All posts by Dan Floyd

Nguyen Seafood & Steakhouse-Uniontown PA

Or, How to Spot a Mediocre Sushi Restaurant

The recent heat wave has driven me to spend even more time in air-conditioned bars and restaurants (mostly bars) and to consume lighter and cooler food. This craving for “cool and fresh” brought to mind sushi and led me, on a sweltering afternoon, to Nguyen Seafood and Steakhouse in Uniontown. Nguyen (pronounced “win”) is located in a small, bland strip mall on Pittsburgh Street and is marked by a modest, unimposing sign. Nguyen Seafood & Steakhouse-Uniontown PAThe modest exterior should not be taken as a predictor of the interior, as inside you will find an immaculate and sophisticated décor. The name Nguyen is Vietnamese which should raise a red flag. Rule #1: Eat sushi in a Japanese restaurant, not some other nationality. The tiny (5 seat) sushi bar is located immediately inside the entrance of the restaurant, which raised another red flag. Rule #2: A sushi bar should have a serene, relaxing atmosphere. Although it was the middle of the afternoon, even the limited traffic in and out of the front door was distracting. I can only imagine how it would be on a busy night or perhaps a January evening when the wind is gusting. I took a seat at the bar and was informed the restaurant was BYOB, so I went back to the car where I just happened to have a six of Labatt Blue chilling on ice. I would have preferred a Sapporo, but any beer with a clean finish is my preferred choice to drink with sushi. A perusal of the sushi display case raised more red flags. Rule #3: Seafood displayed in the sushi cooler should be look appealing and fresh. In this case, some of the fish were lacking the gloss of super fresh fish and the asparagus spears were either badly cooked or had sat too long as they were not bright green and were wrinkled. In addition, although I’m resigned to the fact that most restaurants now use surimi (fake crab) for Kani (crab), why do they have to advertise the fact by displaying it? The disposable pens on the counter were another bad sign. Rule #4: Good sushi bars do NOT have you place your order on a slip of paper. A good sushi experience is about building a relationship with your Itamae (Chef), and together you manage the ebb and flow of the meal. By being forced to order the entire meal at once, and doing it through a waitress instead of the Itamae, completely removes a major element of the sushi meal. In addition, having all of the sushi on the plate at once means that by the time you get to the final pieces on your plate they will likely no longer be at the proper temperature. A scan of the order sheet raised even more red flags. Rule #5: A good sushi restaurant doesn’t offer more cooked items or non-traditional items (Volcano Rolls, California Rolls, etc.) than they do raw. This restaurant offered 11 raw items if you count the Ikura (salmon roe) and Masago (flying fish roe). Compare this to a whopping 32 non-traditional items and you’ll get a sense of the kind of customers this restaurant attracts. In spite of all the red flags, I checked the little boxes, sat back and waited for my meal. I started with a bit of goma wakame, or seaweed salad. These bright green threads of wakame seaweed are combined with chiles, sesame seeds, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Since this item can be bought commercially prepared, it is difficult to tell whether it was prepared in-house. This version tasted the same as most of the others I’ve eaten, but the portion size was about double. I’m not usually one to complain about larger portions, but in this case I would have been happy with a bit smaller portion, as sesame oil has a way of sticking with you. The back of the sushi counter was very high, making it impossible to watch the Itamae prepare the meal, which removed one of he pleasures of sitting at the bar. When the food arrived, I was surprised to see that I had inadvertently ordered sashimi instead of sushi (Damn those order sheets!), but the beautiful presentation gave me some hope I would have a successful meal. The three raw items I ordered were presented in cucumber cups and were folded to resemble petals of a flower. Julienne strips of cucumber and sprigs of celery tops were placed to resemble the flower’s stamens. At first glance the presentation was successful, but closer examination revealed some flaws. The celery tops were not properly washed, leaving them marred by black specks. The wasabi was too dry, making it look like a ball of clay (complete with finger prints) and also difficult to disperse in the shoyu (soy sauce). Maguro (tuna) was the first sashimi I tried. It exhibited the clean taste you’re looking for with a clear even color. Sake (salmon) was next and although the taste was rich, I found the texture to be a bit flabby. I finished the raw fishes with the stronger tasting hamachi (yellowtail). It was a touch on the dry side, but the bold flavor you look for in hamachi was not marred by any fishiness. All three fishes were acceptable but all were served a touch too warm, a result of placing the order all at one time. I ended the meal with an order of unagi (eel) and here we had real problems. Unagi is grilled fresh water eel served with the skin on and is served hot. By the time I ate through the raw sushi the unagi was only luke warm. Even worse, the skin was no longer crisp as it should have been. I couldn’t really tell if the lack of crispness was due to improper cooking or if it simply lost it due to sitting skin side down on the plate while I ate the raw sashimi. Either way, it was a long way from proper. Overall, this was not bad sushi, but it was a bad experience. The ordering method completely ruined the ritual of eating sushi and removed the essence of the experience. In this case, the confusion of the ordering process kept me from tasting a wider range of items. If you’re looking for sushi as an appetizer before a meal, Nguyen is acceptable. However, if you want a real sushi experience look elsewhere.

