Chef Alan’s American Bistro

Chef-Alan-sBerks County has experienced an amazing culinary renaissance in recent years.

New restaurants have arrived, bringing new ideas to compliment the area’s old favorites.

Nowhere is that more evident than along Penn Avenue in West Reading.

The town’s main street has seen an incredible resurgence over the past decade as storefronts have filled up with boutiques, shops and, of course, restaurants.

But in order to build West Reading into what it has become, West Reading had to have anchors in place to build around.

Chef Alan’s American Bistro is one of those anchors.

For two-and-a-half decades, Chef Alan’s has helped anchor West Reading’s downtown. The business has gone through many changes during that time, including the opening (and subsequent closing) of a second location in the Fairgrounds Square Mall.

Even the West Reading location has gone through several changes in the past 25 years, most notably the loss of a large amount of banquet space, where I had attended numerous receptions and events over the years.

Somehow, though, I had never actually sat down to a full dinner in Chef Alan’s dining room.

The room is dimly lit, with single lamps hanging above each table. The lamp shades are the same deep shade of purple, part of Chef Alan’s odd color palette that includes yellow walls with purple window trim and purple napkins.

The unique colors echo the bistro’s unique menu. Like the town, it is a blend of old and new. There are standard items like chicken Parmigiana, build-your-own burgers and steaks and chops. But there are plenty of unique dishes as well, including the grilled salmon BALT (bacon, avocado, lettuce, tomato) and eight individual pizza creations.

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My meal began with an old favorite: Italian wedding soup. The tiny meatballs packed a lot of flavor and the chunks of chicken breast were a welcome addition. Though the broth was a little on the salty side, it was a very good cup of soup, just a teaser of things to come.

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Chicken and biscuits is a dish you would see on a diner menu, not something you would expect from a chef, but this was unlike any chicken and biscuits I had before.

First, the presentation was beautiful, with peas, shredded carrots and parsley sprinkled atop two halves of a flaky biscuit and a perfectly seared chicken breast.

What looked like standard chicken gravy was a rich sauce. The addition of mushrooms to the sauce gives it a unique flavor, a creamy broth crossed with Marsala for a completely unique flavor combination.

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Every element worked together to create a harmonious flavor. Add on a side of garlic mashed potatoes, which looked more like a bowl of soft ice cream, and it made up one of the best dishes I have tasted on my journey across Berks County.

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Across the table from me,  my wife enjoyed the crabby seawich-Chef Alan’s take on the classic crab cake sandwich served on wheat bread with cheddar cheese. The best part though, were the bistro fries, which we sprinkled with sea salt and the peppercorn medley that were available on the table.

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Somehow we also managed to force dessert. After forcing our waitress to hold the dessert tray a little longer than we probably should have, we opted for a slice of lemon berry cake. The white cake was loaded with blueberries with a layer of lemon cream and a dusting of powdered sugar. Four dollops of whipped cream sat in the corners of the plate, which was drizzled with strawberry sauce.

The sauce was very sweet, which played well against the lemon cream. Together they made for an amazing dessert, one that we had no problem finishing after our big meals.

Top to bottom, my meal at Chef Alan’s was one of the best I have had since starting Berks County Eats. I did miss having a starter salad, but the addition of the $2 soup helped make up for it. In all, we spent about $35 for our meals and shared dessert.

After heading outside, I took a look down Penn Avenue – there are restaurants to the left, restaurants to the right and restaurants right across the street.

As West Reading’s reputation continues to grow and new restaurants continue to pop up, it’s good to know that Chef Alan’s will continue to be one of the cornerstones.

BCE Rating
Food: Good
Service: Good
Ambiance: Good
Price: Reasonable

Chef Alan’s Restaurant and Bar
525 Penn Ave
West Reading, PA 19611

Chef Alan's American Bistro on Urbanspoon

Classics Dessert Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Recipe – Tortilla Pizza

Tortilla Pizza 2

Like most people, I have a hard time cooking for one. When my wife isn’t home, it’s a lot easier to pick up an order from a fast-casual restaurant than it is to break out the pots and pans.

Recently, however, I discovered a great single-serve recipe, one that is so easy I can’t believe I hadn’t been making it before. Tortilla pizza is exactly what it sounds like, it’s a personal pizza made on a flour (or whole wheat) tortilla. It’s easy, it’s fast, and it’s really good.

