May 21, 2024
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Long Branch: Who’s Ready for Summer?

Summer is here, and that means that plenty of people are looking forward to vacations. And while you might want to check out some tropical locale at the far reaches of the explored world, you might also be surprised that there are some options right in your backyard.

Well, probably not right in your backyard, but much closer to home than you think. Though it may not be quite as exciting to check out Long Branch, New Jersey, as it would be to take an exotic trip to Fiji, closer to home brings its own set of advantages.

Perhaps the biggest of those is kosher food. We’ve all been on that vacation where we are eating tuna sandwiches and a bag of potato chips from the local supermarket while we watch the masses chow down on cuisine to haunt us in our dreams. But in 2023, vacations with kosher options are at an all-time high. There are kosher hotels in the Caribbean, kosher cruises to Alaska, and Chabad houses in (most) corners of the earth.

 

But what about if you aren’t looking to get on a plane? Sure, you want a change of scenery, but you don’t have a ton of vacation days and you don’t want to pack a passport. In that case, might I suggest Pier Village.

If you aren’t familiar with Pier Village, I wouldn’t blame you. A lot has gone into developing the stretch of boardwalk, beachfront and attractions, but most of it didn’t really hit the big time until about five years ago. Now, the area is one of the most popular destinations on the Jersey Shore for tourists … but particularly Orthodox Jews.

One reason is certainly the location. Virtually every Jewish community in New Jersey is within a 90-minute drive. Assuming you aren’t trying to drive during rush hour, you can likely make it there in under two hours from places like Brooklyn, Queens, the Five Towns, Monsey or even Stamford. What if you live in Manhattan and don’t have a car? Well, there’s a train (NJ Transit, 95 minutes) that will drop you off within walking distance of Pier Village.

If you’re looking for a place to stay, the clear favorite is Wave Resort & Spa. The modern boutique hotel is located right on the waterfront with all of the rooms featuring at least a partial ocean view and a terrace. The rooms may be fantastic, but you’ll likely want to spend very little time inside them. The spa’s extensive menu features everything from classic massages to interesting treatments involving sand and sea granules. There’s even an option for expectant mothers.

For some, the hotel pool might be relaxing enough. With a pool deck on its second floor that overlooks the beach and ocean, it’s a great place to hang out. If you’re traveling with young kids, you might want to check out the playroom. Just inside from the pool deck, it features books, toys, games, and even a miniature two-tier fort to entertain kids.

But the main attraction is obviously the beach. There’s nothing like walking straight from your room to a beautiful stretch of sand and surf. The hotel provides beach chairs, towels, and even a few toys if you wake up early enough to borrow them from the front desk. Plus, you can enjoy all that the beach has to offer and leave that pesky sand behind. There are outdoor showers with high and low spouts to wash the sand off before you walk back onto the boardwalk.

In classic shore fashion, the boardwalk features a bevy of dessert options. Like virtually everything in this area, the kosher supervision is provided by the Jersey Shore Orthodox Rabbinate (JSOR). Check their website or the posted certificate in each store regarding the particular information.

The Baked Bear serves up ice cream sandwiches, but not the type you’re used to. These are custom made from freshly baked cookies or brownies, their own flavors of ice cream, and your choice of toppings. In case you aren’t keen on trying to lift one, they also have bowls where the base is cookie or brownie. They’ll also make you a sundae or sell you the sandwich components separately if that’s your thing.

My favorite cookie was their signature Cookie Monster. Blue like its namesake, this cookie has white chocolate chips and pieces of both Oreo and Chips Ahoy. For ice cream, I’d recommend the Caramel Pretzel Fudge, which went really well on my brownie sandwich. Frankly, everything was great, but the most impressive thing was the expertise on display as they created a finished product that was somehow structurally sound. Still, I’ll understand if you go with a spoon.

Maybe you’d rather your ice cream be delivered via waffle instead of cookie? Go over to Coney Waffle where they’ve got ice cream soft and hard, milkshakes, freezes (soft ice cream with topping blended in), floats, cones (dipped is an option) and cups … and they’ve got some of the most insane creations you’ve ever seen.

