Friday, March 23, 2012


I recently wrote an article about a return trip to the Southern Smokehouse in Linden, New Jersey. In that article I said that I was not certain that I would go back. Read the article and you will see why. A week later, we were in that area again on business. I did some searching for other buffets. The wonderful restaurant, Buffet Europa, is gone. I know that there are readers who also miss that restaurant. There is Mikkoli, which is very good, but costs a little more than we wanted to spend for dinner on the way home. I searched for buffets on Staten Island and learned that there are basically four - all Asian. The one that was most tempting I found out has had three visits form the health inspector's department in two recent months and did the published violations were such that I decided it might be better to just wait and see how that one improves their score before I try it. I also learned on this search that there has been a Southern Smokehouse on Staten Island - and also one in Philadelphia, and both closed. I had originally suspected that this was perhaps a small chain. I am not sure that any of the three locations were ever open at the same time and it may just have been the owners looking for a location that would work for them. The Linden, New Jersey location appears to be the only one in operation.

So we are in New Jersey, just outside of NY and we want to have dinner on the way home - and my curiosity was getting to me. I liked Southern Smokehouse before. I was looking forward this year to going back. We went back a week ago and things were just not as I liked. Was this a one time thing? Or was this how this buffet is now? As I said in my recent article about them, the food is good, but the service is not. My wife has no qualms about returning - and we did. You should know that the article on this site did not appear before this new visit.

It again was a Friday night, but I decided that rather than getting there a little before 7:00 pm as we had a week ago, we would go a little later. It was almost a quarter to 8 when we walked in. I wanted to go later because last week I noticed that the crowd picked up around 8 and things were running a little smoother at the same time. We arrived, paid - you pay as you enter at this buffet - just like the chain buffets, and waited about five minutes to be seated. The restaurant was crowded. There also appeared to be parties going on in the two party rooms.

We were shown to our table and very quickly a young woman came over and introduced herself as our server. She was friendly and seemed eager to be of service. We gave her our soft drink orders and went off to get soup. First - there were soup spoons! The two soups were turkey rice and cream of mushroom (instead of the clam chowder). The soups are homemade. My wife decided that there must always be turkey soup because they have whole roast turkeys and the best thing to do with the carcass of a carved turkey is to make soup. She said there was plenty of turkey meat in the soup. The cream of mushroom soup was thick and full of mushrooms. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We come back to the table with our soup and sit down. There are no soft drinks on the table. We had been away a few minutes getting our soup, but that is OK, we figured that this eager young lady would be there shortly with the drinks. There she was - behind the counter where the drink service is. Surely she is filling our glasses. She emerged from this little half walled area, not with our drinks but with a cleaning towel and started wiping down tables. Then she returned behind this area and was there for several minutes. She was in and out of there a few times, before eventually, she coming out with our drinks. I do have to say that she asked if we needed anything else when she came, pointed where the sweeteners are, and said if there was any other type needed she would bring it. All very nice, but we were off to a similar start as before. If I was the manger here, my instructions to my table servers would be = when you go to a table to greet the customers sitting down, the first thing you do when you are given the beverage orders is to go directly to the beverage area, get the drinks, and go immediately back to that table and deliver them. This is not a lot to ask - in fact it is done regularly just this way at almost all, if not all of the buffets that I have been to where the beverages are not self-service. In this way, you don't forget that you have an order to fill and you don't get distracted and go and do something else.

I have a suggestion for the owner of this restaurant. Sir, you know the walled off areas that you have for your servers where the drinks are kept and dishes are taken. "Mr. Manager, tear down those walls!" Your employees have a convenient place to hide. These areas need to be out in the open and your table servers do not need to spend any time there other than to get drinks and discard dirty dishes. They need to be all around the dining room taking care of their tables. They need to be alert to the people at tables in their section - and not be socializing, checking text messages, etc. During this evening, the manager appeared. He seemed fine with what was going on within the walled service area that we could see. He did pass by our table and pick up the soiled plates that had been sitting there through much of a course.

So, the service is still an issue here, though it was overall much better this time than last. She did come by almost regularly, eventually cleared the plates off the table, and did ask if we would like refills which she then brought promptly. I have had worse servers. Of the four servers at Southern Smokehouse that we have had since we started coming to the restaurant, she has been the best. She actually did not seem to socialize at all. She double checked about what to bring for the refills and she got the drinks right each time. I will tell you now that she got a much better and appropriate amount tip than the server last week. Other servers were pretty much as they were last week from my observation.

The food was good. It has always been good. The ribs were very meaty and sauced just enough. There is additional sauce right there at the grill to add if you like. The turkey was whole when we arrived and the turkey was nicely moist when carved. I enjoyed the slice of turkey much more on this night than I had a week before. There was a freshly put out tray of macaroni and cheese and I got to see that it had a thick covering of melted cheese. I should not eat mac and cheese because of diet, but I could not resist and had a small serving (again - as I could not resist it last week either). There are so many good things here that are tempting that I could not possibly take all that I would like to try. I did try the barbecue chicken on this visit as I did not try it last week. It was very good. It is covered in barbecue sauce. There is plain broiled chicken as well, and of course, there is homestyle southern fried chicken. I only took the barbecue chicken on this visit. I tried the fried chicken last week. There were too many other really tempting things than just plain chicken. I am sure it is good. Again, the cuisine at this restaurant is an odd mix of home cooking of the American South and Asian. Collard greens, fried okra, black-eyed peas, pork and beans, candied yams, sweet potato quarters, mashed potatoes, homestyle skillet potatoes - and much more are all here. Then there is egg rolls, fried rice, chicken and broccoli, beef and peppers, General's chicken, and more are also here.

The problem with keeping up with empty serving trays was still there. They seemed to be trying, but they do wait until the tray is empty before more is brought out. It may be poor timing, but I hold this problem up to poor observation and anticipation of what is needed. Even at the grill, new steaks are not put down on the chargrill until all of the steaks have been taken. It was better than last week - and perhaps it depends upon what you go up looking for and what is more popularly taken. Had all of this night taken place last week, my first article would have been very different. Is this enough to say all is great?

I will say this. The food is always very good! This restaurant is crowded with people who are enjoying the food. I have always enjoyed the food here. The service, I will say, is inconsistent. If you decide to come here, expect that and be delighted when it is good, and not disappointed when it is not. My wife felt that there was a big improvement as far as service on this night. I agree.

Will I go back again? Yes. I will certainly go back. I do not get to this area regularly - just two weeks one after the other at this time of the year. I could not afford the tolls or the gas to just come here from home for dinner even though it is less than two hours away - depending on traffic.

Do I now recommend Southern Smokehouse to you? Yes, with the caution about service that I have stated. If you like southern cooking, real homestyle cooking - not the chain buffet versions of southern cooking, then you will like the food here. Yes, if you want to eat plain or with diet restrictions, you can do that also here. There are plain vegetables, carved roast turkey, plain chicken, baked salmon, and a salad bar. The rest is going to be tempting, but if you need to resist it and you can, you will be fine here. Remember my picky eater wife who does not eat things with sauces and likes things plain finds plenty to eat and enjoy here.

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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