Food & Festivals: Kempton Pepper Jam

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Kempton, PA is about as far removed from Reading as one can get in Berks County. Not only is it just a stone’s throw from the Lehigh County line, but it is one of the smallest communities in the county.

Yet the village of just 169 residents has become a destination. The Kempton Music Center, along with the surrounding Kempton Community Center, hosts many popular events including the Kempton Country Fair and the Pinnacle Jam.

On May 24 and 25, the Kempton Pepper Jam made its debut and became an instant success.

With food vendors from near and far descending on the hills of northern Berks County, I couldn’t miss a chance to feel the heat.

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Penelope Pepper was one of the many hand-painted peppers that greeted the happy heat seekers. The Americana sounds of the Youngers echoed throughout the fairgrounds where dozens of vendors were set-up with a variety of pepper-infused foods and drinks.

The hot food options were a little limited, but everything was quality. Big Chippers BBQ had pit beef and pulled pork and there were stands serving Cajun fries, hot pepper sandwiches and hamburgers.

But with the event being promoted by the Penn Werner Hotel, I figured their stand was the logical place to start. Thankfully, they had one word on the menu that makes me happier than just about any other: sampler.

As a food blogger, there is nothing better than a sampler platter, and this one featured three excellent dishes: jambalaya, Thai chicken on a stick and noodles in peanut sauce.

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Everything tastes better when it’s served on a stick, at least that’s my theory. The chicken was good, but was not nearly as spicy as I was expecting from a Thai sauce. Instead, my wife’s jerk chicken on a stick packed a lot more punch. The hottest thing on my plate was, ironically, the cold noodles in peanut sauce.

As an old Dutchy, I like my noodles served hot, but these were delicious. The peanut sauce had enough peanut to get the flavor, but not too much that it turned into peanut butter. There was definitely an aftershock from the heat. Thankfully, the jambalaya was there to cleanse the palate. The jambalaya was fairly mild, but still delicious, starting with a very flavorful mild sausage as the base.

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Following lunch, I headed out among the vendors in search of fire. I started my journey at the Sloppy 2nd BBQ Sauce stand. My favorite of the sauces from this Barto, PA company had to be the peach bourbon sauce, which had a mix of smokey and sweet with a little bit of heat for good measure. It was by far the best sauce that I tasted at the event.

Some of the other highlights at the festival included Saint Lucipher, whose hot spice rub was tossed on popcorn to give just a hint of the heat. Cactus Pete’s Jerky had a range of beef jerky flavors that went from sweet to hot, including the delicious, mouth-drying Jamaican Me Crazy blend.

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The event was also family friendly, with kids craft and game stations, and train rides available on the neighboring Wanamaker, Kempton & Southern Railroad.

My only regret was missing out on the pepper eating contest…not that I am brave enough to enter myself, but there’s nothing wrong with watching others suffer.

It was great to see the event be such a success in its first year. Here’s hoping that the 2015 Kempton Pepper Jam is bigger and better than the first. Though I don’t know if it could get much hotter.

Food Festivals & Events

Schell’s & Schell’s Dairy Swirl

Schell-s

It was in 1955 that Ray Kroc teamed up with the McDonald brothers, rewriting the history of the fast food restaurant.

From the humble beginnings in San Bernardino, McDonald’s became the benchmark for American fast food, leading a multi-billion-dollar industry.

But despite the dominance of fast food giants, local quick service restaurants continue to thrive in a niche market.

In 1952, three full years before the McDonald’s revolution began, one of Berks County’s favorite fast food spots opened it doors.

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Not much has changed in the six decades since Schell’s began selling hamburgers and hot dogs along 5th Street Highway in Temple. The prices have gone up a little (you can’t get fries for 15 cents anymore), but the menu is largely the same: burgers, dogs, grilled cheese, fried chicken, fries, onion rings, and my personal favorite, hamburger bar-b-que.

