Apr 10, 2020

Dining-In With Some of our Local Favorites

By Lori Draz

Seafood Dim Sum, Pohpia Koong and Tod Mun Koong from Bangkok House in Eatontown

The very night we were going out to review our restaurant for April, the announcement was made – all restaurants would be open for take-out and delivery only. Could this be true? Is this really happening? I put down my keys, put on my comfy clothes, sat down and started thinking. This virus, which at first seemed like a small threat, had become very local and very real.

I thought of us, all of us who have enjoyed this column every month. I thought of the many people who suggested restaurants to review, the many conversations I have had about these reviews with readers, and I realized that food connects us all. We are passionate about restaurants, proud of our chefs and culinary community of servers, bartenders and managers, and we love our farmers and fishermen who bring us the finest ingredients. We love dining out in our favorite spots and trying new places. We love talking about food, and we will surely be back at it as soon as we can.

Our restaurants play a huge role in the extraordinary quality of life we all enjoy. From the diners, the grab-and-go lunch spots, to the five-star dining meccas, our restaurants are destinations. They are our meeting places and our sanctuaries.

After a week or so, I also realized I am not a good cook and, therefore, how desperately I depend on their skill. Thank goodness so many places are open for take-out. I’m taking advantage of that, and I hope you are too. Your orders now are critically important to helping your favorite places survive this surreal time. We need them and ordering in sends them a message to hang in there – we will be back.

I wondered about how to write a review in a month when the restaurants were closed for dine-in, and then I thought of us again, sitting around and talking about restaurants. So let’s do that, let’s take a look back at some of the places we’ve visited as we wait for the delivery guy to show up.

It’s pretty hard to pick some spots since we’ve been to so many awesome locations. If your name is not in this article, it’s just because of space, so please don’t hold it against us. As always, our readers are invited to share their thoughts too, so feel free to email me at loridraz@gmail.com with your top choices and suggestions.

We start our trip down memory lane with Middle Eastern food at Lemon Mediterranean Restaurant, 3475 Route 9 in the A&M Shopping Plaza in Freehold. This 4 ¾ J-rated restaurant delivered on authentic flavors, innovative selections and specials, and an-ever present chef named Ash. I also like that they have a lunch buffet, which is a fabulous way to try some dishes you may have never tasted.

Next we explored Thai cuisine at Bangkok House, 26 Route 35 in Eatontown. This is the most authentic Thai I have had in recent memory. This highly rated restaurant is a real charmer. The servers wear traditional Thai clothing, the décor is as colorful and spicy as the dishes, and the bold taste of this food is just amazing. Be sure to ask about the heat levels as Thai can run right up the thermometer.

Another spicy cuisine is Mexican and our 5 J pick was Juanito’s Restaurant at 159 Monmouth St. in Red Bank. This family-owned eatery has been turning out incredible Mexican food since the mid-1990s. Its brightly colored walls and smiling staff fills you with a happy energy, and the big, tasty portions, frozen margaritas and deep-fried ice cream desserts complete the experience.

Filet of sole in a Marechiara sauce from Gargiulo’s in Tinton Talls

Don’t make me pick an Italian restaurant. There are so many good ones I could eat at a different one all month and still have a long list left. We will mention Gargiulo’s at 720 Tinton Ave. in Tinton Falls, which brought its more than 100 years of tradition from Coney Island to the old Portofino’s. The menu is simple, straightforward, classic Neapolitan dishes, like eggplant parmigiana, chicken francese, and linguini and clam sauce. Classic dishes done well.

Now for dessert. I am still thinking about a showstopper called Cipriani which we enjoyed at the 4 ¾ J-rated Gabriella’s Italian Steakhouse, 447 Route 35 in Red Bank. This vanilla sponge cake with pastry crème wears a spiky Italian meringue coat that makes it look like a giant flower or a firework.

Hopefully we’ll be bringing you a new review next month, or maybe we take another walk together. Either way, food will be on our menu of topics.

Cipriani from Gabriella’s Italian Steakhouse in Red Bank

What we liked – The incredible talent of so many professionals, the innovative recipes and perfection of the classics, the friendly welcoming staffs, the lively bars, the unique decors in room after room, the generosity of so many restauranteurs who donate to food banks, shelters and charity events, the impeccable standards and their never-say-die attitudes. We also love the readers.

What could be better – We wish we could take you all out to dinner.

We give the Journal readers 5 Js