Ingredients
1 10″ tortilla, flour or whole wheat
1 tbsp. pizza sauce
1/4 c. shredded cheese
Other toppings as desired

Tortilla Pizza 1

Pre-heat oven to 425°
Place tortilla in an ungreased, 12″ cast iron skillet
Spread tomato sauce, spreading within 1/2″ of edge with a spoon
Top tortilla with your favorite cheese and toppings
Bake in skillet for 10-15 minutes to your desired doneness

Helpful hints:

  • A pizza crust is a blank canvas. Though I used traditional pizza sauce, mozzarella and pepperoni, you can top it however you wish. I’ve made Hawaiian pizza with ham and pineapples. Sausage and chicken are also good toppers (though these need to be pre-cooked). You can also go Tex-Mex with a Mexican cheese blend, tomatoes, black beans and jalapenos.
  • The cast iron skillet helps crisp the tortilla. You can also use a pizza tray or place the tortilla directly on the oven rack but will have to dial down the heat and watch your cook times.
  • Keep your toppings toward the center. As you can see in the picture above, the toppings slide toward the edge as the pizza cooks.
Recipes
Toscana 52 Pappa al Pomodoro

Road Trip: Toscana 52

Berks County Eats crosses the county line to bring you some of the best dining both near and far. This edition takes us 70 miles east of Reading to Bensalem, PA.

There is no such thing as Italian cuisine.

Let me rephrase that. There is no one Italian cuisine.

The flavors of Italy are as varied as any other country. Rome, Venice, Naples and Milan all have their own foods, unique to their regions.

Most restaurants have adopted bits and pieces of each to create their menus—a little from the north, a hint of the south and a bit of the coasts thrown in—and call it Italian.

But at Toscana 52 in Bensalem, they’re taking a different approach, highlighting the cuisine of a different city each week with its 52 menu.

Bensalem, Pennsylvania is not exactly a foodie paradise. The redundantly named Street Road, the township’s main thoroughfare, is lined with chain restaurants and fast food joints.

But just a short drive north of the Turnpike is a unique eatery that doesn’t fit in with the rest.

The interior is rustic Italian, like so many other restaurants. A large family table sits in the middle of the rustic dining room, a wooden pergola offering a hint of privacy to those who put themselves on display.

But the food is what makes Toscana different. The main menu offers five unique Crudo, or raw, dishes, Italian-style sushi plates with tuna, shrimp, oysters, clams or crab meat. Favorites like spaghetti, rigatoni and gnocchi are joined with non-Italian toppings like chilled mango salsa and wasabi cream.

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Then there is the 52 menu, a weekly journey across the European continent. The menu features not only entrees, but appetizers and regional wines from the featured city. Featured cities include Chianti, Napoli (Naples) and Florence.

I don’t know how often menus repeat, but on both of my trips to Toscana (10 months apart), the weekly menu featured the food of Florence, Italy.

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My trip to Florence began with a cup of Papa al Pomodoro, a tomato soup thickened by chucks of Italian bread that are mixed in. The beautifully presented bowl, topped with diced onions and chopped basil, harkens back to old world tradition. Before the advent of packaged croutons, chunks of bread were often added to soups to add thickness and substance.

The soup itself is naturally sweet, and thin enough that the bread is not an unwelcome addition. The addition of the fresh herbs and onions adds more flavor to an already delicious dish.

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Then came the gnudi.

Gnudi is “nude ravioli,” essentially all the filling for ravioli lumped together into dumplings without the pasta casing. Ricotta, spinach and Parmigiano cheese were rolled together and topped with a butter-sage cream sauce.

The meal is very rich. Without the pasta to tone it down, all of the ingredients have a chance to come through. The sauce is thick and creamy, but the gnudi soaks it up and absorbs all that rich flavor.

It’s a truly special dish that I have yet to find on any other menu.

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And of course, no meal is complete without dessert. A simple strawberries and cream was the perfect ending to the meal. Ripe strawberries smothered in a semi-tart cream balanced perfectly for an (almost) guilt-free dessert.

You could spend thousands of dollars to take a tour of the Old World, but I got to experience a three-course tour of Italy for about $30.

