Friday, March 09, 2012

SOUTHERN SMOKEHOUSE, Linden, New Jersey - One Year Later

I have been thinking about this restaurant since we went back to it for a second try last April. Our first dinner there was about a year ago. We had business in New Jersey - we generally do at this time of year for a week or two - and my thought for dinner was nothing else but Southern Smokehouse in Linden, New Jersey.

We went this time on a Friday night and it was early - about 7:00 pm. The restaurant was just perhaps half full - it got more crowded later around 8 pm. The price has gone up slightly since last year (now $12.99 and 50 cents more Friday to Sunday) and for a basic description of the restaurant and the food that is served, please read the two part review in March 2011 and the follow up review in April 2011. I was all set to enjoy the food at this buffet again - and the food is still good. The price has not changed since last year and the offerings on the buffet were pretty much as they were when we were here a year ago in March - with minor changes in side dishes which is to be expected.

The problem here - as it was on both visits last year - are the employees. The server who came to our table seemed very pleasant and eager to be of service. We started out fine. He took our drink orders and in a reasonable amount of time brought the two sodas - and, happily, on this trip they were both correct.

We went up for soup and there was New England Clam Chowder and a correctly labeled Turkey Rice soup. We took bowls from the salad bar and used them for soup bowls - there are no others to take- and I suppose that this is what they intend for you to use for soup. There were no spoons - anywhere. We went all around the buffet looking for spoons. We looked at the dessert area next to the ice cream machine. No spoons. I asked the server - as others were - for spoons and the spoons had to be scouted out and found. Eventually, we were brought two spoons. OK, it happens.

Dirty dishes were taken away within a reasonable time. At the second plate, we finished our sodas, and the server saw this and offered to get us refills. Terrific! He took the glasses and said he would bring new ones. Until almost the end of the meal, that was the last we saw of drinks with our dinner. In the time that he was supposed to be getting us refills of soda, he cleaned several tables, picked up dishes around the dining room away from where we could get his attention, had several discussions with the other two servers working our the much less than crowded section of the dinning room, and checked his cell phone for messages. I could see it all from our table and from the buffet area. And then he disappeared for quite some time. The food here tends toward the salty side of flavorings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but you really do need something to drink while you are eating here - and the beverage is included in the dinner price. We started out with soda - and would have more soda if only this server did his job, reappeared, and brought us what he said he would be bringing us. When he reappeared he walked past our table and started talking to the two tables behind us. As he walked back - and started to take the stack dishes that was growing by now on our table, we reminded him about the soda. OH! So apologetic, but you know it took a bit still for the sodas to arrive.

If this was the only problem with issues related to employees I would say that we have just had bad luck in servers - but this was three out of three including the two last year. But there are some other problems too. Serving trays are not refilled until they are completely empty. There can be just the leavings on the bottom of the tray and the food is not refilled until everything in the tray is gone. This is at least how it seemed to be on this night. It started with the Romaine lettuce for the Caesar salad which is a feature on Friday and Saturday. There were a few leaves left when I went up to make my salad. I took them. By our going up for our second plate, this tray of lettuce was still empty. Eventually, it was filled. It was the same thing with the fried fish. There were two broken pieces left in the tray for quite some time before the fried fish was brought out and the tray was filled. I observed several trays of food the same way - not refilled for a much longer time than necessary. It is the responsibility of whoever is in charge of the serving tables and/or the staff who walk by and see that something needs refilling to alert the kitchen. There does not appear to be a manager evident in the dining room or buffet area. There is a need for a manager here to be visible.

So what about the food? The ribs are still good. The ribs are fairly meaty and tasty. They are not fall off the bone ribs. The fried chicken is still very good, and as I said a year ago, more like what fried chicken is supposed to be than what you get at many other buffets. I was a little disappointed in the turkey. There is a whole, on the bone, roast turkey at the grill area that is carved on your request. There was about a third of the turkey left. It was a very large turkey so there was a lot left on it. A lot of the meat that was left was exposed to the air and the heat lamp, and was a little drier than it should be. It could have used some gravy - there is no turkey gravy. The skirt steak was tasty - though the taste, as is common with skirt steak, comes from what it is sauced with as it is cooked. The macaroni and cheese is exceptionally good - and made "homemade style" and not like the ones that come from a box. There were sauteed mushrooms and onions that had not only button mushrooms but also Shitake mushrooms in the mixture. As described last year (see links above), the food here is a mixture of Southern BBQ and Asian. In addition to southern cooking you will also find Chinese dishes served on the buffet including chicken with broccoli, lo mein, egg rolls, general's chicken, fried rice, and other oriental dishes. There is actually a little something for everyone here.

