Tosco Pizza & Italian Restaurant

tosco-sign

When you see an Italian restaurant in a strip mall, it’s easy to dismiss it as just another pizza shop.

We have been conditioned to believe that sit down restaurants are found in stand-alone buildings while strip malls are nothing more than take-out counters, a place to grab dinner on the way home, not to pull up a chair and enjoy a nice meal.

But if you discount these restaurants all together, you are missing out.

When Tosco Pizza & Italian Restaurant opened up between Robesonia and Wernersville (it has a Wernersville address, but is barely outside the Robesonia borough limits), it looked to be just another pizza shop.

Prior to Tosco’s arrival in 2011, the space housed a Chinese restaurant, and before that, a sandwich shop. Both were standard, non-descript restaurants offering nothing but counter service.

tosco-interior

Tosco took a different approach. Renting out the adjacent space, the restaurant created a connected dining room.  Paintings of the Italian coast adorn the walls above the wooden booths. It’s a rustic feel throughout, except for out-of-place flat screen TV on the back wall.

In addition to pizza, the menu includes a wide range of pastas as well as wings, cheesesteaks, hot and cold sandwiches, burgers and an entire line-up of sandwiches served atop garlic bread.

tosco-garlic-knots

While garlic bread is reserved for sandwiches, each meal is served with a basket of fresh-baked garlic knots. These little beauties are exactly what they sound like: knots of dough that are slathered in butter and minced garlic. If only they were served with a side of marinara, I could make these delicious bites into a meal.

Catching my eye on the way in was the daily special, written on a chalkboard at the entrance to the dining room.

tosco-tri-color-tortellini

The tri-color cheese tortellini was tossed with chicken and rapini in a creamy tomato sauce. I tried to get a little bit of everything, but there wasn’t room on the fork for much more than the little pasta pockets. Still, the tortellini were small enough that the cheese filling did not overpower the pasta. As I dug in to the seemingly endless bowl, each bite was better than the last as the tortellini soaked up the rich flavors of the sauce.

Along with the garlic knots, each meal also comes with a starter salad. With as large as the bowl of pasta was, I almost wish they would skip the salad because the last thing I needed was something to fill up on before my tortellini arrived.

But if you are craving salad for dinner, Tosco’s specialty salads are perfectly sized for a hearty meal.

In the mood for something  “healthy,” Julie opted for a cheesesteak salad, one of nearly 20 salad options on the menu.

tosco-cheesesteak-salad

The base salad was similar to mine, a bed of lettuce topped with shredded carrots and ribbons of onions. The difference is the pile of shredded beef and melted American cheese on top, which turned this from an oversized appetizer into a legitimate main course.

With large menus comes a wide range of prices. Our meal came in around $25, but you can easily spend less if you are willing to split a large sandwich, or a little more if you are looking only at entrees.

If you were driving past Tosco, you probably wouldn’t even guess that entrees were an option. From the outside, it looks like a typical pizza and sandwich shop.

But looks can be deceiving. A strip mall is an unlikely place for a real Italian restaurant, but sometimes you find great things in unexpected places.

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

Tosco Pizza & Italian Restaurant
6889 Penn Ave
Wernersville, PA 19565

Tosco Pizza on Urbanspoon

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

The Hitching Post Restaurant and Bar

the-hitching-post

Everyone loves a comeback story.

We see them all the time: a sports star returns from a devastating injury; an actor lands a starring role years after their last hit movie.

The same thing can happen in the restaurant business. Just look at The Hitching Post Restaurant and Bar.

I’m old enough to remember the original Hitching Post in West Lawn, but not old enough to remember anything about it. The only thing I really know is that it was replaced by a Wawa more than decade ago. To tell the truth, I can count on one hand the number of times my parents took me to the Hitching Post, but I could not venture to guess how many Shorti hoagies I’ve eaten in the years since.