 
Nguyen Seafood & Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Lone Star Restaurant: Classic Diner Food

On several recent research trips to the National Road, I have found myself eating at the Lone Star Restaurant. Located in Markleysburg Pennsylvania, this Lone Star was founded 65 years before the better known chain which bears the same moniker, and is more in the mold of a diner than a steakhouse. I first stopped in for breakfast in the middle of the week and was a bit concerned that there were only two other patrons seated. I prayed the lack of business wasn’t a reflection on the quality of food or service. A menu was presented and I immediately noticed country ham was listed, which is a bit unusual to see this far north. Not having enjoyed that southern specialty recently, I ordered it along with eggs (over easy) and home fries. The only regional specialty I noticed on the breakfast menu was buckwheat cakes which were available seasonally. While waiting for the meal, I took in the interior of the restaurant which had vintage stainless pedestal stools at the counter in alternating black and red tops. The floor tiles were a matching black and red and the red laminate counter showed evidence of the presence of many elbows over the years. The pie safe displayed a tempting array of house baked pies, but it was a bit early in the day for me to get into dessert. The food arrived in a flash, as you would expect with only two other patrons in the restaurant, and I noticed immediately that what they billed as country ham was in fact a thick ham steak. I was a bit disappointed that I was not going to get my country ham fix, but that feeling soon vanished as I dug into the meal. The ham was a REAL steak, nearly ½ inch thick with a nice marrow bone in the center, as opposed to the over process molded products many restaurants use. The eggs were perfectly cooked and exhibited no off-taste from “butter flavored” oil, nor were they marred by extraneous bits of carbonized food from an improperly cleaned grill. The massive mound of home fries filled the rest of the plate, and they were prepared with freshly cooked potatoes. My only complaint was the potatoes were not seasoned. Yes, I can add salt and pepper, but the judicious addition of seasoning in the kitchen is a much better option. As I paid my check, I noticed the restaurant offered fresh-baked sweet rolls for take out sales, but those would have to wait until I drop a few pounds. Overall, a very good breakfast, but I vowed to return to see if the Lone Star could repeat the performance when the restaurant was busier.

Lone Star Restaurant interior
Vintage counter stools at the Lone Star Restaurant

I next arrived at noon on a Saturday, and the Lone Star was much busier as I had expected. Every table in the restaurant was taken, but there were still seats at the counter. My goal this time was to determine whether the food was as “home style” as advertised and whether they could crank it out when busy. The second question was answered in the affirmative when my food arrived just as fast as it had on my first visit, even though the restaurant wasnearly full. I started with a cup of chicken noodle soup ($2.45) which was advertised as being made in-house, and it was. Although it was a basic preparation, the broth was well made and seasoned properly. All of the ingredients were well cooked, with my only complaint being that the soup could have been a bit hotter. I also ordered an egg salad sandwich ($2.95) with a side of pickled egg ($.60). I know, a side of egg with an egg sandwich? Well, I didn’t order them because they were complimentary, I ordered then as indicators of how the kitchen works. I confirmed the pickled egg was Amish style, being prepared with beets, and that the kitchen knows how to properly hard boil an egg (not as cut and dried as you think).

The egg salad sandwich was ordered as a test of freshness and service speed. Egg salad easily spoils and also has the property of picking up off odors from a refrigerator when it sits too long. I could tell by looking the salad was fresh, as the kitchen had used red onion in its preparation and there was no evidence of bleeding. This was confirmed by tasting, and I was pleased to notice the toast was warm indicating that the sandwich was served immediately after it was made. It doesn’t take long for cold egg salad to cool down warm toast. Cream Pie at the Lone Star RestaurantI topped the meal with a slice of Coconut Cream Pie ($2.75), long a staple of the diner trade. This version was as good as I’ve eaten, with the impossibly high meringue showing no signs of weeping and the clearly handmade crust exhibiting no sign of sogginess. Although there was nothing terribly interesting on the menu, The Lone Star Restaurant offers up solid comfort food at a fair price. To me it’s no surprise they have been in business for 90 years, and I have no doubt they’ll be there for many more if they just keep doing what they are doing.
Lone Star Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Bombers Over Uniontown at B21 Coffee & Food Depot

For those of you who have followed my reviews, I believe you’ll detect a certain philosophy of food which my writing affirms. I stand for honesty, respect and a lack of artifice in cuisine. I hold the simple roadside diner in as high regard as the haughtiest of haute cuisine palaces when the ingredients are respected and prepared with care. Opulent surroundings and complex presentations are meaningless if the underlying food is conceived or prepared poorly. I’ve had more memorable meals standing on a street corner in Baja than in many of the high-priced restaurants I’ve eaten in.

