Tall Cedars Restaurant in Donegal is one of those old-time bar bars which I’ve drunk in many times but never ate in save for a few late night refueling stops. In fact, I had never set foot in the dining section of the restaurant until last week. I arrived about 8:30 AM on a Saturday morning to find myself the only patron seated. Usually this is not a good sign. The building is of log construction and the dining room is paneled in wood with a large, genuine stone fireplace dominating one wall. Heavy wooden Captain’s chairs and tables completed the décor which could have been very homey and welcoming if maintained with a bit more care. Perhaps my biggest complaint regarding the atmosphere was the pervasive odor that appeared to emanate from the heating system. Instead of the aroma of food cooking, I was assaulted by the fumes of a poorly vented oil furnace. The menu was presented and it listed only standard breakfast fare with no items of a local nature included. I ordered eggs (over easy), sausage, home fries and toast at $5.95. The food took a bit longer to arrive than I would have expected given I was the restaurant’s only patron, but I’d still call the wait acceptable. The sausage was two large patties about the size of a McDonald’s burger, probably close to 2 ounces each. Although clearly a pressed product, it was well browned and remained very juicy. The home fries were made from fresh potatoes with the skin left on and were well cooked if a bit under seasoned. The eggs were the only real problem in that they were cooked medium, well on their way to hard, instead of the over easy as requested. Not a bad breakfast, but it’s hard to recommend a place that can’t cook an egg properly. Later in the day I was still in the area so I dropped by for lunch, this time stopping in the bar. If you’re the type of person who is intimidated by a local crowd who can be a bit rough, I would suggest eating in the dining room. This is the type of bar where they have a stainless steel mirror in the restroom to replace the glass ones that kept getting punched out. The beer selection is mediocre, offering only national domestic brands with a sprinkling of imports. No premium or craft brews are stocked and the draft system has been out of commission on my last few visits. The lunch menu is more extensive than the breakfast menu with a heavy emphasis on Pizzas, Stromboli and Cal zones. Taking this as an indication of what I should order, I settled on a small cheese pizza ($5). It didn’t take long for the four slice pizza to appear and my initial impression was that there would be issues with the crust. It looked dry, under cooked and somewhat pasty looking. My first bite confirmed my initial impression. The crust was bland and somewhat “biscuity” in texture. The dough exhibited some kind of an issue with the yeast that I couldn’t quite pin down. It appeared either the yeast was old and inactive, or the dough had been stored too long after it was made. In addition, I found the sauce overly sweet for my taste, although I recognize many people prefer it prepared in that fashion. The cheese was of an acceptable quality, but was over browned. Simply a substandard pizza in my view. Sometimes I’m frustrated by Urbanspoon’s insistence on giving a restaurant a ”like” or “don’t like”, but at other times being forced to choose neatly sums up the writer’s true opinion. In the case of Tall Cedars, although I have been a patron of theirs for many years, based on my two most recent visits, I’ll have to choose “don’t like”.
My recent PSU road trip brought me through Bedford, PA and to the Bedford Diner for breakfast. They are located on Route 222 just off of the Bedford exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and are easy to spot due to the huge sign out front and equally huge letters on the building itself. Although the building is not of typical diner construction, the interior layout is, having counter seats, booths and lots of stainless steel. White boards above the back counter advertise the daily specials, most of which are “all you can eat” and feature local favorites like ham pot pie. The breakfast menu is a bit larger than most as evidenced by the four varieties of pancakes served. I spotted country ham on the menu and had hope that since the menu also offered a ham steak I might have actually found a restaurant with the real thing. I ordered it along with eggs over easy, home fries, and toast ($6.95) accompanied by a side of scrapple ($1.60). Alas, the restaurant was out of country ham, so I must continue my search for the real deal. I settled for sausage, lowering the price of the meal to $4.95. While waiting for the breakfast, I scoped out the array baked goods, all of which appeared to be house baked as advertised. The pie safe didn’t contain those impossibly high meringue pies traditional in diners, but there were numerous other pies along with some huge cakes garnished with fresh fruit. My meal soon arrived and I was immediately struck by the scrapple which was a massive, thick slab that had been deep-fried. I’d heard of deep-fried scrapple before but this my first experience of eating it. I found it surprisingly good. The outside was very crisp and it was cut thick enough that the inside remained moist and creamy. The rest of the breakfast was not quite as successful. The sausage had a good flavor, but it had been cooked ahead and it had dried out from the holding. I had ordered the eggs over easy, but they arrived medium and were on their way to hard. The potatoes, although fresh, were cut so thin they fell apart into tiny pieces. Overall this was not a bad breakfast, but they clearly need more attention to detail. Cooking an egg properly is a basic skill that no diner can neglect.
Confluence 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.
First 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?
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. The 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.
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.
The 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.
Having 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.