are good and I sometimes have eyes for food that are too big for my stomach. The skirt steaks were just as tasty as Saturday night - AND they do serve grilled steak during the weeknight dinners.

I tried a few things on this visit that I had not tried on the first. I took some fried fish. It was good and clearly battered and fried in the kitchen. I took some fried okra which was very good. I also took some collard greens. I have had collards a few times in the past but I have not cared very much for them. They were always bitter in taste. These were different - they were made differently. They were large leaves not chopped up but cut into medium size bites - some were larger and folded. They were also in an sauce that was either butter or oil or both. They were not bitter at all. They were very tasty. I would describe the pleasant taste as a mix of salt and pepper and would not say that they were either too salty or two peppery. The texture was different from what I have had also. They were not cooked very soft but had a bit of a chew to them. My wife asked what I meant when I told her this during the meal and I said "stiffer". That is not a very foodie way to describe them but it fits. And that was OK. I enjoyed them and while I would not take them in some other places again, I would definitely have them here again.

Just about all of the rest on the buffet is as I described before. Every tray was full. As this night was not crowded as Saturday night had been packed, some dishes out on the hot buffet were there longer than they had been Saturday night. There was not anything wrong with them. I tried the great macaroni and cheese again, and it tasted just the same. It was a bit thicker and not as light as it had been because the tray of it had been out longer in the heat of the steam table.

The service on this weeknight was OK. The server could have been around our table more considering that there were not that many tables that she was taking care of. She tended to be in the corner of beverage service station which is at the far corner of the dining room. The plates remained on the table a little longer than they should, and once we had to get her attention to bring her over to the table - this is why ->

On our first visit there had been a problem with my wife's soft drink order. She ordered "Diet Coke" and what was brought to her was a regular sugar soda. It was corrected once we could get the server over which then took some time - and I told you all about. This time it happened again - only to me. I ordered an unsweetened ice tea and I was brought exactly that when it first came. No problem. During the meal on one of her trips around to dining room the server asked if I would like more. I said yes, I will have another ice tea. Maybe it was my fault for saying "unsweetened" iced tea but I have never had to say that in other restaurants once the first iced tea had been ordered. Sometimes they ask on the refill - she did not. I got my refill - another glass of iced tea. There was no lemon on the glass and I should have been suspicious as the first glass had one. I noticed that but took it as having been forgotten to be added and to me that is no big deal - lemon or no lemon, I don't really care. It had been a bit of time to get that second iced tea and I took a small drink and then another and realized that I was drinking sweetened iced tea. I can't do that. I am a diabetic. I had not drank much but enough to make me wonder what my blood sugar reading would be in two hours. This was when we had to find her to get her over to bring the correct drink. She took the sweetened tea away and came back with an unsweetened tea - this time with a lemon on the glass (this must be the clue, Watson!). So - two visits, two different servers - and the same problem. Not good. Dangerous in fact. I know better not to keep drinking. A diabetic child would just keep drinking the sugar filled drink (delighted in this new found sweetness) and then possibly be in big physical trouble. So when you order soft drinks here and you need diet or unsweetened - sip small first and make sure that what you get is what you want.

Was I happy on this second visit? Oh yes! The food is very good here. I ate too much and I knew it as I was leaving. I had that too stuffed at the buffet feeling. It is a good feeling but not one that you really want to have. You want to be satisfied and full but not STUFFED. I felt stuffed. I broke my own rule about that - and that is because it was too good not to go back for just one more try of something. Will I go back? Yes, I will. I am not in this part of New Jersey often - it tends to be twice a year at the same time of the year - one or two weeks apart. So it may be another year before I go back. But I will go back eagerly!

I still recommend it! Go and try it!

Southern Smokehouse is located at Aviation Plaza Shopping Center which is at 611 West Edgar Road (Route 1 and 9) in Linden, New Jersey 07036. The phone number is 908-862-1883. The hours on Friday and Saturday are until 10 pm. Weeknights and Sunday nights they are open until 9 pm. They seem to open each day at 11 am for lunch. There is a website and it is listed at the side of this page.

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