In some ways, Toscana is not much different than any other Italian restaurant: serving favorites from across Italy in a rustic dining room here in America.

But Toscana is different. And if you find yourself driving east through Bucks County, just know that  a tour of Italy is closer than you think.

Toscana 52 on Urbanspoon

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Photo Blog: Wilson Iron Chef 2014

Wilson Iron Chef

On April 6, the Wilson Education Foundation hosted its first Iron Chef competition in the gym at Wilson High School. The event, which saw chefs from three local restaurants compete in the Iron Chef battle, was a huge success. More than 500 hungry patrons came to watch the competition and sample items from more than 40 food industry vendors, including restaurants, caterers, bakeries, dairies and farms.

Sublime Cupcakes - Oreo Cupcake

At an event like this, I couldn’t help but start with dessert. Sublime Cupcakes in Wyomissing offered chocolate cupcakes with Oreo icing. This was, hands down, one of the best cupcakes I have ever tried. It was like a triple-stuffed Oreo, rich in chocolate and extra creamy.

Mexican Spicy Brownie - Well Dressed Cake

West Reading’s The Well Dressed Cake countered with a selection of brownies, including this Mexican Spiced Brownie. It was certainly chocolaty, but not nearly as a spicy as I was expecting, with just the faintest hint of chili peppers coming through.

Chocolate Cupcake Raspberry and Sugar Cookie - Sweet Addictions

Sweet Addictions Bake Shop in Reading also brought some tasty desserts, including a very sparkly sugar cookie and a chocolate cupcake with raspberry frosting. The cupcake was a delicious dark chocolate, but the icing provided only a hint of raspberry, not nearly as strong as the flavor in Sublime’s offering.

Sweet Ride Ice Cream 2

 

Sweet Ride Ice Cream was another of the many dessert vendors at the event, serving four flavors out of their cart. The freezer was turned up a little too high, but once the ice cream softened a bit, the mint chocolate chip and vanilla scoops that I tried were good and creamy.Tomato and Pepper Salad - Russo

There were also plenty of appetizers to go around, including this tomato salad from Russo Market in Wyomissing. Chunks of mozzarella with sliced tomatoes, peppers and onions – my four favorite salad ingredients mixed together without that annoying lettuce.

Lobster Bisque - ViVaViva in Wyomissing brought along small shot-glass sized samples of its Lobster Bisque. Seafood is not my thing, but if you are a lobster lover, you would probably love this.

Sandwich - MaysMays Sandwich Shop in West Lawn brought along a few of its classic subs, including this ham and cheese.

Organic Beef - Meadow MountainMeadow Mountain Farm in Robesonia brought some of its organic, grass-feed beef meatballs. Unfortunately, the meatballs were cold, and the sauce didn’t do them any favors.

Pizza Filo with Cream - Paulos

Paolo’s on Lancaster Avenue brought along a main course and dessert. The pizza had cooled off and dried out by the time I got some, but was good enough to make me want to go and try a fresh slice.

Meatballs Sausage - Salinos

An abundance of Italian vendors included Salino’s, who offered both meatballs and Italian sausage in a very tasty marinara sauce.

Meatballs - Mamas

But the best of the bunch came from Mama’s Pizza in Sinking Spring and Wyomissing. Besides handing out half slices of some really good pizza, Mama’s served homemade meatballs in their marinara sauce. This was as good as any meatball I have tasted, completely unexpected from a strip mall pizza place.

Pulled Pork with Honey BBQ - Pink Pig

Another highlight was the pulled pork from It’s Just Barbecue (aka The Pink Pig) in Deer Lake, Schuylkill County. The pulled pork was really tender, but what really sealed it was the honey barbecue sauce that was perfectly sweet.

Asiago Chicken - Penn Werner

The Penn Werner Hotel, which was represented in the Iron Chef competition, itself, also served up samples in the vendor area. This asiago chicken was one of the best dishes I sampled. The chicken was fresh and the sauce was perfectly creamy.

Shepherd's Pie - West Lawn Methodist

This was the biggest surprise of the day. The West Lawn United Methodist Church has a program called West Lawn Wednesdays where they serve homemade dinner to the community. The shepherd’s pie they brought to the Iron Chef was simple, but amazing. Beef, potatoes and gravy were the only ingredients, but I would put this up against any area restaurant.