Check out The Big Show. It’s a giant milkshake with a structure built on top that includes: a waffle, an ice cream sandwich, an ice cream cone, a full size chocolate bar, a full size cotton candy, and some gummy candies for good measure. A family could share this thing. But if you’re slightly less hungry, I’d suggest the standard Waffle and Ice Cream. It’s three scoops of ice cream served on a waffle (use it like a taco). My favorite flavor was Jersey S’more (graham cracker ice cream, marshmallow swirl, brownie and chocolate chunks). They also have a number of pareve options if that’s what you need.

What if you’re not into cookies or waffles, but still want to eat ice cream on some form of pastry? Alright, that’s pretty specific, but Sundae Donuts is here for that. The new kid on the block offers people a chance to make a sundae, but with one of many interesting types of doughnuts as a base. They also have ice cream and milkshakes that are infused with doughnut pieces. You could just get a doughnut, but what’s vacation really for?

It’s already pretty rare to have so many kosher options, but you might want to take advantage of being near the only kosher location (out of 150 nationwide) of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. They have a wide variety of treats, including many that we just don’t really see in the kosher world.

It’s hard not to notice the caramel apples when you walk in. They look like a picture in a magazine with all the different coatings and toppings. I chose to try the Pecan Bear Caramel Apple, and it was just as delicious as it was difficult to eat. The key is to get a bite through that outer crust (it’s a Granny Smith dipped in caramel, rolled in roasted pecans, drizzled with milk chocolate and white confection) so that you get a piece of the apple. The sour taste of the apple actually balances really well with the coating. My other recommendations would be their English Toffee and, of course, their Ole Fashioned Fudge.

One last sweet stop on the boardwalk is Sugar Pop Candy Bar. While not everything here is under supervision, the owners have made sure to very clearly mark what’s kosher because of the number of kosher-keeping visitors. They have frozen yogurt, Uncle Louie G’s Italian Ice, popcorn, slushies, and sections of kosher candy including gummies. Just make sure that you read the signage.

While boardwalks usually feature plenty of dessert options, they’re also home to something often referred to as “beach food,” and Pier Village may be home to the only kosher beach food restaurant anywhere. At LBK Grill, you’ll order at a long counter with windows, and your family can eat at one of the picnic tables in front or take your food right to the beach with you. They have diverse appetizer offerings, sandwiches (burgers, wraps and more), salads, desserts and drinks.

The Combo Box will give you a little bit of a few appetizers on a large bed of fries and is perfect to split with a group. The Pulled BBQ Beef Brisket is their most popular sandwich for a reason, but there are plenty of options if that’s not your thing. If you want to be eligible to try some of the local dairy dessert options, don’t worry. They have separate fryers for certain things, and you can order the Fish & Chips without limiting yourself later. That said, LBK’s Fried Oreos are awesome, so feel free to grab dessert here, too.

Last, but certainly not least, the crown jewel of the kosher food scene at the Jersey Shore (and maybe all of New Jersey) is Salt Steakhouse. But for a full review of Salt, you’ll have to turn to page 115.

As amazing as all of the food sounds, you’re going to want to schedule some activities between all those calories. Luckily, the boardwalk features many things for you to do other than just sitting on the beach (not that there’s anything wrong with that). There are a bunch of great stores and shops, some big national brands that might come in handy in a pinch (7-Eleven, Starbucks) and a bunch of great spots to take a family picture with beachy statues, props or sculptures. But let’s take a look at some of the places you might want to seek out along the way…

A big feature of the boardwalk is the Pier Village Carousel. It may have a few more sea creatures than your average carousel, but this classic will have you feeling nostalgic as you take the ride. The carousel is encased in glass so it can be open all year regardless of weather, and if you happen to be there on a rainy day, you can stay on for an extra ride free of charge.

Another attraction that might strike up that state fair vibe is Boardwalk Fun and Games, the resident arcade. Play all of your favorite arcade classics (skeeball, Pac-Man, claw machines) or go for some of the newer-style games with fancy graphics and rigs. Many of the machines reward players with tickets that can be redeemed for prizes on the way out. It’s a great place to hang out if you’re trying to get out of the sun for an hour or two.

