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Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ

December 9, 2013

At the risk of sounding like a Philistine, I had no idea the above was the name of a Springsteen album. And I certainly was not aware of the role that this town played in the singer’s life. Sure, I may get a little misty eyed at the opening bars of Thunder Road, and I might have rocked out to Born in the U.S.A. in the eighties, but my appreciation of the Boss doesn’t go much further than that.

I showed up in Asbury Park on Saturday morning (which up until yesterday, I mistook to be Ashbury Park) with only one thing on my mind: Pinball. It’s home to the Silverball Museum, which is an awesome place for anyone who grew up begging their parents for quarters to pump into the coin slots of machines.

You can’t just play pinball for eleven hours in one day without having anything to eat or drink. And it just so happens, that this once burned out and economically depressed city on the Atlantic coast is on the rebound. There is nothing quite like the juxtaposition of the old abandoned Casino Pier with its gorgeous crumbling architecture on the boardwalk with the relatively new and modern vegetarian restaurant a few short blocks away.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A long day of pinball should always start with coffee.

Do you know how I know that I fell in love with Cafe Volan? Despite having multiple places to get coffee in town, I came here twice in my 14 hour adventure, and really wish I could have stopped in at least a third time.

I’ve been doing a little bit of cyberstalking to try and figure out where Paul Cali and Doug Parent (the pair who own and operate the cafe) come from. The website is of little help. There is this video about the place, but that only tells me of their love for surfing. However the cafe’s Facebook page congratulates their pal Anthony from Una Pizza (which is out in SF). So maybe they learned their craft at Blue Bottle?

Regardless of where they come from, their shop brings a third wave coffee experience to this rejuvenating community.

These days, I almost never order a cappuccino blind. First I’ll get a straight espresso, and see how a place pulls shots. Then, I’ll get a macchiato or a cortado to sample their foam. There is no chance of pulling off a decent cappuccino if you can’t nail the individual components.

But I went on faith, and was super impressed.

Frankly, I wasn’t crazy about the mason jars Cafe Volan uses for the drink, but I can understand why they do it. Instead of an opaque ceramic cup that blocks your view of the lofty levels of textured milk required for this drink, glass allows you a full appreciation for their amazing skill at creating the torrent of microfoam required to make up a full half of the cappuccino’s volume.

Compared to the one good coffee place in Princeton (that can’t pull off the feat as well), $3 for such a drink is a bargain. Their espresso shots are $2 and the one I had was full of intense bright flavors from the blend of La Colombe beans they brew.

The joint is pet friendly, filled with artists, plenty of reading material, and lots of natural light. This place would be amazing anywhere, and yet it’s a relatively new addition to Asbury Park. If you ever go to the Pinball Museum or are on some kind of weird Bruce Springsteen tour, you’ve got to stop here for coffee.

The pinball museum was amazing, by the way. Twenty bucks gets you free play from opening to closing. They have lower fees for shorter stays, but given how many machines are housed within their walls, I couldn’t imagine being there for just an hour or two. But that’s me. I spent the better part of an hour on their 1972 Fireball machine alone, which was in incredible condition, and was a blast to try and master.

But I had to eat. I had scoped out a local fancy sandwich place for lunch. The sandwich that first captured my attention was something called The Bootlegger. It’s a, “Buttermilk soaked southern fried boneless pork chop, smothered in sausage gravy and served on a homemade buttermilk biscuit.”


And damn my new healthy living. While that sandwich deeply appeals to my fat-tooth, I just wasn’t feeling like something that heavy. That, and I’ve been trying to avoid pork if I don’t know where it comes from. Too much is still raised under terrible conditions. So I went for something called The Bensonhurst, which is a, “Chicken cutlet (choice of either fried or grilled), homemade fresh mozzarella and sauteed broccoli rabe served on a garlic bread hero.”

So I went grilled, and was very happy with my lean protein, buttery cheese, and garlic studded greens on a delightfully toasted roll. Okay, it needed just a little salt. But that’s a minor ding against The Speakeatery, which provided a quick, hot and delicious lunch that I was able to eat at the counter overlooking Cookman Ave. which seems to be a main drive of sorts within the city of Asbury Park. There are a bunch of restaurants, bars, and a few really funky antique shops.

Why is it that antique shops seem to be the grease that turns worn out communities into revitalized cultural centers? Or maybe I’m just suffering from sampling error. I don’t know. You tell me.

The pinball session I enjoyed after lunch was tremendous. I played until every part of my body hurt. My legs from standing. My back from hunching over the machines. And even my wrists from the repetitive motion of hitting the flippers. I played games that spanned over six decades. From purely mechanical machines where you had to push a second plunger to load your ball, to a newfangled machine based on The Wizard of Oz, which brilliantly incorporates HD video from the movie into the gameplay.

At some point I did take a break to walk along the boardwalk and appreciate both the architecture of the area and the natural beauty of the waves against the beach. I even found a place that was still selling salt water taffy off-season and grabbed a piece (which is more than enough).

Despite logging in so many hours behind the flippers, it was still hard to pull myself away from the museum at the end of the day. It had been hours since I ate, but even at 11p there was still food being served at one of the impressive new restaurants on Cookman Ave.

Hello Goldie’s. Actually at 11p is when their Good Hour specials happen to kick in. That means small plates of food at the bar are only five bucks, as are some of their more inventive cocktails.

This place has it going on. The design aesthetic is gorgeous. The integrity of the menu and their commitment to quality ingredients is intense. The creativity evident in their food is exciting. And on a Saturday night, the place was hopping. They don’t take reservations, and I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to find a seat at the bar.

Luckily, as I was coming in others were leaving, and I grabbed some precious real estate.

I knew the restaurant was vegetarian before I walked into the door. But like all really good vegetarian restaurants, it’s not easy to tell, because the meat doesn’t seem to be missing. Everything on the menu sounds so good and hearty on its own, one isn’t left looking for some animal flesh. I didn’t figure out everything was vegan until after I got home. Whoa.

My dinner consisted of a grapefruit cordial with club soda and tequila ($5); accompanied by some multi-colored fried cauliflower that were coated in sriracha, breadcrumbs and chile oil, with an agave-rice wine sauce for dipping ($5); two pieces of charred ciabatta topped with mashed avocado, lemon, salted cucumber and smoked paprika ($5); chocolate croquettes for dessert that were surrounded by toasted coconut and served in a pool of vanilla bean cream ($5); and a mug of earl gray tea to wash it down and give me a last boost for my hour long drive home ($2).

Yeah. That was far too much food for one person too. And I probably could have done without the dessert and the tea. But I had thought I ordered my drink without booze, and was a little surprised to receive a version with the tequila. The cocktail was really good though, so I just figured it would be prudent to stick around for a little longer before driving home. One drink over seventy-five minutes would not impair a man of my girth.

Anyhow, at the bar I got into a conversation with a local art teacher, and she tried to help me make sense of all the disparate parts of Asbury Park that took in over the course of the day. She explained that the city still has its challenges. The poor communities still struggle. There are parts with crime and there are problems at some of the schools.

But something is happening in this little corner of New Jersey. It’s not PR. It’s clearly evident by any casual observer. And I’m glad to have had a chance to stumble onto it before everyone finds out. Because they have some great stuff in Asbury Park, even if pinball isn’t your game.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. albanylandlord permalink
    December 10, 2013 3:23 pm

    I spent 45 minutes at the web site of the Pinball Museum after your previous post. I don’t find myself in that area very often, but if I do I am so going there. I have an electromechanical Bally Circus in my basement that i keep in working order.

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