Dessert is basic - as it was last year. There were three sheet cakes- one that was chocolate cake with chocolate frosting (which, by the way, was only several broken chunks of cake left on the tray), a pink cake with white frosting, and a pink cake with pink frosting. There are three trays of "sugar free" cookies that no one seems to touch. There is a soft serve ice cream machine with toppings to make a sundae and cones. There are fruits and puddings on the opposite half of the salad bar buffet server.

The situations with the soda spoiled the dinner. I think that I might have looked at the overall experience of this visit a lot differently, if the service was good. At one point during that all, I said to my wife, "I am not happy." That is not a good way for anyone to feel while out for an enjoyable meal. And if I was feeling this way, then if you go and experience the same here, you will feel that way too. No matter how the food is, the service can make or break a restaurant- and believe it or not, especially in a buffet where you go and get your own food. If the server is not good, you are left with a table of dirty dishes and/or no refills of your drinks.

It happens that we will be in New Jersey again in a week. Before this dinner I had planned on going back to Southern Smokehouse two weeks in a row. Now I am not that sure.

I have to reserve my recommendation now to you. I don't really know what to say. The food is nice, the service is terrible. Do you put up with the bad service to have the good food? All and all an interesting question. If I go back again next week, I will let you know in a follow up article at some point in the near future. If you don't see an article about that in several weeks, you will know how I answered the above question.

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.


ML said...

On your recommendation we went there last summer.The food was just ok, but not worth the trip from long island after the gas and tolls to go back.It was a notch better than OCB.

Art said...

I think you should go again... but bring your own drinks as a backup. :) Sorry to hear you had bad service. What other areas in NJ do you frequent on business? I can try to come up with some suggestions. --Art

Agnes L. said...

ML has it right. The gas and tolls are making us eat at home. Even driving 25 miles each way in our "local" area costs us over two gallons of gas, or more than $8.00. These gas prices will benefit supermarkets and take-out restaurants for sure. Our local OCB is TERRIBLE. The "good" one is 2.5 gallons of gas away, or $10.00 at the gas station. No way that we are doing that. No way. There will be a lot of BBQ-ing before we throw away $10.00 in gas for dinner.

Writer said...

There is only one buffet that I have gone out of my way to travel to just to go to that restaurant - Shady Maple. When I am recommending a buffet that is not local to a reader, I am in no way saying travel there just for the restaurant. If you are local to one of the buffets that I review then try it. If you are on vacation or traveling for business and you are near one of the buffets that I have recommended try it.

Yes, the gas prices are outrageous and the tolls are ridiculous, especially given the on going conditions of the roads. But that is another story for some other writer to tell...

Darlene said...

Although definitely HIS job, you made yourself unhappy by just passively sitting there waiting for him to remember drinks he obviously forgot. This seems to be a big issue with you when you eat out, especially if the drinks are included.

No, you shouldn't have to get up, go over and remind him, but to suffer in silence to try and make a point seems so silly. People forget. A little reminder would benefit you both.

Writer said...

What my readers should understand is that for the sake of an accurate review for this site, I will sit back and wait passively to see what happens. I do this because you need to know what you are in for if you go to a restaurant that I review. If something is a big issue for me, it is a big issue for most of my readers. When it gets to a point where things will not get better without intervention, then I get up and take action.

In this case, it was more than a reminder needed. This guy was doing everything else but his job. The waiter/server is the restaurant's representative to you, the paying customer. What he/she does very much reflects upon the restaurant and means a significant loss of income to that restaurant if the employee does not do a proper job.

Anonymous said...

I went there last year and had exactly the same issue with service! Food was great but we were ignored the whole time!!

Writer said...

We are planning on going back soon and will give an update. We were there in 2013 also. Check my article in Feb/March 2013.