One new establishment which adheres to this philosophy is B21 Lunch at B21 Coffe & Food DepotCoffee & Food Depot in Uniontown. Their address is 2 West Main Street, but unless you’re familiar with Uniontown the address can be a bit confusing. I, for one, was confused due to the fact that 2 West Main Street is on the opposite side of the street from 30 East Main Street. I don’t recall ever being in a city that doesn’t adhere to the convention of having odd numbers on one side of the street and even on the other. An additional issue is that the entrance for B21 is actually on Beeson Street, not Main. The confusion is explained by the fact that B21 is located in the basement (bunker) of the First Niagara Bank Building which does front Main Street.

B21 was opened several months ago by Roger Clatterbuck, an experienced and accomplished chef, to bring quality coffee, breakfast and lunch fare to the Uniontown business community. Being business oriented, they are open Monday through Friday from 7:30ish to 2:00 PM with take out orders and delivery a large part of the business. The hours allow Chef Clatterbuck to also run a catering operation known as War Eagle Rations. Chef Clatterbuck is backed up by two experienced chefs specializing in pastry and garde manger. Desserts at B21 Coffe & Food DepotEntering the military themed “bunker”, the patrons are immediately drawn to the wares of the pastry chef which are on prominent display. An array of brownies, cookies and coffee cakes are displayed under glass domes with samples being offered for tasting. The baked goods along with a cup of the excellent Caribou Coffee (which B21 serves) is a popular breakfast on the go for the office workers streaming in every morning. For a more substantial start to your day, breakfast sandwiches are available and are offered on a choice of excellent breads, bagels and naan.

Lunch is basically soup and sandwiches, but as served by B21, they reach a whole new level. Many larger and “classier” restaurants don’t bother to make their own soups anymore, but here the soups are house made and funky. The offering on my recent visit was “Mushroom Beef and Biscuit”, a rich cream of mushroom soup with chunks of beef and biscuits. Definitely a bit unusual. Sometimes you can’t tell what the soups are by their names and you’ll have to ask Chef for the composition. I couldn’t even guess what “1,2 3 OMG Soup” is. The soups are available by the cup, pint or quart and are packed in microwavable deli containers for convenient reheating at the office or home.

Seven sandwiches (“Bombers”) are offered on the menu, but daily specials and the “You design it” option gives the diner a multitude of choices. Continuing the military theme, the sandwiches are named after WWII war birds (though I’m not familiar with a B21). The sandwiches are offered on a choice of breads notably a Pugliese roll, a crusty Italian variety “bigger than a babies head”. I opted for naan, a middle eastern and Indian flat bread, which was stuffed with the daily special chicken salad, Havarti cheese, shredded leaf lettuce and ripe Roma tomatoes. The chicken salad was supremely fresh, with my only complaint being that the pieces of chicken were a bit large to be eaten in the naan. The naan itself, although not prepared on-site, was a lighter, fresher and more flavorful alternative to pita. I’ll forgive them for not making the Naan, as a 900 degree tandoor would turn the small space into a literal oven. Other creative touches include the “gravy-mayonnaise” and corn succotash served with the “XB35 Flying Wind” (turkey and cheddar) and the poblano preserves served with shaved pepper roasted beef sandwich (the “B32 Dominator”). And where else can you get the childhood favorite fried bologna sandwich, serve appropriately on white bread with American cheese and yellow mustard? All sandwiches are priced at $7.50 for a whole and $4.50 per half. Side dishes available include the usual cole slaw and macaroni salad, but being freshly prepared, they far surpass the versions served by many restaurants. Hummus served as a side is a nice touch and several salads are available in two sizes. Since B21 is geared primarily for take out service, the food is served in disposable containers and wrappings which actually adds to the spartan military atmosphere.