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Hamburger bar-b-que is so simple to make (four ingredients: ground beef, ketchup, mustard and brown sugar), yet I find it hard to top Schell’s. A tip for first-timers: to cut down on the mess, eat your sandwich upside down. The thicker top half of the bun will absorb more of the juices.

Of course, what fast food meal is complete without a side of fries and a milkshake? The crinkle fries are crisped to perfection and pre-loaded with plenty of salt. Schell’s offers four flavors of milkshakes from its soft serve machine: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and my personal favorite: raspberry. The shakes are nice and thick, and though they won’t do much to quench your thirst, they are delicious.

Dairy-Swirl

Those with a sweet tooth may want to forgo the shake in favor of some frozen treats. Just across the parking lot is one of the sweetest places in Berks County, Schell’s Dairy Swirl. (Rather than skip the shake, I decided to make an ice cream-only trip later in the week).

If you aren’t sure if you still have room, inside the barn-like building are large pictures of sundaes, ice cream cones and banana splits, just to get you a little hungrier.

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I went with a banana split arctic swirl, the equivalent of a Dairy Queen Blizzard. Watching them make it is the best kind of torture as they slice up a fresh banana and add it, along with the remaining ingredients, into a cup of vanilla soft serve, then mix it all up into a delicious mess.

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Sundaes are another favorite at the Dairy Swirl. My wife’s peanut butter sundae was loaded with peanuts and peanut butter sauce, and piled high with whipped cream. Maybe it was piled a little too high because half of the whipped cream (as well as the cherry on top) fell to the floor as she tried to eat it.)

And the fun doesn’t end with dessert. After you finish the last spoonful of soft serve, 27 holes of miniature golf are waiting to challenge even the most experienced putters.

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Schell’s course is not just nine holes longer than a standard course, it’s far more difficult. The slopes and patches of “rough” and “bunkers” that surround the holes can be frustrating for those looking for a low score (like myself), but immense fun for anyone who doesn’t take their game too seriously.

The next time you’re thinking about picking up some fast food, skip the drive-through lane and head to Schell’s. The prices are just as reasonable, but the food is so much better. Besides, I’ve never seen a Burger King with mini-golf.

So whether you go for a quick dinner, a creamy dessert or a round of golf, Schell’s is a sure hole-in-one.

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

Schell’s
4625 N. 5th Street Hwy
Temple, PA 19560

Schell's on Urbanspoon

Classics Drive-Ins Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Berks Food News – May 21

Boehringer’s Drive-In Damaged in Fire

Boehringer’s Drive-In, one of the area’s most popular summer stops, is closed for repairs after a fire ripped through the kitchen in the early morning hours on Sunday, May 18. The Adamstown drive-in, which opened for the season on  March 29, is expected to be closed for approximately six weeks, according to a report on WFMZ. The drive-in has been serving area patrons for more than 70 years.

Austin’s Owners to Open New Restaurant

The owners of Austin’s Restaurant and Bar in Spring Township are planning to open a new restaurant in the former Seafood Shanty in the nearby Broadcasting Square Shopping Center. The new restaurant, to be called the Coastal Grille, is expected to open in September, according to an article in the May 16 Reading Eagle newspaper. The Eagle reports that the owners have invested around $1 million to renovate the space. Coastal Grille will be fourth restaurant to open in the building, which previously housed Uno Chicago Grill, Mason’s Chop House and, most recently, Seafood Shanty.

Kempton Pepper Jam Debuts This Weekend

The first annual Kempton Pepper Jam is set to debut this weekend. The event, which is being promoted by the owners of the Penn Werner Hotel in Wernersville, features live music, craft beers, wineries, craftors, food vendors, and of course, hot peppers. Saturday at 5 p.m., eight brave souls will compete in a Pepper Eating Contest, where they will be challenged to eat progressively hotter peppers, from jalapeno to serrano chili to tahi bird chili to habanero. The Pepper Jam is open from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults. Children 12 years and younger are free.

