As bleak as this picture I'm painting is, it actually just got a whole lot gloomier, as Carteret's one shining example of the good life was shut down to make way for a new overpass. Some call this progress. If you grew up in Carteret, there's a pretty good chance you've been eating at Burger Express since you were old enough to handle real food. Burger Express, or "B 'n E" as we referred to it locally, was a fast food burger joint that was as unpretentious as a truckstop urinal. The large sign atop the fifty-foot pole outside didn't even bear the restaurant's name. One side said 'cheese fries' and the other said 'fried chicken'. The shop never changed its exterior, it's interior, or the menu. It was the same last week when it closed down as it was 25 years ago.
I heard through friends who still live in NJ that B 'n E was closing (they pointed me to a myspace page dedicated to saving the restaurant) so when I arrived at Newark Airport early in the morning on Christmas Eve last month, I headed there immediately. I loaded up a box of their signature breakfast sandwiches -- taylor ham, egg, and cheese -- along with the free 12oz coffees they come with and headed straight to my mom's house to chow down. It was as good as I remember it. So good in fact, I had two.
I hadn't been in the restaurant in a number of years, but it was exactly as I remember it. The same chairs, the same hideous yellow counter, and the same closet-sized bathrooms. I love it. I felt at home again. The only changes I noticed were that they no longer had any arcade games and the train was gone. Ah yes, the train. B 'n E wasn't called Burger Express because of its super-fast service, but moreso because the place had a train thing going on. Photos of old trains adorn the walls, there's a little locomotive boy in their logo, and the coupe de grace was the train. At least it used to be. They had a collection of kiddie tables built into the shape of a series of train cars along one wall, complete with a locomotive shaped out of some wood and a black steel drum. Going there as a kid and sitting in the train was better than any McDonald's playland. It was a train!
The train may have died an early death, but what's really important survived the test of time, and that's the food. Last Sunday night was the final night of business for B 'n E and my friend Ed phoned me a photo he took outside. The parking lot was jam-packed. It was as crowded as it ever was after a high school basketball game or dance and he said the cheese fries and locomotive burger was as good as ever. It's really hard to believe that an institution like Burger Express -- a place that truly defined the town -- could be torn down. But that's Carteret for you. First the track program gets cut from the budget, now Burger Express gets bulldozed. Just another reason why people like me leave that town and never return.
One of my good friends, James, has a great collection of photos of Burger Express on his Flickr site. You can view them here.