Although having limited hours and seating, B21 Coffee & Food Depot offers simple food well prepared with enough creativity to keep it interesting. Uniontown native George C. Marshall would certainly be proud of these “Bombers” and I would have to agree.
B21 Coffee & Food Depot on Urbanspoon

A Lack of Sense and Sensibility at Sisters Cafe

Sisters Cafe-Confluence PAConfluence is one of the hidden gems of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands region. Although a bit isolated today, in earlier times it was an important travel hub due to its location on the Turkeyfoot road and the Youghiogheny River. The Yough meets with the Casselman River and Laurel Hill Creek here, hence the name Confluence. The configuration of this confluence led to the name Turkeyfoot, which is how George Washington referred to the area as early as 1754 on one of his many trips through the area. Today Confluence is known primarily as a tourist destination for outdoor enthusiasts. It’s location on the Great Allegheny Passage brings many cyclists through the town and the Yough is famous for water sports. The damming of the river created the Youghiogheny River Lake, a popular boating destination and the sections above and below the lake offer whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking. The area is also known for its hunting and fishing. With all of the travelers to the area, I thought it might be time to check out some of the culinary options in town.

Sisters Cafe-Confluence PAFirst on my list was Sisters Cafe on Hugart Street in the middle of town. They bill themselves as “Specializing in home style-cooking” and that they serve breakfast all day. The cafe is located in a ’30’s era building with the original stamped tin ceilings, a fact which they note on their website. It’s too bad they installed banks of industrial fluorescent light fixtures on those vintage panels which completely negates the charm the ceiling may have added to the décor. In addition, nearly every surface of the interior is beige which further adds to the feeling of sitting in an office rather than a restaurant. Even the vintage cast ice cream stools at the counter were beige.

After seating myself, a friendly server arrived with the menu in a timely manner. The only item of a regional nature were the buckwheat cakes which were available seasonally. In addition, real maple syrup was available for an additional 75 cents. I also noticed a sign on the wall indicating they would not make pancakes during “peak times”. Really? You offer something on the menu but if you get too busy you won’t make it? I would suggest that if you can’t produce an item all of the time it shouldn’t be on the menu. I didn’t know whether it was “peak time” or not, so I just ordered the “#1 Hearty Breakfast” for $5.50 which included two eggs, home fries, sausage (links or patties) and toast. Although not excessively so, the wait for my meal was longer than I would have expected, indicating that perhaps they do have production issues in the kitchen. I could have excused the wait if the food was good, but I was sorely disappointed. I ordered the eggs over easy but they were almost hard with only the slightest amount of liquid yolk. In addition, they were crisp on the edges and had bits of carbonized food on them from a dirty grill. The sausage was three small links of a nondescript commercial brand that also had crunchy bits of grill scraps on them. The home fries were under seasoned but passable and the toast was your typical bland commercial variety.

There are several ways that restaurants can screw up food. Simple mistakes can happen, such as overcooking a steak or in this case eggs. Those kind of mistakes can be forgiven and won’t necessarily keep me from returning to a restaurant. However, when I’m served food with bits of burnt food on it, that I cannot forgive. Those mistakes are pure carelessness and demonstrate a lack of caring on the part of the restaurant. And if the restaurant doesn’t care, why should I?

Sisters Cafe on Urbanspoon

Scrapple Screw Up at Zambos

My search for properly cooked scrapple recently found me in the hamlet of New Centerville at Zambo’s Country Cottage, a well maintained restaurant on New Centerville Road (RT 281) just north of town. With the exception of a pizza shop/bakery, Zambo’s is the only game in town and usually has a respectable crowd, but on this day the restaurant was empty. Zambos Country CottageThe menu confirmed that Zambo’s did indeed serve scrapple and they also offered mush, which is even rarer on menus these days. For those unfamiliar with mush, think fried polenta. Although some attempt to make a distinction, there is absolutely no practical difference between polenta and cornmeal mush. I was tempted to order both the scrapple and mush, but not being very hungry I stuck with the scrapple, two eggs (over easy), home fries and sausage. One very nice touch was the option of getting onions in the home fries, which I took. Since I was the only patron in the restaurant, the food arrived quickly. As illustrated by the photo, the scrapple was a mess. Although it was crisp (unlike The Summit Diner and Mostoller’s), the scrapple was nothing but crumbles on top of the eggs. It looked as if it had stuck to the griddle and had to be scraped off. I also wasn’t thrilled with the sausage. Two paper-thin patties were served that were clearly not hand formed. The seasoning was a bit unusual for a commercial product leading me to wonder if the restaurant had used a press to make their own patties or if perhaps they had been produced in a small, local shop. Either way, the restaurant gets a failing grade for serving a product that if not commercially produced certainly appeared to be so. And although I’m used to it, I’m always disappointed with the toast served. It would be nice once in a while to be served a freshly baked, in-house product or at least a premium commercial brand. The rest of my breakfast was acceptable with the eggs being properly cooked and the home fries nicely crisped and flavorful with the addition of the onion. The transferware plate on which the food was served lended a nice country touch to the meal, but overall it was a disappointing breakfast. I really can’t figure out why I can’t get a good order of scrapple as it is really not difficult to cook. If you’re looking for scrapple, I wouldn’t recommend Zambo’s and the rest of the breakfast I grade as simply OK. In other words, if you’re in New Centerville I wouldn’t drive 12 miles to avoid Zambo’s, but neither would I drive 12 miles to get there.
Zambo's Country Cottage on Urbanspoon