Restaurant Week Continues

The Greater Reading Independent Restaurant Association’s annual spring Restaurant Week continues through Sunday, May 25. Many of the GRIRA member restaurants are offering special menus with two- and three-course prix fixe menus. Click here to view a list of participating restaurants, and be sure to support local Berks County businesses.

Food News

3rd and Spruce Cafe

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The 3rd and Spruce Cafe doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s easy to miss the small sign hanging along 3rd Avenue. Only the sidewalk seating hints at what lies inside the utilitarian-looking building on the corner.

But hungry patrons have been finding the Cafe for seven decades since it opened on a corner in the middle of a West Reading residential neighborhood.

Though the restaurant may be old, its owners keep it feeling fresh. The deep red walls are complemented by the red cushions on the stainless steel chairs. Flat screen TVs fill the spaces that aren’t lit by the large picture windows.

Third and Spruce packs a lot of seating into a small area. A large number of high-top tables surround the bar and a second floor loft waits for overflow traffic when it’s not booked for private events.

The menu is mostly suited toward lunch and light fare, with sandwiches and salads dominating the menu. Dinner entrees, which are available only after 4 p.m., may be limited, but they are all quality. Three different cuts of steak and a variety of seafood and chicken dishes make up the single page of entrees.

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We started our meal with an order of vegetable pot-stickers, the day’s appetizer special. These bite-sized dumplings packed quite a punch, especially when dipped in the sweet chili dipping sauce. As good as the crispy, golden dumplings were, the sauce made them that much better, first acting as a sweet glaze, then coming back with some heat afterward.

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For my dinner, I decided to go with the Pasta Primavera, garden vegetables and linguini tossed in pesto sauce. The bright green snap peas and broccoli were cooked to a perfect al dente.

Pesto is one of my favorite sauces, and this did not disappoint. Thick and creamy, the pesto clung to the vegetables and pasta, ensuring a flavorful bite every time.

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As good as my dinner was, I was envious of the plate across from me. My wife’s southwest chicken and tortellini looked amazing, and it was.

The cheese tortellini were tossed with black beans, corn and chunks of white meat chicken in a cheddar cream sauce. The sauce, like the pesto, was thick and creamy, and though you could taste the cheddar, it was not overly cheesy, and instead held a nice balance of flavors.

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I felt so good about my healthy entree choices that I decided to ruin it by getting dessert, a slice of chocolate bourbon pecan pie. As if a slice of pecan pie was not delicious enough, 3rd and Spruce’s version featured a brownie baked on top. It was then served with cinnamon ice cream, two dollops of whipped cream, sprinkled with brown sugar and drizzled with chocolate syrup. It was every bit as good as it looks and sounds.

Our delicious three-course meal cost about $35. Entrees range from $10-20, with burgers and sandwiches running a little less. The menu also includes fresh dough pizza and a five-item kids menu.

Though the exterior may be drab, what’s happening inside the 3rd and Spruce Cafe is anything but. It’s a chic neighborhood bar serving some fine original foods.

And thanks to the name, it’s really easy to find.

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

3rd and Spruce Cafe
238 S. Third Ave
West Reading, PA 19611

Dessert Finer Dining Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Greater Reading Restaurant Week Runs Through May 25

If there is a Berks County restaurant you’ve been dying to try, or if you’re just looking for a nice night out at a reasonable price, now is a great time to dine local as the Greater Reading Independent Restaurant Association presents its annual spring Restaurant Week 2014, now through May 25th.

Seven area restaurants are offering special prix fixe dinner menus, with some also offering lunch. Here is a quick look at the seven restaurants and their Restaurant Week menu pricing:

Blind Hartman’s Tavern

$9.99 lunch – Includes soup du jour and choice of entree

$19.99 dinner – Includes soup du jour or side salad and choice of entree

Brewer’s Bar & Grill

$9.99 lunch – Includes appetizer and choice of sandwich

$20.00 dinner – Includes cup of soup or salad, appetizer and choice of entree

Building 24

$10.00 lunch – Includes appetizer and choice of entree

$22.00 dinner – Includes choice of appetzier, entree and dessert

Flanagan’s Pub

$8.99 lunch – Includes choice of soup or salad, and entree

$21.99 dinner – Includes choice of soup or salad, appetizer and entree

Klinger’s on Carsonia

$10.00 lunch – Choice of Soup & Salad Combo; Burger Combo; or Sandwich Combo

$17.00 dinner – Includes choice of starter; soup or salad; and entree

Penn Werner Hotel

$16.99 – $19.99 dinner – Four entree options of varied pricing, each served with salad and dessert.

