From Super Mario's to the Cranberry Inn, Nowhere, New Jersey
The cook's last job was at Super Mario's, the Italian joint next to Fort Dix, which closed after the owner's son was accused of being part of a terrorist cell that planned on attacking soldiers at the base.
A sailor himself, Leon Hinkle is a Navy cook who prides himself on knowing how to cook, for two or two thousand. So after being derailed by the terrorist pizza cell in Wrightstown, he's shifted over to the other side of the base, and is now operating out of this yet to be named roadhouse in the middle of nowhere.
Actually it is closer to Lakehurst and the Navy base that is now linking up, both figuratively as well as geographically, with Fort Dix and MacGuire Air Force base, making the first Megabase.
Opening a bar-restaurant-take out joint near a big military base might sound like a good idea, but not so much so when you are fifteen miles from the closest gate. There are a few Pinies who live nearby, and the suburbs of the Jersey Shore towns aren't that far away, but to be successful, this place will have to become a destination for some, a popular half-way pit stop for others, and a pleasant surprise for those who stumble on it.
They want to call it the Cranberry Inn, but they haven't registered it with the state of New Jersey so there's no name on the sign out front that used to say Harrison's, a unique little roadhouse in the middle of nowhere, a Piney stage stop between Fort Dix/McGuire, Browns Mills and the Jersey Shore.
From Ft. Dix/McGuire/Browns Mills/Pemberton Gate, you go five miles east down Lakehurst Road, then five miles further east on Rt. 70, past Whitesbog Road, this joint is the only commercial establishment on the road that I could identify within ten or fifteen miles. It is in a place called Manchester Township, and that short five mile strip is known as a gauntlet for local police patroling for traffic ticket and DUI surcharges for the Township budget, so be carefull.
Like the Hedger House near Chatsworth, the old Doaks on the back Mays Landing Road, Brownies in Bargaintown, and a half dozen other ragged roadhouses that have survived, you have to make this place your destination, stop there going or coming from somewhere else, or stumble on it when your lost.
It doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside, after you get pass the rows of take-out beer, wine and liquor store, there's a real juke joint, complete with pool table and high wall, hardwood, ski lodge motif. The walls are so high in fact, there's a tables in a balcony that overlooks the bar.
There's some room out back too, for a barbeque, and plenty of room to park, so you know they've had some good bike runs here, regardless of who owned the place. Besides Harrisons, I heard that an old Marine owned it for awhile, and it seems to have a history that I've yet to dig up.
They opened three days previous, even though they weren't ready, and some of the people came back, including this retired guy and his friend next to me. They enjoyed their steak the other night but this time they get a seafood house scampi (shrimp, scallops, clams, lobster tail) in white wine sauce over linguine, and said they really enjoyed it. And it looked good to, especailly with the red wine to go with it. ($18.95)
I got a rib eye and it too was really good, medium rare, with a baked potato and salad that came in a $15.95.
They got some other fine dining stuff too - broiled flounder ($14.95), old fashioned meat loaf ($12.95), home made lasagne ($11.95), fettuccini Alfredo ($11), Gumbo ($13) and a Cranberry's Delight, of lightly dusted shrimp mixed in garlic oil, fresh basil and sun dried tomatoes over linguini ($15.95).
Don't let that scare you though, as they also have club sandwiches, burgers, hoagies, wings ($7), wraps and cheese steaks ($8), fried apps, really fine salids ($5-8) and kids menu.
It's a mix of Americana, steak, seafood, Italian and neoclassical Navy cafateria, and if not truely great, like my rib eye, I'm sure it's all really good.
Sitting with me at the bar, besides the two retired guys from the city, were two of the Bogs Boys and their gals, sizing up the joint for a possible gig, a place they've played before.
I thought I knew them from Albert Hall, and sure enough, they play bluegrass, and have a special night they jam at a joint not far away that they gave me directions to, and I promise to check them out.
Among the new owners, Dean was still running around getting things together, and Bob was running the bar, and there's also Gene and Joe, but the big thing they have going here, as far as I can tell, is Leon in the kitchen.
When I told Leon that I had run into him at JC's in Browns Mills, and he excitedly told me about opening this place, he remembered, "Oh, yea," and took me back to show me the kitchen, how small and compact it is, but everything you need for one person to cook really good, really fast.
It was just right, and everything was really clean, and back in storage and refrigeration, he showed me how organized it all was, and it really was, Navy template, clean and organized, just like aboard ship.
Well, Leon may not have been ready last Friday when they opened this place for the first time, but he's now got it together, so if you all want to come out and check out this joint, or if you are on the way down the shore or Lakehurst, the other end of the base, or if you're lost and just happen to stuble on it, THIS IS THE PLACE.
I can see it now, once it gets a handle, a great motorcycle run, some mean bluegrass by the Bogs Boys, a slew of really good meals and good times with new friends.
But you got to remember you got to run the Manchester Gauntlet to get back to the other end of the base, so be carefull.