A Tale of Two Roads (Pt 1)

 

Allegheny front on the Lincoln HighwayThe predominate geological feature of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands region is the chain of mountains known as the Alleghenies. As a part of the great Appalachian Mountain Range, the Alleghenies are oriented in a northeast to southwest direction and run for roughly 400 miles from north central Pennsylvania to south western Virginia. The eastern edge of this range rises sharply and in colonial days posed a formidable barrier to trade and travel with the region west of the mountains known as the Ohio Country. This economically important territory was claimed by both Great Britain and France and precipitated the French and Indian War, the colonist’s name for the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War.

 

Fort Duquense at The Forks of the OhioThe preeminent strategic location controlling access to the Ohio Country was The Forks of The Ohio, a triangle of land where the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers form the Ohio River. To control the rivers, in 1754 the French built Fort Duquense on this point of land (now Point State Park in Pittsburgh). To take this fort from the French, two expeditions were launched by the British, the result of which are two major east to west routes through the Allegheny Mountains.

 

The first of these two roads was begun in the spring of 1755 in reaction to the construction of Fort Duquense. The British army, commanded by General James Edward Braddock, along with Virginia militia, led by George Washington, constructed a road roughly along the route of Nemacolin’s Path, an old Indian trading trail. Starting at Fort Cumberland (present day Cumberland, Maryland), it wound through the mountains in a north westerly direction for 110 miles towards Fort Duquenese. On July 9, 1755 Braddock’s force of 1300 men crossed the  Monongahela and ran into a force of French and Indians estimated to number between 300 and 900 men. The outnumbered French with their Indian allies, fighting from the cover of the woods, steadily picked off the British who insisted on trying to form battle lines as if they were fighting on the plains of Europe. After several hours of battle, Braddock was shot off of his horse and the resistance collapsed. The British then retreated back along the road where Braddock died four days later. He was buried in the middle of the road, to keep the Indians from desecrating his body, not far from Fort Necessity where George Washington had been defeated the previous summer.

 

For the next several years, the main theater of war was in the north, but by 1758 the British were ready for another attempt at taking Fort Duquense. Under the command of Brigadier John Forbes, a new route was begun starting this time in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Forbes took the route of an earlier road (Burd’s Road) to the town of Bedford, where he veered to the north, following another old trading route known as the Raystown Path. Unlike Braddock, Forbes built several forts along the road to act as supply depots and garrisons. After one failed attempt to take Fort Duquense in September of 1758, Forbes finally took possession in November of that year when the French abandoned the fort. Forbes named the site Pittsburgh after Secretary of State William Pitt.

 

For the next 180 years, these two roads remained the major routes through the Laurel Highlands region. The Forbes Road became US RT 30, the famous Lincoln Highway and the Braddock Road the National Road or US RT 40. And although the construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike lessened the importance of theses roads, they continue to offer a wealth of history, sights and food missed by those who take the super highway route.

 

 

 

How not to get to Seven Springs Mountain Resort

In this technological age, many of us turn to MapQuest, Google Maps or our GPS devices to get directions when traveling to a new destination. If Seven Springs Resort is your destination, and you are driving from the east (via Somerset) drop the technology because MapQuest and GPS’s direct you the shortest way to the Springs but that route is certainly not  the best one.logo for Seven Springs Mountain Resort

In all fairness, I must point out that both Google and MapQuest show the correct route as a secondary choice. However, who among us chooses the alternate route over the primary one unless we have a specific reason? Well, I’m about to give you several reasons.

All listed routes will get you from the exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike through the town of Somerset. Simply go straight after exiting the toll booth until you come to the first STOP light. (Ignore the FLASHING light unless you choose to stop at McDonald’s for a Big Mac.) At the light, make a RIGHT onto N. Center Avenue (RT 601 S) and proceed .5 miles to the intersection of Main St. (RT 31 W). Make a RIGHT on Main St. Here’s where they go wrong, and we’ll follow the route just to show you how bad it really is.

