None of the dozens of seaside towns that grace the Jersey shore can quite muster the appeal of Asbury Park, in my opinion. Among many other things, it boasts an attraction-lined boardwalk that’s part of a 13-mile continuous stretch running from Long Branch to Manasquan Beach, and a rock club where Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and Southside Johnny cut their eye teeth, where acts were moved outdoors this summer due to the pandemic. Despite a year-round population of only 15,000, Asbury Park has one of the state’s most impressive restaurant collections. And the town may be the most LGBTQ-friendly of any in the Garden State, with rainbow flags flying from houses, cafes, and stores.
In some ways, the off season is the best time to go, when the crowds have subsided and accommodations are readily available, sometimes at reduced prices. The transportation options from New York City are multiple. If you have a car, the drive to Asbury Park takes only an hour when traffic is light, and buses leave the Port Authority for the hour-and-a-half trip three times per day. Perhaps most picturesquely, trains depart Penn Station and change in Long Branch for the three-hour trip, and the downtown station is within easy walking distance of most Asbury Park attractions.
I went on a three-day visit recently to check out the city’s dining scene in the off season. Most restaurants stay open all year, though with hours more restricted. I found many spots equipped with outdoor butane heaters, which effectively banished the chill of autumn evenings. Here are the results of my 48-hour caper, chronologically arranged.
Max’s Bar & Grill
Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. There’s no better intro to the Jersey shore than one or two of its famous hot dogs. Max’s was founded in 1928 in Long Branch, six miles north of Asbury Park and just off the beach. The franks here are a quarter pound in weight and nearly a foot in length, made of 80 percent beef and 20 percent pork. They’re cooked on the griddle till the skin crackles and becomes brittle when bitten into. Seven variations are offered, of which I picked the Jersey shore. It was split, stuffed with American cheese, and topped with several shards of grilled pork roll, aka Taylor ham, the state’s most iconic meat. The wiener provided a salty and chewy welcome to the seaside, with the pork roll an intriguing addition that was grainier and saltier than the frankfurter forcemeat. 25 Matilda Terrace, at Ocean Boulevard
Wednesday, 3:15 p.m. Across the street and south a few hundred yards on Ocean Boulevard, I sought out the WindMill. Need I tell you the building is shaped like a windmill, with an upstairs deck that furnishes panoramic views of the ocean? The hot dogs here are nearly as big as Max’s and cooked the same. The place is famous for its heated sauerkraut and its chili, which is more like the Greek meat sauce it descended from than Texas chili. Nevertheless, a hot dog topped with it is great, adding sweet and bell-peppery notes something like a sloppy joe. Crinkle-cut fries are well worth ordering, too. 586 Ocean Boulevard, at Montgomery Avenue
Wednesday, 7 p.m. Middle Eastern restaurant Reyla is in the old downtown of Asbury Park, a small tangle of streets lined with commercial and retail buildings mostly dating from the 1920s to the 1960s. Located there are 20 or so ambitious restaurants that mirror New York City’s modern establishments in menu and decor, and have mounted outdoor cafes in response to the pandemic, many with butane heaters that rise like hot fingers among the tables. Reyla has a reduced off-season menu that includes a piled-high lamb burger and lots of small dishes in a Levantine vein, such as cured eggplant topped with black-garlic feta, and yellow falafel made with split peas that rest in a pool of beet tahini. Lots of warm dishes for a cool evening. 623 Mattison Avenue, between Emory and Bond streets
Booskerdoo Coffee & Baking
Thursday, 8 a.m. The name of this combination coffee shop and bakery on a back street by the railroad tracks was indeed partly inspired by the Minnesota rock band Hüsker Dü, and it offers a daily list of baked goods as good as any found in New York City. A favorite that I tried on two consecutive days was a blueberry hand pie, and there’s a blueberry muffin, too, both made with luscious Jersey berries. The coffee is serviceable, available in three roasts that go from light to dark. 1321 Memorial Drive, at Sunset Avenue