Some members of your party might enjoy Little Words Project, a unique offering that allows customers to make their own custom jewelry. Sure, you could just walk in and buy something off the rack. But if you have the time, you can sit at a table and make something of your own. You can string together small beads to write a message, name, or anything you want. The possibilities are endless, and it makes for a nice memento of your vacation.

Looking for something more adult? Head into Baldy Art Gallery where you’ll find an eye-popping display of fine photographic art from distinguished artists. This might not be the place to buy a souvenir (unless your budget has four digits), but it’s a great place to take a quick peek at some beautiful works of art. Many of the pieces are themed to the beach, some of which you can also see displayed in the lobby of the Wave across the street.

If you’re up for a bit of a walk and have kids that need to blow off some steam, head past the end of the Pier Village boardwalk and through the residential neighborhood for a few minutes until you reach Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park. Named for the seven former United States presidents who took official vacations to Long Branch, this park features two things that make it worth the walk.

For the action sports crowd, the Skateplex is a skate park with all the trimmings for those who want to bring their skateboards, rollerblades or bikes. For the younger kids Tony’s Place is a massive, award-winning playground that has something for kids of all ages. You can also find picnic tables if you want to bring food and eat there while the young ones play.

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There’s a lot to do at Pier Village, but let’s say you’re looking to spend Shabbat at a hotel in the local community. For that, I’d recommend the Sheraton Eatontown Hotel. Situated inside the eruv and a 20-25 minute walk from the nearest shul, the hotel is very familiar with Shabbat-observant guests. The hotel staff put a second refrigerator in our room, provided us with a magnetic strip for our door, and they even let us park our stroller on the ground floor so we didn’t have to fold and carry it up the stairs.

The hotel has suites that include a second room which is ideal for those going for Shabbat. Whether you choose to use the extra room as a place to eat, as a playroom for your kids, or just as a place to hang out and read a book, having more space is nice. That said, there’s also a nice outdoor patio that you can use if that’s more your thing.

Another nice feature of the hotel is their indoor/outdoor pool. While most of the pool is inside, there’s a glass wall separating it from the outside portion with a kind of tunnel in between. Not only is this a cool feature that allows those in the pool to swim from inside to outside and back, but it’s also useful when the weather is a bit spotty.

Speaking of Shabbat, you might bring your own food with you. But you could also take advantage of being only a few minutes from Deal and local hot spot Sarah’s Tent. It gets a little crazy on Fridays with everyone getting Shabbat takeout from what is basically a mini mart (carrying a decent variety of kosher packaged goods) with three counters featuring tons of takeout options. You’re in Deal, so you have to grab some mazza (appetizers) at the first counter. It’s a full spread, but my favorite was the Lachmagine (popular enough to be sold by the dozen). The second counter is dedicated to the many types of chicken. Of the various types, I’d suggest the Tennessee and Chipotle chicken tenders.

The main counter carries basically everything else, but two things I’d recommend you grab are the Honey Garlic Roast (great balanced flavor) and the Stuffed Chicken Breast (the stuffing makes for a taste of Thanksgiving). On the grocery side, don’t sleep on the house-made dips, the best of which is the South of the Border. Just remember that you’re in Deal, which means a Sephardi population and some real spiciness. Sarah’s Tent only really makes one dessert, but it’s a great one. The Toll House Pie is a cookie pie with chocolate and marshmallow and a warm slice really hits the spot.

If Saturday night rolls around and you’re looking to get some pizza, visit Crust Co. Pizza in West Long Branch. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s open late, even when Shabbat ends late. Grab a veggie slice and some fries if you’re trying to satisfy that classic Saturday night craving. Tables are fairly hard to come by, so be prepared to take it with you if needed.

Continuing with the Jewish weekend timeline, some people wake up on Sunday morning and want bagels. But this is vacation and you can’t leave the Jersey Shore without stopping by the famous Broad Street Dough Co. in Oakhurst. It’s a few minutes from Long Branch, but it’s certainly worth it. With doughnuts that are fried and decorated to order in front of you, this place is really fun to walk into.