Harrison Ave Somerset PA
The poorly marked turn onto Harrison Avenue from Main St

After turning right onto Main St., both Google and MapQuest direct you to proceed .7 miles and make a left on to Harrison Ave. The left turn onto Harrison Ave is often missed because there is no sign to mark it. If you’re paying attention you will see several signs for RT 281 south, but there is nothing with the name Harrison on it. If you decide to follow this route in spite of what I recommend, make sure you’re in the left lane long before you get to the intersection or you may get cut off from doing so. Following this route, after turning onto Harrison Ave, you will take the first RIGHT onto Tayman Ave. (RT 281 south). Keep a close eye on your odometer, especially if you’re following the Google route, or you’ll miss the next turn.

 

 
The wind blown Weimer Flats on RT 281 south of Somerset
The wind blown Weimer Flats on RT 281 south of Somerset

Several miles outside of Somerset you’ll come across a straight stretch of road called Weimer Flats. If your trip to Seven Springs is in the winter, Weimer Flats alone is a good enough reason not to take this route. Weimer Flats in the winter can be one of the most vicious, wind-swept sections of road in all of Somerset County, and other sections of RT 281 S can be nearly as bad. Even with minor snowfall, white outs, drifting snow and accidents are common along Weimer Flats and other sections of this route.

If you are following the Google route, 5.6 miles after turning onto RT 281 S you will make a RIGHT on Cross Road. Never mind the fact that there is a sign directing you to keep going straight to get to Seven Springs. After all, are you going to believe your lying eyes or the omnipotent Google? If you’re following the MapQuest route you will NOT turn onto Cross Rd, but will continue another mile to the village of New Centerville and make a right onto Copper Kettle Highway.

New Centerville, PA
The turn onto Copper Kettle Highway in New Centerville

About 100 yards before the intersection there is a sign for Seven Springs indicating the turn. This sign is often missed and there is no sign at the intersection itself. In fact, this turn is so easy to miss that 3 miles further south on RT 281 you’ll find a gas station, the New Lexington Market, that actually posts directions to Seven Springs outside for all of the people who missed the turn.

New Lexington Market on RT 281 S
If you see the New Lexington Market, you missed the turn.

The Google route now directs you to proceed 1.5 miles to State Route 3029. SR 3029 is actually Copper Kettle Highway so at this point the Google and MapQuest routes are the same. State Routes are not well-marked, so after you have turned onto Cross Rd the directions should say “proceed 1.5 miles to the first stop sign and turn right”. Copper Kettle Highway (SR 3029) will turn into County Line Road in 1.9 miles, if you’re following Google, or 4.1 miles using the MapQuest route. Continue on County Line Rd for 4.1 miles and you will come to the entrance to Seven Springs on your left.

Now, for the best route we go back to the point where both Google and MapQuest direct you to turn left onto Harrison Ave (RT 281 S). When you’re on Main St (RT 31 W) stay in the RIGHT lane and instead of turn onto Harrison Ave, keep going straight on RT 31 W and continue for 7.1 miles. A large Seven Springs sign will direct you to turn LEFT onto Trent Rd.

Trent Road to Seven Springs Resort
The well marked turn onto Trent Road from RT 31

Proceed 3.8 miles to the first STOP sign and turn right onto Copper Kettle Highway. In 1.1 miles Copper Kettle Highway turns into County Line Rd. Proceed 4.1 miles to the entrance of Seven Springs on your left. This well-marked route is only about half a mile longer than the MapQuest or Google routes and offers several other advantages. For winter travelers, road condition is probably the most important reason to take the RT 31 route over that via RT 281. RT 31 is not nearly as wind-swept, so white outs and drifting snow is not nearly as big of a problem. Services are another reason to take the 31 route. If you follow the Google route, there will not be even one gas station or store until you reach the bump in the road at Trent which has a very small convenience store. The MapQuest route is only slightly better with New Centerville offering a pizza shop, one restaurant and one additional convenience store. The 31 route offers numerous services including gas stations, a major grocery store, several convenience stores, a beer distributor and a bar that serves great pizza. In addition, you have Moo Echo Dairy, a great country store which makes cheese, ice cream, fresh-baked goods and a wide range of deli products. And perhaps most importantly is Route 31 Bike, Board and Ski, the area’s largest and most experienced  outdoor sports retailer. If you need your skis or snowboard waxed or serviced or if you need equipment rentals, this is the place to stop. The retail store offers everything you’ll need on the mountain including: Oakley goggles and sunglasses, Under Armour base layers and outerwear, and top winter sports brands like Burton, Fisher and Solomon. And finally, in the event I wasn’t clear enough, the Google and MapQuest routes are very poorly marked compared to the 31 route. So, unless you know the turns, it’s not snowing and you’re sure you don’t need to purchase anything, go ahead and follow the “short” route. Otherwise, I suggest you follow the alternate route via RT 31 W.