Thursday 10 a.m. Like all cities this size and larger, Asbury Park has its own wild doughnut purveyor. In this case it’s the punningly named Purple Glaze, channeling a psychedelic Jimi Hendrix song. The doughnuts are divided into Plain, Simple, and Fancy & Filled. In the last category is the black and white, an outsize inner tube glazed half with white vanilla frosting, half with dark chocolate. It’s a riff on the famous black-and-white cookie that’s a signature NYC baked good. Don’t be annoyed by the whimsy — this doughnut is delightful. Also available at the Asbury Park Roastery, a coffee bar in the walk-through boardwalk convention center. 516 Summerfield Avenue, at Emory Street
Thursday, 12:30 p.m. Whenever I stumble on a Mexican grocery, I check to see if there’s a taqueria in back next to the meat counter. There is at Plaza Tapatia, and it’s wonderful. The owners are from Jalisco, but there’s no goat birria, though the woman making the tacos told me that it’s an occasional weekend special. Instead, get goat barbacoa. Each of the tacos, three to an order, came stuffed with heaps of fragrant steaming meat, richly textured and boneless. The tacos are garnished in the usual manner, with chopped onions and cilantro, grilled green onions and jalapenos, and two salsas, red and green. 707 Main Street, between Asbury and Sewell avenues
Maruca’s Tomato Pies
Thursday, 1:15 p.m. Invented in Trenton around 1910, the tomato pie is a Jersey thing, a fairly conventional round Neapolitan pie with the cheese on the bottom and the plain but profuse tomato sauce (in some cases just canned tomatoes) plopped on top. (A deep-dish square pie along the same lines is a specialty of Philadelphia.) Maruca’s is a stand on the boardwalk that sports an oven with turntables inside, allowing pizzas to be withdrawn from windows on each side during peak times. The sauce is applied in a spiral, so that each slice is striped with bright red. It’s a very nice pizza with a dense, thin crust, perhaps not world class but worth trying for pizza aficionados. 1050 Ocean Avenue, between Third and Fourth avenues, on the boardwalk
The Bonney Read
Thursday, 6 p.m. There are few seafood restaurants as good as the Bonney Read in New Jersey or New York. It’s located in downtown Asbury Park in a corner space, with plenty of outdoor seating spread along its frontage on bustling Cookman Avenue. Big and extra briny, the raw oysters were harvested nearby in Barnegat Bay, and they don’t get any fresher. There’s a nice Caesar salad with plenty of parm and anchovies; a Spanish-style octopus dusted with chorizo; and lobster roll dressed just with lemon juice and not a speck of mayonnaise. For dessert, a cake shop and a candy store are open late just across the street. 525 Cookman Avenue, at Bangs Avenue
Friday, 8:45 a.m. Near the end of my food binge, it was time for its centerpiece. This was the fabled pork roll breakfast sandwich, traditionally made on a poppy seed roll with a fried egg and American cheese. Some put ketchup on it, too, but not me. The pork roll is known in northern Jersey as Taylor ham, but here the composed meat, something like Spam, only firmer and perhaps saltier, is known simply as pork roll. The most famous place in Asbury Park to get it is Frank’s, a deli with a lunch counter dating to 1960 that shows every year of its age. The sandwich is profuse and scrumptious, with three thick slices of meat that have been notched to prevent curling and grilled. One might compare it to NYC’s bacon egg and cheese, only here the meat predominates and the cheese and egg are merely bit players. 1406 Main Street, between Sunset and Eighth avenues
Friday, 11 a.m. All good things must end, and my Asbury Park visit was cut short by a driving rain, almost a monsoon, that struck mid-morning and threatened to continue all day. Figuring this would prevent further outside eating and exploring, I decided to hop in the rental car and head northward along the route that skirts the shoreline all the way up to Sandy Hook and beyond. On the way, I stopped in downtown Long Branch, which has become a miniature Mexican city. One of the anchors is La Valentina, which I’d visited before, a combination grocery, hardware store, and haberdashery with a multi-room restaurant concealed in the back. The cavernous rooms were dark and decorated with pinatas, Aztec calendars, and sombreros and other headwear.
I approached the carryout counter in front of the lively open kitchen with the intent of stocking up on tamales, which I figured would be great hand food on my meandering drive back. I was surprised to find the tamales wrapped in banana leaves, but they were big and juicy, made with chicken and incorporating either a red or green salsa, both fiery. But they were messier than I thought, and by the time I got to Keyport and headed for the Garden State, my pants and shirt were splattered with juices. Still, I departed the Jersey shore with a big smile on my face. 186 Broadway, between Memorial Parkway and Third Avenue