An extensive menu with pictures will be on the wall, whereas the specials of the day are usually on display at the counter (though you get a fresh one). The two that really stood out to me were the Howell Crunch (maple, vanilla and Cinnamon Toast Crunch) and the Broadstreet (chocolate, pretzels, peanuts, caramel). Keep in mind that they can make any of these doughnuts as miniatures and can make many of them both gluten-free and vegan using an alternative dough.

One more area of Long Branch that you should be aware of is the West End. Not really the west end of anything, it gets its name from the streets that are named for places in London. It’s located about a mile south of Pier Village and it’s where most of the shuls are. So if you’re looking for a minyan, you’ll find it there at Chabad of the Shore, one the two Sephardic shuls (Shaare Ezra or Sephardic Torah Center), or the Ashkenaz shul that only has a minyan on Shabbat (Brothers of Israel).

West End also features the rest of the kosher options in the area including Grandma’s Cheese Cafe. If it’s brunch you’re looking for, this is the place for you. Soups, sandwiches, toasts, salads, pasta … they’ve got everything you want. And don’t forget to pick up some of their signature cheeses on your way out. It’s one of the few places to buy kosher burrata, and the Syrian-style flavored string cheeses are awesome.

If it’s a sandwich you want, try the Pesto Panini. The ciabatta bread is a great crust and they use both pesto and their house pesto cheese to make the flavor extra strong. The Tomato Soup is also a bestseller and goes well with anything from the Grandma’s Avo Toast (made with spicy cheese on sourdough) to one of the tuna sandwiches. My strongest recommendation goes to the Fettuccine Alfredo with its perfect combination of creaminess and cheesiness.

The dessert options in this part of town are a little bit lighter than on the boardwalk, but you still have a couple options. You can try Strollo’s Lighthouse for Italian ices so smooth they come out of a kind of frozen yogurt machine. They have eight flavors and will put as many as four in the same cup! They also carry soft-serve ice cream and can make a “breeze” that blends the ice cream and italian ice together. For ices alone, I’d suggest the lemon or mango. If you’re adventurous enough to try the breeze, try blending the peanut butter ice into the vanilla ice cream.

Right down the block you’ll find Urban Pops, a shore summer staple. They serve a wide variety of pareve sorbet and gelato pops. Made with high-quality ingredients and coming in mini and full size, these delightful treats really run the gamut when it comes to flavor profiles. From strawberry shortcake to limonana and from Ferrero Rocher to Napoleon, you’ll have plenty of options from which to choose.

The original fine dining place in town, 656 Ocean is here as well. Open for almost 20 years, this American bistro has been serving upscale cuisine long before the recent explosion of kosher options in the area. Whether it’s sushi, salads, steaks, or their selection of eclectic entrees, 656 is a reliable option that will likely be around for years to come.

In the same building, you’ll find Stinger’s Diner, a sports bar with a retro theme that looks like it’s out of a movie set. With its cool neon lighting, black and white floor tiles, and booths that include a few that are meant to look like convertibles from the 1950s, you won’t find another place like this anywhere in the kosher world. They have a full bar with a bunch of TVs for you to follow any sporting event you’re looking for. Their menu includes sushi and salads, but it’s a sports bar, so their specialties are really the burgers, subs, wraps and sandwiches.

The Pulled Beef Sub is a good choice if you’re looking for something simple. The toasted sub and the pulled beef make for a great “crunch and mush” mouthfeel and the beef taste isn’t drowned out by the barbeque sauce. The Smokehouse Burger is a really solid, hearty burger with all the requisite veggie toppings, along with your choice of pulled beef, smoked brisket or pastrami. I went with the brisket and wasn’t disappointed. The Steak Fajita Platter is a do-it-yourself wrap that comes with strips of steak, peppers and onions, and rice. The portion is so big you couldn’t possibly fit everything in the wrap, but you’ll be glad to have extra to eat with a fork.

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on in Long Branch these days. If you’re looking to just visit for a day at the beach, do three days of activities, or even a full week of relaxing including a Shabbat, the shore is ready for you.

Are you ready for it?

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