Route 31 Bike, Board & Ski, Somerset PA
Route 31 Bike, Board & Ski, Somerset PA

Real Rural Fare at Mostoller’s Country Corral

After my post on the Summit Diner and the scrapple they served, I was informed that another local restaurant offers country food in general and scrapple in particular. Mostoller’s Country Corral and Restaurant is located just north of Somerset on Route 281 in the village of Geiger. For you non locals, Geiger is an unincorporated bump in the road which according to the USPS is actually Friedens, although Friedens as indicated on a map is several miles north of Mostoller’s.

Mostollers Country CorralThe interior of the restaurant looks very much like a diner with the addition of numerous wagon wheels and old cooking and farming implements. In fact, the interior is reminiscent of the Summit Diner before being renovated where the original Swingle Diner western theme was replaced. I took a seat in a booth and began to read the menu which was already on the table, although I already knew what I was going to order. The waitress arrived in a timely manner and I ordered the breakfast special ($4.50) which included two eggs, sausage, home fries and toast. I also ordered a side of scrapple and tomato juice. The meal arrived in a flash and, like in many diners, the check arrived with the meal. The scrapple was served on the plate with the eggs and potatoes instead of on a separate plate, which is annoying if you like syrup on your scrapple but not on your eggs. Also, there was no sausage served. Just as I was looking at the menu and the check to determine if perhaps the scrapple was substituted for the sausage, the waitress arrived with the sausage along with an apology for forgetting it. The eggs were as I ordered them (over easy) but as at the Summit, the scrapple was cut too thin and not properly browned. The potatoes were fresh, but were overcooked and cut so thin that they fell apart into mostly small pieces. The sausage was clearly made fresh and it had a good flavor, but there was only one pattie (as opposed to 2 at the Summit) and it had been left on the griddle too long creating a hard crust on one side.

On my table was a placard advertising a buckwheat cake and puddin’ special for the coming Saturday, so two days later I found myself back at Mostoller’s. The puddin’ (or liver pudding) served at Mostoller’s is the “loose” version intended to be poured over the cakes. It is basically scrapple before the cornmeal and flour are added. The buckwheat cakes were large and nicely cooked but lacked the yeasty flavor of the traditional recipes. I couldn’t tell if they were from a mix or if they were simply a non yeast recipe. The sausage was not the hand formed pattie of my previous breakfast at Mostoller’s but rather a link of a type which I had never eaten before. This was clearly not a commercial product. The texture was quite fine and there was a note of offal in the taste. I thought it was quite good and I’ll have to do more research into just exactly how it was made.

For those of you looking for a “real” breakfast, albeit with a few flaws, Mostoller’s Country Corral and Restaurant is worth the trip. It offers authentic food at a good price, qualities which are getting harder and harder to find in this world of cookie cutter fast food restaurants. Just remember to bring cash, because no plastic is accepted.

Mostoller's Country Corral on Urbanspoon

 

Buying Booze in the Keystone State

Pennsylvania is one of 19 states which in some way have a monopoly over retail and/or wholesale sales of liquor, beer and/or wine. The specifics of Pennsylvania’s law is often baffling to the out of state visitor and can cause many inconveniences for the traveler coming to the Laurel Highlands.

The worst aspect of Pennsylvania’s effort to protect its citizens from the “demon spirit” is their total monopoly on the sale of liquor and wine. For you touristas, that means you cannot buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer in a grocery store or a gas station as you can in many states. This would be but a minor inconvenience if there were a reasonable number of liquor stores run by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, however the fact is that the entire state of Pennsylvania has only 621 retail outlets. That averages out to 1 store in every 74 square miles. Compare this to neighboring New Jersey which has about 1800 liquor stores or 1 store to every 5 square miles. And it’s even worse in the rural counties which make up the Laurel Highlands region, which is dependent on tourism. Somerset County, the home of Seven Springs and Hidden Valley resorts, has only 4 State Stores to purchase wine and liquor or 1 store to every 270 square miles. The point is that if a traveler to the Laurel Highland doesn’t plan ahead, he can find himself in a pretty dry situation. The PLCB lists all of their stores along with their hours of operation on their website. Pay close attention as many stores have very limited hours and most are not open on Sunday. If you are traveling the Great Allegheny Passage through Meyersdale for example, the State Store there is only open 3 days a week for seven hours each day!

liquor bottles

Purchasing beer is a bit easier than liquor and wine, but still not as easy as in most states. Again, you cannot purchase beer in a grocery store or gas station. A distributor wholesales beer in Pennsylvania both to restaurants, bars and to the public. Wholesale means you can only purchase beer in kegs or full cases. You cannot stop in for a six-pack or two. To purchase six packs you must go to a retail licensee such as a bar or restaurant. The catch is that you may only purchase 192 ounces at a time, necessitating the ruse of buying two six packs, taking them to your car, and then returning for another two six packs.

