Hunter’s Casual Crusades: Red Oak Grill (Hazlet, NJ)

All good things unfortunately must come to a close. We have lived in the high moments with our favorite sports legends and movie stars wondering, “How could this ever end?” Then, in the blink of an eye, they are shedding one final tear for the fans that stuck with them until the end; being welcomed into the world of retirement as the cameras flash for the last time. Over the years, I’ve seen many restaurants move, close down, and get out-of-town. In today’s economy, it’s tough for even the best to stay afloat. The Red Oak Diner in Hazlet, New Jersey flirted with this fate. After 50 years of numerous memorable karaoke nights, late night laughs, and sports games at the bar, the big Oak heard the fat lady sing. Luckily for local residents, they are back in business!

Yes it’s true! After only a few months, the half-century old Red Oak Diner has reopened in the seasoned favorite Airport Plaza as “The Red Oak Grill”. Being in the previous location’s backyard off of Highway 36, the decision was easy. I had to get back in there as soon as possible. I didn’t want to waste any time although there was slight hesitation— I was skeptical.

One of my adored hangouts was reopening, yes, but in a much smaller venue. I thought I was in for a small mom-and-pop band-box with a couple of tables. After stepping through the door, my mind was blown with how phenomenal the place actually looked. It’s still a work in progress; eight flat screens surround the restaurant with a ninth about to be put up behind the counter, not yet hooked up. There is also a cooler for grab-and-go goods which is about to be plugged in. So they are not exactly 100% yet. However they are open for business with a near identical menu. An official “Grand Reopening” is expected to be right around the corner.

Let’s get down to it: I always try to get too creative so I forced myself down the simple route for a light lunch. A $5 special for a blackened chicken Caesar salad with a chicken and rice soup sounded satisfying enough. A respectable combination for the price. However, you get what you pay for right? Nope, not in this case. The salad I had put in front of me could easily have been $10.95 at any other establishment. A whole cutlet worth of perfectly grilled chicken seasoned to perfection with Cajun spices. Quality Caesar dressing came on the side, and plenty of it. The soup was loaded with vegetables, shredded chicken, and perfectly cooked rice with the expected classic saltine crackers. The tag team combination filled me up with lots of food left on the plate, fantastic food for a five dollar bill.

All of this commotion for some soup and a salad? Maybe a bit much, sure, but my message is clear: the Red Oak is back and here to stay. Looking at my buddy’s loaded juicy cheeseburger wrap, we didn’t have to say a word. The food has not changed, and I’ll be back again very soon. A convenience to its customers by reopening in record time with the same friendly service, just down the road with little difference deserves 4 out of 5 stars from me. A soup and a salad may not be enough to secure such a high rating, so admittedly it had some influence from the previous location. There’s only one way to test the solidity of my bold, declarative statement, and that’s just to simply check it out for yourself.

Hunter Dillon is a guest blogger on Eating New Jersey. As a hockey player, he is always on the go, which has served as the inspiration for his “Casual Crusades” column. He has more than four years of restaurant kitchen experience and can cook up the best cheesesteaks outside of Philadelphia. 

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