Suburban Tavern

$20.00 dinner – Includes soup, salad and choice of entree.

So if you’re planning a night out this week, remember to eat local and support your local Berks County businesses.

Food News

Sofrito Gastro Pub – CLOSED

Editor’s Note: Sofrito Gastro Pub is now closed. The restaurant and bar closed at the end of summer 2019.

America is a place that is defined by its neighborhoods.

Our country is nothing more than a string of communities that have been knitted together over time.

Friendships were forged in the neighborhood bars and restaurants. There was at least one in every town; sometimes, one on every corner. Long before Applebee’s usurped the name, a neighborhood bar and grill was the place that truly helped define a community.

The rise of housing developments and shopping centers helped lead to the decline of the traditional neighborhood. And today it seems like more friendships exist through social media than in our towns.

The one place where the word neighborhood still means something is in our cities, and Reading is no exception.

One of the most recognizable of the city’s neighborhoods is the Centre Park Historic District, a mix of Victorian mansions, quaint row homes and the beautiful open space for which the neighborhood takes its name: Centre Park.

The neighborhood is a true treasure for the city, one with a personality all to its own. And inside this neighborhood is a restaurant that perfectly complements its surroundings.

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Sofrito Gastro Pub sits on the corner of Douglas and Thorn Streets, just a short walk west from Centre Park. The front of the building looks more like the adobe homes of the American southwest than the stone mansions of Centre Park.

Inside, the best way to describe Sofrito is eclectic chic. The barroom is adorned with beer signs and flat screens. To the left of our table was a large swine statue that read “Sofrito Pig Roast.”

Our table was pushed against a support pillar, and on the other side, the Bryan Betts Group was serenading patrons with their smooth jazz sounds.

When the weather’s warm, diners can take the party to the outside deck, where a large mural of city’s history adorns one of the large outer walls.

Sofrito’s menu is as eclectic as the atmosphere, drawing inspiration from across the Caribbean islands and Latin America, with a few American favorites thrown in.

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We started with a half basket of fresh-cut fries (a steal at just $2.00), still glistening from their bath in the deep fryer.

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My entree also came with my choice of starter salad. I opted for Sofrito’s original creation, the Centre Park Urban Salad, a spring mix with Spanish olives and red peppers tossed in a rosemary garlic and brown sugar vinaigrette (which I found also makes an excellent dipping sauce for the fries). It was a hefty salad to start, and before I could finish it, my main course was on the table.

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And for my main course, I chose mofongo al pilon. Mofongo is a Puerto Rican specialty of mashed plantains, in this case mixed with onions, garlic and cilantro and topped with chunks of fried pork and served with black beans and the brightest yellow rice I have ever seen.

The cilantro really came through in the mofongo, which was much heavier and more filling than I had expected. The pork was fried to a golden brown and was very good, though a couple pieces were a little too fatty for my taste. Overall though, it was excellent in both presentation and taste.

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My wife opted for the chicken mango quesadillas. The chicken had a nice char from the grill, which mixed well with the sweetness of the mango. Add in the locally made tortilla and gooey cheese, and it was an awesome dish, one that was big enough to also enjoy for lunch the next day.

Sofrito’s motto is “Tu sabes!” which, according to Google Translate, means “You know!” Judging by the full tables and bar stools, it’s safe to say that a lot of people know about Sofrito’s great food, unique atmosphere and reasonable prices (less than $25 for our meal).