One exception to this madness is that Pennsylvania considers wine produced in the state as an agricultural product. This means that if you are near a winery you may purchase up to 16 bottles of wine just as you would in any other liquor store. And better yet, most are open on Sundays. The Pennsylvania Winery Association has a tool on their website to find the locations of wineries and also offers “wine trails” to plan a tour of the various wine regions in Pennsylvania. One winery of particular note to those skiing at Hidden Valley or Seven Spring’s resorts is the Glades Pike Winery. Located on Route 31, the winery is only 5 miles from Hidden Valley and a bit over 10 miles from Seven Springs. If you are traveling to either resort from the east (Somerset) you will drive right by the winery.

You must also keep in mind that is illegal to transport any alcoholic beverages into Pennsylvania from another state and even the possession of liquor from another state is illegal. The penalty for this “transgression” is a $25 per package fine, the cost of prosecuting the case and up to 90 days in jail. However, for some strange reason, Pennsylvania does allow you to bring in booze from another country, after pay duties and taxes of course.

One final issue to consider is Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act. Enacted in 2008, it bans smoking in a public place or workplace. However, like most regulations there are exceptions. Bars may be exempted if they don’t admit anyone under the age of 18 or if the bar is separated from the dining area by doors which can be closed. In practice, there are many establishments with great food who do not have the option of segregating the bar area and therefore won’t admit minors. The Taverne, in Somerset, is an example of a place that was previously kid friendly but now bans minors and as a result, your kid’s won’t be able to eat the best pizza in town. Bottom line, call ahead to confirm a restaurant’s smoking policy before arriving with your kids.

Pennsylvania has much to offer the traveler to the Laurel Highlands, but availability of spirits is not one of them. It is essential for the tourist to plan ahead to ensure your trip isn’t a bit drier than you had intended.

Summit Diner-Somerset PA

Summit Diner sign-Somerset PAHaving traveled all over the country, I can tell you from experience that the best place to find examples of true regional cuisine is in local diners. My first taste of Linguiça, country ham and grits all occurred in diners. Haute cuisine palaces give lip service to regional specialties, but usually they are introduced only as one ingredient in a chef’s “creation” or to provide “inspiration” for some fancy dish. True regional cuisine is found in the humble homes and diners of middle America and not in cities and fine dining restaurants.

One such regional specialty in Pennsylvania is scrapple. Born of the frugality of the Pennsylvania Dutch, scrapple is made by cooking down all of the “scraps” of pork after butchering and adding cornmeal (and often other starches) along with seasonings. The thickened mixture is poured into loaf pans, chilled ,and then sliced and fried. It is generally served with maple syrup or as a side dish for eggs, to be mixed with the yolks.

The Summit Diner, located in Somerset, is one of the few restaurants still serving scrapple. This classic stainless steel diner has been a fixture in Somerset for over 50 years and is still THE place for breakfast and, of course, scrapple. A recent renovation has transformed the diner’s original western décor with a harder edged black and stainless steel theme. Murals add the the ’50’s flavor of the diner and the servers even sport duds which echo the ’50’s theme. In the summer months the diner even hosts a monthly car cruise.

On my most recent visit I ordered the $4.99 breakfast special which included two eggs (over easy), home fries, sausage, and toast. I also ordered a side of scrapple and a tomato juice. The juice arrived almost immediately and was served in a Coca-Cola float glass that must have held nearly 12 ounces, and cost only $1.99. I could barely finish it. The rest of the meal came out soon after and I was not disappointed. The eggs were perfectly cooked and the home fries were made from fresh potatoes with the skin on. The potatoes were nicely crisped but could have been better seasoned. The sausage was especially good. The menu stated the sausage was freshly ground every morning and I have no reason to doubt them. The hand formed pattys were nicely browned and were a far cry from the frozen machine formed patties you find in most other restaurants. I was a bit disappointed in the scrapple but not overly so. The three slices were very thin and were just heated through with no crispness. The cook apparently doesn’t know to flour the slices before frying to achieve a nice crust on them. They should also cut the scrapple thicker. I would rather have two thicker slices as opposed to three thinner ones. Although the scrapple could have been better, for $2.69 I was happy with it. Whether you’re a fan of scrapple or not, the Summit Diner is a great place for breakfast.

Summit Diner on Urbanspoon