Southern Comfort Calling at Cafe Campbelltown

Earlier this week, I accompanied my husband on a business trip to Central PA.  On the drive home, completely famished and about to go “Donner Party” on one another, we stumbled upon Cafe Campbelltown just outside of Hershey, PA.

Cafe Campbelltown serves up “classic American and Southern-inspired” fare.  Having now sampled their offerings, I translate this to mean, “darn satisfying comfort food.”  For a gal who lived some years in Louisiana, and who often craves a good “jam-ba-lay and a crawfish pie,” I’m completely gaga over this place.

To begin with, our waitress brought us a basket of hot-from-the-oven sweet cornbread and toasted country white.  We devoured it in minutes and felt our blood-sugar rise and hunger-induced rage subside.

From the enticing menu, I ordered the grilled catfish, which the chef agreed to blacken.  For $14, it came with two sides.  I couldn’t choose only two, so I ordered three:  scalloped potatoes (the potato du jour), mustard greens, and baked beans.

Unlike the catfish I ate down south, which tasted of the muddy river water in which it swam, this fresh (not-frozen) farm-raised fish had a perfectly mild flavor.  With the blackened crust (a tad salty), house-made tartar, and precise preparation, it was a real treat.

As for my sides, I could have made a meal of them alone (though I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on that fish!).  Rather than thinly-sliced and layered scalloped potatoes, these were cut into bite-sized chunks with the skin-on.  A more rustic preparation, they were every bit as cheesy as the casserole-style ones.  The mustard greens were smoky and savory and made more interesting and less bitter by the addition of carrots and red bell pepper.  Although the baked beans were from a can, someone had lovingly doctored them to be sweet and smooth.

My husband’s vegetarian vegetable soup was toothsome and hearty with its tomato-based broth and every conceivable garden-fresh veggie all cut into uniform bite-sized pieces.  Does size matter?  In this case, yes.

The bread pudding was served in a caramel-colored glass goblet with piping hot brandy sauce.  It was more than enough to share.  To complement this Nawlins-staple, I was grateful for the Kona blend coffee (although chicory would have been even more welcome).  Both of us were impressed with the loose tea selection.  The husband enjoyed the fragrant apple chamomile.

Our server took excellent care of us, particularly as we were pretty ornery when we walked in the door.  She was knowledgeable of the menu and genuinely seemed to like her job.

Though Cafe Campbelltown is inexpensive and entirely without guile and pretense, its substantial selection of vegetarian and gluten-free entrees, and its use of local produce, place it at the cutting-edge of central PA’s culinary scene.

Well-fed and happy, the two of us lingered awhile to delight in the eclectic, plantation-style decor.  The gooseberry green walls were the same color I painted my bedroom as a teenager.  Mix sweet nostalgia with craveworthy comfort food and you have a winning experience that bears repeating.

Haluski (Noodles & Cabbage) the Healthy Way

Among the many notable contributions of immigrant communities is how often they preserve foods and food customs that have fallen out of fashion in the native country, including those that may have disappeared altogether from the homeland’s culinary landscape. I suspect that if a modern Pole, or Hungarian, or Lithuanian were to sample the ethnic dishes being served in the church basements, legion halls, and picnic groves of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Region, they might find the fare quaint, perhaps alien.

Certainly, the butter-rich, starch-heavy dishes my Polish-American grandparents cooked regularly are not something I would feel confident eating everyday. This is not to mention how much time it takes to prepare a great batch of homemade pierogi (filled dumplings), a pan of galumpki (stuffed cabbage), or a kolachi (Polish kołacz, a light, flaky pastry dough spread with fruit, nut, or poppy seed paste and rolled…yum!). Haluski Noodles and Cabbage

Haluski is one dish that can be cooked on a weeknight and made surprisingly healthy. In its traditional preparation, the dish gets most of its flavor and mouthfeel from ample amounts of butter. In my version, flavor and texture are achieved by carmelizing the cabbage and onions and deglazing the pan with stock toward the end of cooking.

INGREDIENTS
(makes approximately 4 servings as main course)

1 small head of savoy cabbage, cored and sliced
1 small to medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp unsalted butter (reserve 1 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup of chicken stock (Vegetable stock works if you wish to make the dish vegetarian, though I find chicken stock gives a noticeably richer flavor.)
7-8 oz (approximately one half box) of dried bow tie pasta (I have used Barilla Plus with good results. For what it’s worth, this brand adds some protein to the dish.)
1/2 tsp of paprika
salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large cast iron skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat, melt 1 Tbsp of butter and 2 Tbsp of olive oil. (For best results, do not use a non-stick pan.)
2. Add cabbage and onions. Toss to coat.
3. When cabbage begins to soften and bottom layer begins to brown, add salt, pepper, and paprika. (I use approximately 1/2 tsp of each at this point.)
4. Continue tossing ingredients in pan, allowing time in between tossing for cabbage and onions on the bottom of the pan to brown.
5. Boil pasta according to package directions.
6. Add chicken stock to cabbage mixture and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any carmelized bits. (The mixture should not be soupy, so you may need to reduce the liquid somewhat.)
7. Using a slotted strainer or pasta ladle, scoop pasta from boiling water directly into frying pan. (Allowing a small amount of the pasta water to drip into the cabbage mixture is a good idea).
8. Toss to coat while adding reserved Tbsp of butter and more salt and pepper to taste. (Adding this last Tbsp of butter is optional. I sometimes find I’ve achieved enough flavor to forego it.)

cabbage

Three stages of my cabbage: 1) on the cutting board, 2) as it began to soften and brown, and 3) right before I added my noodles.