People's Choice 2

Inside the auxiliary gym, five restaurants vied for the title of People’s Choice. Each one had to use the “secret ingredient” to create a unique dish. And the event organizers picked an ingredient that screams Berks County: pretzels.

People's Choice

The Hitching Post, h2o Kitchens, Galen Hall, Deer Lake Pub & Restaurant and GNA Ristorante all mixed the salty snack into their dishes. While GNA appealed to the sweet tooth with a chocolate covered pretzel tiramisu. The rest all did a take on crab dip, either as a dip or inside a stuffed pretzel. We gave our votes to Galen Hall, but it was h2o and GNA that finished in the top two, earning them places in next year’s Iron Chef competition.

Iron Chef Stage

That led to the main event, the Iron Chef competition. The three competitors were Chef David Shefter, Penn Werner Hotel; Chef Felix Maietta; ViVa; and Chef Joseph Church, Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar.

Iron Chef 2

The secret ingredients for the competition were center-cut pork loin, chayote squash and half-blood oranges, challenging the chefs to come up with ways to include these three unique ingredients. When the final votes were tallied, it was Chef David Shefter of the Penn Werner Hotel taking home the top prize with his Mexican rub pork roast, served with arugula salad and vegetable latke.

Chef Shefter will return in 2015 to defend his crown against the People’s Choice winners.

And I will be there “eating up” every moment.

 

 

 

 

Food News

Deitsch Eck

There are places in Berks County that seem lost in time.

There are farms that have passed through generations; homes that have stood for centuries; and back country roads littered with horse-drawn buggies.

The same holds true for Berks County restaurants. There are taverns that have witnessed history and local spots that work to preserve it.

The Deitsch Eck fits both descriptions.

Lenhartsville is a tiny hamlet in the northern reaches of Berks County. The town’s main thoroughfare, Penn Street, is a full 30-minute drive from its namesake in Reading.

Beginning in the 1700s, what is now the Deitsch Eck (“German Corner” in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect). was a tavern serving weary travelers along the road. That tradition carried into the early 20th century, when Penn Street became part of US-22. Today, Interstate-78 passes just north of the town, with Route 143 connecting the Eck with the highway.

Hex sign painter Johnny Ott owned and operated the restaurant beginning in the 1930s. With many examples of his work that adorn the main dining room (not to mention the large portrait of the artist that hangs on the wall), his presence can still be felt today.

The Eck is more than a restaurant, though. It’s also a tourist trap. In the back of the building is a Pennsylvania Dutch gift shop, offering a full array of tchotchkes, including magnets, key chains, cookbooks, replica birth certificates and every other “Dutchy” thing you could imagine.

Much like the restaurant itself, the menu is largely a throwback to a bygone era as well, offering simple meals like meatloaf, ham, liver and onions, and scrapple.

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I decided to start my meal with the fritter sampler, a taste of three of Deitsch Eck’s fried appetizers: apple fritters, corn fritters and potato fritters, all served with packets of honey for dipping.

The apple fritters were dusted with powdered sugar, tasting like a cross between a funnel cake and a McDonald’s apple pie. The potato “fritters” were more like a potato pancake, delicious, but would have been better with a bowl of applesauce. The corn fritters were more deep-fried goodness.

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For the main course, I opted for an order of fresh sausage, butchered at the neighboring Peters Bros. meat market.  The sausage was sliced down the middle and grilled flat, giving it a little nicer presentation. The meat did not have a lot of added spices, but was still very flavorful.

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For dessert, I went with a Pennsylvania Dutch classic: shoofly pie. It was a little different from a traditional shoofly (I think I tasted a hint of honey), and was a little dry on top, but was still very enjoyable.

It was an enjoyable old-fashioned meal in a quaint old-fashioned place. For $20, I got three courses of food and a crash course in Pennsylvania Dutch culture.

Whether you are hex sign aficionado or just looking for a good, simple meal, consider taking the short drive north to the Deitsch Eck.

BCE Rating
Food: Good
Service: Good
Ambiance: Good
Price: Reasonable

Deitsch Eck
87 Penn St
Lenhartsville, PA 19534

Deitsch Eck Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Classics Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Klinger’s On Carsonia

For someone who doesn’t drink, I have spent a lot of time in bars.

