Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bendix Diner, Hasbrouck Heights

Rte 17 and Williams Road
Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey
Pie, $2.90
Coffee, $1.60

The Bendix Diner
has the best cherry pie we have tasted so far. Sweet, tart, ruby red cherries, and a crust that settles once and for all that this dense, heavy pastry is a style, not some disregard for good taste. Now it is certain that we are not eating the same pie again and again. This pie showed handiwork: uneven fork tine impressions, and irregularities in the thickness of the crust. It almost seemed as if the rolling pin method had been eschewed for hand shaping. This crust, though there was too much of it for our taste, and too much of it to finish, tasted like good, familiar ingredients: flour, shortening, salt. A neon sign that was not fired up for our afternoon visit, declared "good coffee." We had no argument with the sign.

The Bendix Diner was manufactured in 1947 by Master Diners in Pequannock, New Jersey. We are sure it has been cleaned since then, but suspect it boasts original flooring, stools, displays, and dispensers. On this wintry, inaugural Tuesday, snow is melting off the roof and dripping onto towels lining the interior windowsills. There was a friendly diner banter underway, half in English, half in Espanol, among the blue collar clientèle, and at one odd moment someone behind us started doing an impression of a pig, and an overweight man with an eczematous neck, sitting alone in a booth across the diner, began replying with his own pig impression. We don't know whether the two knew each other.

Our Miss America experience taught us to call ahead for pie. The Brownstone Diner, Frozen Monkey Cafe, Carlos Bakery, Red Hawk Diner, and Tops Diner are not serving cherry pie today. (The Red Hawk Diner's recorded message announces that the only thing on the menu today is an egg salad sandwich.) The friendly woman who picked up the phone at Bendix Diner answered yes they have cherry pie in a tone that seemed to say, silly, of course we have cherry pie. We asked if it was good, again, she said yes. And Jersey Pie agrees.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Miss America Diner, Jersey City

322 West Side Ave
Jersey City, NJ 07305
Pie, $2.60
Coffee, $.90

We admit to a fondness for diners and a presumption that they're the natural starting point for the pie and coffee experience. But we don't admit to being experts on either. We're learning as we go here. We chose the Miss America Diner for her name. The Miss America is a delightful, historical, streamline diner with dining room extensions, and rather than describe it, we refer you to the website of Alan Wolfson, a local sculptor who has immortalized the Miss America in his finely detailed replica.

We took the light rail from Hoboken to the end of the West Side Avenue line and walked 2 blocks south to the Miss America, accompanied by friends from the city. The Miss America was built in the 1950s by the Jerry O'Mahony Company of Elizabeth, New Jersey. It is a proper diner in the sense that it is a mobile, prefab jobbie. And, in fact, Jerry O'Mahony, originally of Bayonne, New Jersey, is credited with inventing the diner, bringing together inspirations from the "lunch wagon" and railroad diner cars. Visit Diner News and History for more on... diner news and history.

The atmosphere was warm and we were satisfied with our respectable soups, sandwiches and fries. The requisite pickle and slaw was acceptable, the slaw in humorously tiny paper condiment cups. At pie time our waitress was receptive, allowing us to ask the question that had begun to lurk back in the recesses of our pie mind. You see, it had dawned on us that in this corporate, industrial time we might always be eating the same pie. Maybe New Jersey had one pie distributer doling out widget pies to all the Jersey City diners? If this were the case would Jersey Pie die an early death? How many blog entries can be written about one pie? She answered that most Jersey diners are getting their pies from local bakeries. Hm. Something to look into.

And then ... They didn't have cherry pie. None. They "occasionally get it." We had wondered about the general interest in cherry pies and asked our waitress about it. She laughed a little and confirmed that cherry pie is not popular, not much interest in it at the Miss America. (If you are among those who are scratching their heads at the proposition of a blog devoted to cherry pie, you might enjoy the rant against cherry pie linked here.)

After considerable deliberation, we decided to try a slice of the apple pie and order a piece of chocolate layer cake in addition. We are glad that we tried the apple, partly because the apple pie was relatively tasty, but also because it occasioned some general pie crust conversation with our gourmand guest, the author of Urban Gastronomy. A person of very generous spirit, she drew on her experience in Illinois to offer a positive possibility for this crusty part of our pie puzzle. She reminded us that pizza lovers are sometimes put off by the crusts of Chicago pies due to regional peculiarities, and suggested that this crust could be consistent with New Jersey expectations while evading the expectations of our motley crew, with origins in the South, Pacific Northwest, and Midwest. At any rate, the "local bakeries" may be made to answer for their crust.

While we can't claim that the pie tasters were really happy with the pie, the fourth of our party did seem quite happy with her cake. The coffee was good enough for diner brew, and we noted that it was offered at the most reasonable price. Where will all this lead us? Heaven knows.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

River View Diner, North Bergen

River View Diner
7850 River Road
North Bergen, NJ 07047
Cherry Pie, $3.20
Coffee, $1.45

We had the inevitable conversation yesterday. With all the pie disappointments, would we expand our horizons to improve our chances of getting a great slice of pie? Would we buy cherry pies from reputable bakeries and eat them at home with a cup of our freshly ground brew? Would we take the PATH to New York City and try our luck across state lines? No... and No. We still believe a New Jersey resident ought to be able to stay in state and enjoy a truly satisfying slice of pie and a cup of joe.

And so, we found ourselves at the River View Diner in North Bergen. Our table did not have a river view, it had a view of the parking lot. Maybe the dining room has river views, but we were at a booth, and it seems the kitchen is located on the river side. Hmm... In another sense, our table did have a river view. You see, the tabletop was a custom made laminate with a panoramic photo of the Hudson River and Manhattan skyline surrounded by inlays of advertisements for local businesses: unwanted hair removal, divorce lawyers, oxygen tanks - these kinds of things. Now these advertisements on paper place-mats are expected at Jersey diners, but literally laying them into the table takes the cake (pie?)! In fairness, at least it's an eco-friendly approach, but I wish I'd had a choice about looking at that model's armpit.

Ah, the pie. Relative to the other slices of pie we have sampled, the River View offers only a half-slice at an inflated price. Still, this pie was mostly pleasing. The cherries were flavorful, juicy. They managed to stand out sufficiently against the very gelatinous matrix. We even said aloud, "don't cherries just taste good?!" And tonight was our first dramatic encounter with the dreaded cherry pit. (No one was injured.) Still, the same incomprehensible crust - shiny on top, bready, with that refrigerator taste. At least the bottom crust was not soggy, whatever else it was. Our server didn't offer to warm our pie up, and perhaps this was the key to our success this evening. The decaf was a bit thin but not off-putting, and the waitress offered to refill our cups even though we were only there for pie. We're really not so hard to please, but our search for cherry pie must go on until we find a truly outstanding piece.