Pan-Latino Perfection in Reading’s Historic District

Chef Hector Ruiz’s Sofrito Gastro Pub is an island breeze blowing fresh air into the Greater Reading restaurant scene.  While so many Berks County establishments are peddling mediocre fare at top dollar prices, Sofrito is serving up pan-Latino perfection for around $10-12 an entree.

Photo courtesy of Sofrito Gastro Pub

Photo courtesy of Sofrito Gastro Pub

My husband and I first visited last Friday night.  We paused to find the place empty inside, but that was only because everyone was out back at the cabana bar. We joined them and took a lime green formica two-top under a lamp.  The enclosed patio makes you forget you’re in a residential neighborhood of Reading and feel as though you’re on vacation in the tropics (the unseasonably warm weather helped).

Our server, Christina, was also the bartender.  Even while busy, she was pleasant, accommodating, and patiently able to answer all of our menu questions.  We started with the Aguacate Frito (a half avocado tempura-style).  This dish had my husband and I fork-fencing for the last bits of battered avocado, crabmeat, and pico de gallo on the plate.

We also tried a steaming bowl of the black bean soup. Rather than the insipid mud that passes for black bean soup elsewhere, this had whole beans and tender chunks of celery.  It was as if someone’s abuelita was in the back cooking it up.

Not only are the entrees at Sofrito astonishingly affordable, they include a salad.  My husband munched down the Urban Salad with its rosemary and brown sugar vinaigrette, while I went for the Chipotle Caesar.  We both felt our salads had a little too much of the spine of the Romaine lettuce, but the entree course more than compensated for any diminished expectations.

My husband’s crab cakes were all sweet meat with little trace of filler.  He wanted to try the muranos (sweetened plantains) for his side dish, but they were eighty-sixed, so he opted for the fluffy yellow rice.  I went for the mussels.  Completely fresh without a bad one in the batch, they were swimming in buttery, garlicky, green sofrito goodness.  I lapped this up with my coconut bread, which was the pièce de résistance of the entire meal.  Can I order this stuff by the pound, please?

Sadly, Christina told us they don’t have any desserts (not sure if only for that night or for all times).  She did mention that she takes the coconut bread home and eats it with vanilla bean ice cream.  Oh, sweet temptation!  Like a siren’s call, that coconut bread is beckoning us back!

Grüß Gott für Gutes Essen

According to my husband’s imprecise undergraduate German, the above means something like “Praise God for good eats!”

Alexander's German Restaurant Good, inexpensive eats are what we enjoyed a few nights ago at Alexander’s German Restaurant here in Berks County.

While Berks is a renowned hub of Pennsylvania Deitsch culture and cuisine, deitsch and deutsch are not the same thing.

You’ll have to look elsewhere than Alexander’s for the chicken & waffles, hot bacon dressing, and shoefly pie of the “Pennsylvania Dutch.” (I recommend the inimitable Deitsch Eck restaurant in Lenhartsville, PA.)

Alexander’s serves up authentic Bavarian fare (the chef, Hansel, is a native).  Instead of the smoked sausage favored by the region’s deitsch-speaking denizens, Alexander’s offers an array of wurst spread out on a bed of kraut made smooth by the addition of Riesling.  Instead of yeasty white dinner rolls, there’s crusty brown bread and warm bretzel served with sweet mustard and butter.  Instead of sarsaparilla and birch beer soda, Alexander’s features an unusually good selection of German, Czech, Danish and Belgian beers, with several on tap.

Bread, bretzel, and beer, oh my. That’s a Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse on left and a Warsteiner Dunkel on right.

At the suggestion of our dirndl-clad waitress, I went for a pint of the Warsteiner Dunkel.  This mellow brew was semisweet like an ale, malty like a porter, and light and crisp like a lager in spite of its dark amber color.  For all of $3, it had everything I crave in a beer and none of what I don’t (that is, it is not bitter).

After a few sips on an empty stomach, I could hardly control my Cheshire grin when the waitress announced the special for that evening: the wurst sampler.

wurst sampler at Alexander's

I am SO going to have the wurst meat-hangover after eating this. From front to back that is a German hot dog, a Hungarian smoked sausage, bratwurst, and weissewurst.

I once heard that it was Einstein’s love of wurst that kept him failing in his humanistic attempts to live as a vegetarian. I am also much too attached to the cuisine of my German-Slavic heritage to give up meat entirely.  I did feel ill, however, to learn the next day that the weissewurst I munched on was a veal sausage.  I don’t care how tender the meat, I draw the line at eating baby flesh.  These links were tender though—and oh so juicy.

Which brings me to my next observation:  there are no vegetarian selections on Alexander’s menu.  I always view this as a missed opportunity.  The husband’s not a meat lover, so he enjoyed an enormous, buttery stuffed flounder.  A true vegetarian, however, would be forced to piece together a meal of side dishes.

Alexander's Stuffed Flounder

Alexander’s flounder was delicately seasoned and stuffed with spinach, crab, and a mild cheese.

Alexander’s offers traditional German sides: rot kohl, spaetzle, sour cream dill cucumbers, potatoes dressed with white vinegar (the latter was served refrigerator cold, which made the vinegar too biting).  The creamy roasted dill dressing on top of my green salad (garden fresh and substantially-sized at $2.50) was homemade and craveworthy, as was my husband’s sweet poppy seed dressing.

Part of Alexander’s charm is getting to and from this old country hotel via a relaxing drive through rolling farmland.  Inside, the decor is an eclectic mash-up of restaurant surplus and flea market finds—of overstock and antique.  Depending on your expectations, this can make for comforting warmth or a feeling of decrepitude.  For me it is more of the former, though I’d love to dig in with my DIY decor tools and polish this diamond in the rough.

Alexander's lounge

Whether you live in Eastern Pennsylvania, or you’re just passing through, Alexander’s Old World fare, prices, and total experience make it a highly worthwhile destination.