Over the years I have spent many an evening at local watering holes, mostly competing in trivia games or dealing myself in to poker games.

Monday night sports trivia was the reason I first went to Klinger’s on Carsonia about two years ago. In the time since, I have tried most of their 15 flavors of wings and eaten more French fries than I can count, but it took those two years to finally convince my wife to join me for a real dinner at the restaurant in Pennside.

The bar is the first thing you see when you walk through the door. About 15 seats wrap around its three sides with seven flat screen TVs shining down atop the patrons on the stools. High-top tables flank the bar to the left with just a handful of four- and six-person low-tops set along the far wall.

The second thing you see is the Carsonia Park mural. Closed in 1950, Carsonia Park is but a distant memory, surviving only in old postcards and stories from Reading’s old-timers.

But on the wall of Klinger’s, the park lives on. The 50-year-old mural depicts a beautiful summer day at the park, with excited men, women and children walking in the shadow of the rides.

Though Klinger’s is clearly a bar first, the mural helps add class to the restaurant, making a place you could enjoy a family dinner.

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Klinger’s menu is dominated by bar food staples: burgers, wings, fried food and sandwiches. But there are some surprising options as well like the create-your-own mac and cheese, fish tacos and my choice, Cuban pork.

Served with black beans and rice, the Cuban pork stands out from the more traditional menu items. A heaping helping of shredded pork, seasoned in “Cuban” spices. I don’t know enough about Cuban cuisine to tell you exactly what those spices are, but there were hints of garlic, salt, pepper and (perhaps) a bit of cinnamon.

Though the dishes look the same, do not confuse this for the pulled pork you would get at a barbecue joint. The pork is served dry without any type of sauce, and the salt and spices used in the meat dry it out further. I mixed in the black beans to give the meat a little moisture, but it really doesn’t need it.

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Sticking to the more traditional menu options, my wife opted for the black and bleu burger, one of nine burger options on the menu.

The burger came dressed with bleu cheese and bacon, a tasty mix that is a little out of the norm. The crispy bacon added a crunch to the juicy burger.

Our meals, like most on the menu, were about $10.00 each, though I did have to pay an extra $2.00 for my starter salad.

Klinger’s is much more than a bar, and they serve so much more than bar food. As much as I enjoy a good night of trivia, it’s the food that will keep bringing me back.

BCE Rating
Food: Good
Service: Good
Ambiance: Good
Price: Reasonable

Klinger’s on Carsonia
721 Carsonia Ave
Reading, PA 19606

Klinger's on Carsonia on Urbanspoon

Bars & Pubs Reviews

Wilson Hosts Iron Chef Competition this Sunday, April 6

This Sunday, the Wilson School District will host its first Wilson Iron Chef Competition & Benefit Auction.

Local Iron Chef competitions have become increasingly popular since Hamburg debuted its version of the popular competition show in 2011.

Wilson becomes the latest school district to join the trend, hosting their first event this Sunday from 1 until 5 p.m. at the Wilson High School in West Lawn.

Three local chefs will be competing for the Iron Chef title when they battle to create their best dish—using the secret ingredient, of course—in a live, 30-minute competition. Competing for this year’s title are:

-Chef David Shefter, Penn Werner Hotel
-Chef Felix Maietta, ViVa
-Executive Chef Joseph Church, Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar

The prelude to the Iron Chef is the People’s Choice competition. Attendees will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite dish from six local restaurants. Like Hamburg’s annual competition, the top two vote-getters will be invited back next year to compete for the Iron Chef crown. The six competitors are:

-Deer Lake Pub & Restaurant
-Galen Hall Country Club
-GNA Ristorante
Good Eatz Green Cafe
-h2o Kitchen
-The Hitching Post

In addition, forty local restaurants and other related busineses will be offering tastings and samples of some of their best dishes at Vendor Lane, open until 3:30 p.m.

Attendees also have the opportunity to take home some great items from the live auction, silent auction and raffle.

Admission is $15 for adults, $6 for students and $13 for senior citizens (age 65+). All proceeds benefit the Wilson Education Foundation.

With so much good Berks County food, this is an event I can’t miss.

Food News