Hightstown Diner - June 4, 2011
We all have our biases, preconceptions and assumptions, and for one, I certainly have more than enough of them. However, as long as we are aware of them, there is no problem, is there? It is like playing pool with a handicap, reversed. One of my longstanding, hardcore and absolute belief was that American food was inedible as a rule, and diners – a.k.a. greasy spoons – which serve them, could not be anything more than at most bearable and serviceable; that is, when one is stranded equidistantly from any other possible dining options by miles.
On the other hand, I had often wondered and fantasized about the incredible and ingenuous dishes, prepared by Fritz and envisioned by Wolfe – i.e. blueberries-fed chicken – in the bygone gastronomic world of 1930's, as existed on West 35th Street (in Rex Stout’s mind, unfortunately). Was food better back then, before the mass production kicked in after World War II and sucked the United States into a gustatory Dark Age (of which I wonder if we are still in).
I had intentionally and initially stopped by at Hightstown Diners to write it off as a joke, but now I am contently writing it up, much chastened.
Five Pancakes with Corned Beef Hash
I am not one who is fussy about the appearance of food. While I sympathize with the trauma one may feel at being presented with a whole monkey head (I think this is where I may have to draw the line, in terms of esthetics only, however), it is all about the flavor. Nevertheless, I was slightly put off by the unassuming one-white plate (with many scratches) of pale and limp looking pancakes, stacked on top of each other, and the little paper cup of butter – paper cup, no less. Sighing inwardly, I took the plunge into the stack; my knife surprisingly encountered a bounce, which made the cutting a little tricky because of the intangible resistance. If I applied too much force, I would start tearing the pancake, instead of cutting it. Strange I thought, then I tentatively put a wedge of the diner pancake into my mouth. It was a revelation: the pancake was fluffy, elastic and airy all in one. Especially the last characteristic warrants further description: it was akin to eating a marshmallow in the gradual release of the trapped air. While the flavor of the pancake itself was subtle – plain flour, eggs and milk, nothing fancy - the inherent sweetness of the milk and flour, barely touched with sugar, matched perfectly with the generic pancake syrup. The elasticity of the pancake, in fact, prevented the over-soaking of the pancakes so they would not be soggy even in case of a downpour. Could these pancakes be made more flavorful? Yes, of course, there is no doubt. However, it certainly and firmly had earned its place in the middle of nowhere in New Jersey.
The renowned corned beef was very simple: corned beef, potatoes, onions and green peppers. At two o’clock in the afternoon, the hash was regrettably missing the crisp exterior I had been told from the slow-cooking on the grill, but the flavors were direct and plentiful, and not in the least greasy.
An uncomplicated sandwich of crusty, lean French roll with a three-quarters inch thick stack of well-done roasted beef arrived with its own jus and largely cut fries, crowding another thick, previously-white diner plate (where do they find these things?). Despite the appearance of promised dryness (perhaps there was, but I would never know now) and mediocre taste, the roasted beef sandwich was full of strong bovine flavor and moist, but not soggy, that is, after dipping into the liquid beef. Yes, it is liquid beef, not beef broth, as the flavor was too strong for a mere broth. On the one hand, the leanness of the meat made it not overwhelmingly or artery-cloggingly heavy; on the other hand, the leanness of the bread prevented it from over-soaking and sagging. In effect, the bread absorbed just sufficient jus to re-flavor and re-hydrate the beef and tenderize the bread. The mashed garlic rubbed on the inside of the bread perfumed every bite. Compared to such grandiose performance, the mediocre cole slaw and fries quickly faded into the background like the nondescript landscape in Mona Lisa (although of much interest to the scholars, no doubt).
The very lack of greasiness in their preparation of food will give Hightstown Diner the standing to sue the colloquial “greasy spoon” as defamation.
Address: 151 Mercer Street, Hightstown, NJ 08520
Phone: (609) 443-4600