It’s a true neighborhood gem, one that adds to the unique character of Reading’s Centre Park district. But more importantly, it’s a great place to enjoy a great meal.

Tu sabes!

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

Sofrito Gastro Pub
220 Douglass St
Reading, PA 19601

Sofrito Gastro Pub on Urbanspoon

Bars & Pubs Caribbean & Latin American Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Hong Thanh – MOVED

Editor’s Note: Hong Thanh has moved. The restaurant is now located at 22 N. 6th Street in downtown Reading and renamed Lang Restaurant. This was also the restaurant’s location prior to moving to Broadcasting Square.

When you think of Berks County cuisine, what do you think of?

Many probably think of a bowl of chicken pot pie, a platter of schnitz und knepp or other Pennsylvania Dutch specialty.

Others may think of homemade pasta, a south-of-the-border recipe or barbecue chicken.

One thing I have learned since starting Berks County Eats is that we are blessed with amazing variety when it comes to dining options.

Still, if you asked me what I think of when I think of Berks County cuisine, a Vietnamese sauté probably would not have been very high on my list.

Hong-Thanh

From the outside, Hong Thanh looks very much like many area Asian restaurants. Its location – a strip mall inside the Broadcasting Square Shopping Center in Spring Township – doesn’t allow for much of an exterior. A large silhouette of a mystical-looking woman adorns one of three tinted windows.

Past the large statue that stands guard inside the doors, the dining room opens up. A bright yellow booth seat runs the length of the far wall. Across the room, small tables for two are raised above the dining room.

The menus are small, but the items on them are varied. For those looking for the familiar, Hong Thanh offers a variety of lo mein, fried rice and beef, chicken and pork stir-fry.

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But my eye never made it past the first of the “specialties” items: sautéed onions, garlic and French butter. The dish comes with your choice of three meats, and though I consider myself to be an adventurous eater, I was not feeling adventurous enough to try the squid. Instead, I added the cubed filet mignon, and was glad I did.

The meat was extremely tender and had soaked up a lot of the flavor from the French butter sauce, which was sweet and a little salty from the addition of soy sauce, making the filet extra juicy as well. The dish is served with a cup of lime-based dipping sauce which worked with the flavors of the dish to create a sweet and sour dynamic that took it to another level.

Rather than serving as a bed for the meat, a scoop of white rice was served in a side bowl. Instead, the plate was filled out with the addition of a simple lettuce and tomato salad that went well with both the dipping sauce and the French butter.

Pork-Lemongrass-Curry-Coconut-and-Peanuts-Stir-Fry-Hong-Thanh

The other item I wanted to try was a lemongrass and curry stir-fry. Thankfully, that was the item that caught my wife’s attention. The stir-fry also included coconut, peanuts and choice of meat (in this case, pork) and was served with lo mein noodles.

The noodles were angel-hair thin and created a delicious tangled web atop the plate. The stir-fry itself was a sweet and spicy combination, with the curry coming through strong. The addition of the lemongrass also helped make this a little more authentic than the “Americanized” stir fries that feature broccoli and similar vegetables.

Vietnamese-Banana-Cake-Ginger-Ice-Cream-Hong-Thanh

After our meals, we had just enough room for dessert, a slice of Vietnamese banana cake served with a small scoop of ginger ice cream.

The dessert was more pie than cake, with large chunks of bananas sandwiching a layer of thick cream, surrounded by a moist crust. The ginger ice cream, one of several homemade ice cream options, added some spice to go along with the sweet cake. The two pieces were enjoyable together, but could also stand individually.

For $45, we enjoyed a meal that went outside of our traditional comfort zone and forced us to experience new flavors.

Though Hong Thanh has only been at its current location since late 2012, the business has been serving Berks County for nearly 30 years, an eternity in the restaurant business.

Vietnamese cuisine will probably never become synonymous with Greater Reading, but Hong Thanh serves as a reminder that Berks County’s food scene is rich with diversity.

Hong Thanh Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Asian & Pacific Islands Dessert Lunch & Dinner Reviews