Tuckerton-Little Egg Harbor Leader

Tuckerton Beach Grille, ‘Reinventing’ Post-Sandy, Adds Sushi Chef

By MARIA SCANDALE | Dec 07, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Tuckerton Beach Grille has added sushi to its menu, employing a chef from the fire-destroyed Caffrey’s in Forked River. Chef Jose Vargas is attracting customers who say they knew of his talent at sushi from his last place of employment.

He chops and assembles with more than 20 years experience. The restaurant patrons are excited about the fresh new choices available Wednesday through Monday.

Twenty-two kinds of sushi rolls, plus sushi entrees and appetizers, are attracting attention at the restaurant on the bay at 1000 South Green St.

The addition of Vargas is an outreach by Tuckerton Beach Grille to continue an upswing after Superstorm Sandy. Some history is vital as background here, because resourcefulness has worked for owner/chef Romeo Robles many times before. His talent was brought from Oaxaca, Mexico to great kitchens in Chicago, and later on Long Beach Island.

Robles’ former Beach Haven restaurant, Romeo’s, stood out as a top destination starting in 1987 for such delights as duck a l’orange, roasted to perfection and glazed with a tangy orange sauce and set aflame with grand marnier. It’s one of a variety of entrees now served in Tuckerton.

He previously made a name for himself at Gus & Whitey’s, which became the up-to-1,000-dinners-a-night Port ’O Call (now Tucker’s) in Beach Haven. No one else made snapper soup from scratch like he did, starting with the turtle carcasses and finishing the spiced broth with five gallons of sherry wine and some tabasco.

Alas, that talent cannot be tasted today. “It’s illegal now; they don’t want to kill the turtles,” he remarked. “But people used to buy gallons of it at the shore to take home.”

In 2006 he sold Romeo’s, which was a summer-only business yet in an upscale vacation resort where people had more money to spend.

“I always wanted a year-round business with a liquor license,” he recalls about that decision.

Superstorm Sandy stormed up the bayside in 2012, evacuating many of the Tuckerton Beach Grille customer neighbors for the long-term. Some are still trying to finance rebuilding homes, or have just recently gotten back into post-storm raised homes.

Tuckerton Beach Grille had a million dollars in damage. Insurance did not cover it all, so rebuilding was an exercise in determination.

“It was a challenge,” Robles characterized.

The remodeled outcome was this: to the left of the traditional front dining room with fireplace and Saturday piano player, is a tavern-like bar that gained eight flat-screen TVs and a modern wall-unit fireplace. For the busiest months, Robles expanded that bar into an additional room to double the casual seating space, adding a dance floor. Through doors to the right, a 100-seat banquet room adjoins. From an outdoor patio, you can see the distant Atlantic City skyline beyond Great Bay.

On past the bars is the home of the new sushi chef.

In a beachy-styled, multi-season enclosed patio called Tuck’d Away, Vargas has the stainless steel-and-glass showcase for his sushi creations. They are made there, but in the winter, customers can eat them in the toasty-warm bar area or the dining room.

The sushi is available from 4 p.m. on.

The weekday that we visited at noon, the chef was already there, planning the day’s preparations.

Fresh tuna and other sushi products are from a USDA-certified supplier in Elizabeth. “We have all kinds of fresh fish: tuna, salmon, yellowtail, eel ... and vegetables for the vegetable sushi.”

Schooling in Philadelphia and training from a chef friend began his experience in the art of sushi, of which Vargas remains modest. Losing his workplace at Caffrey’s Tavern to a three-alarm inferno Sept. 6 was “a big impact to everybody who worked there,” Vargas said. He had worked there more than 20 years.

Vargas, who came from Puebla, Mexico at age 14, has head chef experience. Robles would like to eventually employ him in an all-around chef capacity at the Beach Grille. For now, he is helping to develop specials, in addition to the sushi.

“Everybody is loving it,” Vargas said. “We got a very good response, really positive, about the way we are doing things. I’m happy that people like my sushi, but it’s not just the sushi. It’s everything. We’re trying to do a little bit different things.”

He was referring to daily specials and weekend high-end specials, as well as comfort food specials on Sundays.

“We do good business on the weekends, but during the week it’s really quiet,” Robles said.

“In Sandy, I took a hit, big-time.” Unlike Beach Haven, “Here, we still have to depend on more people who live around here (all year). And after Sandy, some of the people didn’t even come back.

“People are buying houses now, and it’s getting better.

“After Sandy, business went down 60 percent. Every year, little by little, it’s coming back now. We only have this much,” he indicated with a stretch of two fingers,” to get back to where we were.

“But after Sandy, I was going to walk away. I said, ‘You know what, if I walk away, who’s going to hire me at age 64?’ Even when I knew what I could do, it’s hard to get somebody to hire you. I would have lost my business, would have lost my house, everything.

“So we’re here now. We attempt to reinvent ourselves. And we’re trying that by the sushi, to bring people from the outside. Because, when you think about it, we are right off Route 9.

“In reality, this place should more be like a destination place. So I need to have fun things that nobody (else) has around here.

“The word is getting around: this guy makes very good sushi!”

The sushi joins the Grille’s extensive menu of Early Diner ($10-$12) meals; entrees from jumbo lump meat crab cakes to veal Parmigiana, to German-style pork cutlet, to char-gilled filet mignon; black Angus burgers in Mexican, Cajun, Bacon, New Orleans and Venetian varieties; homemade soups; appetizers from clams to potstickers; sandwiches and salads.

The menu applies all day, Robles said. If you want a dinner-sized meal at lunch, you can get it. But if you want to eat light later, instead of having supper, you don’t have to worry about that, either.

Catering and “to go” trays are also available.

To learn more, go to tuckertonbeachgrille.com, or call 609-294-3600.

mariascandale@thesandpaper.net

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