Three years ago the Hitching Post rose from the ashes, this time in Bern Township along Route 183.

The building formerly housed the Classic Cafe, then Chill Lounge before the Hitching Post took over the location in 2011. The restaurant has been doing well every since. So well in fact that a sister restaurant, Willoughby’s Bar & Grill, opened last year in Wyomissing.

When you first pull in to the parking lot, it is hard to gauge the size of the restaurant. The dining area is expansive. Split by a small step in the middle, there is easily enough room to seat a few hundred people.

Our table was near the crowded bar. There was not a stool to be had on this Thursday night, nor were there any high-top tables left around it.

It was an older crowd in the barroom, though not as old as the jazz duo who were performing in the corner. But I have to compliment them: the first song we heard was a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” that could have easily passed for the original.

I don’t know what the menu was like at the original Hitching Post, but if it was anything like the current one, I can see why it was so popular. There were at least a dozen items that I debated between, including the Filet Alfredo Bleu (filet medallions topped with gorgonzola and cream sauce of pasta) and chicken pecan (chicken breast topped with cashew pecan and brie spread with mixed berry amaretto sauce). There is also a section of Greek specialties that includes a souvlaki, spanakopita and gyro (with shaved lamb).

After a lengthy dialog with myself, I opted for the filet tip wellington.

Normally I think of “tips” as small slices of meat, but these were closer to whole filets. The meat was done perfectly before being stuffed in a flaky pastry. The whole thing was topped with caramelized onions and mushrooms with a thick au jus of Madeira wine, sage and gorgonzola cheese.

The sauce had a flavor unlike any that I have tried before. The gorgonzola was strong, giving the sauce a slightly sour flavor that was tempered by the wine and herbs. It was delicious from the first bite through the last.

Wanting something a little “lighter” that wouldn’t result in a to-go box, Julie ordered a prime rib sandwich with French fries. The sandwich was topped onions, mushrooms, provolone and for a little change of pace, horseradish aioli. The aioli really took a good sandwich to another level, adding just a little extra zing without overpowering it with horseradish.

Of course half of it ended up coming home with us anyway, but that’s only because I had my heart set on ordering dessert.

For the finale, we had orange creamsicle crème brulee. Like all crème brulee, it was nicely caramelized and topped with a mound of whipped cream. But it tasted exactly like an orange creamsicle, just warm and melty. I felt a little like a six-year-old while eating a very grown-up dessert.

The Hitching Post may not be fine dining, but it’s very good dining in a fine atmosphere. And at $40 for our entire check, the prices are certainly not fine dining either.

I wish I could remember the old Hitching Post so I could definitively say the new restaurant is “better than the original,” but I can’t.

What I can say is that The Hitching Post is really good and, like the original, should be sticking around for a long time.

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

The Hitching Post Restaurant & Bar
2747 Bernville Rd
Leesport, PA 19533

The Hitching Post on Urbanspoon

Dessert Finer Dining Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Heirloom Opens in Hereford; Laxmi’s Indian Grille Coming to Wyomissing

Heirloom Brings Farm-To-Table Fine Dining to Hereford

A new farm-to-table restaurant has opened its doors in Hereford Township. Heirloom, a fine dining restaurant that uses a farm-to-table approach to its meals, opened on October 3, according to an article in the Allentown Morning Call. The restaurant takes over the site of the former Cab Frye’s Tavern on Gravel Pike, just inside Berks County’s border with Montgomery County. The restaurant does not yet have a website, but you can learn more about them on their Facebook page.

Update 1/18/15: Click Here to Read Berks County Eats’ review of Heirloom

Laxmi’s Indian Grille To Open Wyomissing Location

Laxmi’s Indian Grille looks to be the next Philadelphia restaurant chain to stake a claim in Berks County. Laxmi’s name now appears above what was a vacant storefront in the Berkshire Plaza strip mall in Wyomissing. Alebrije Mexican Restaurant and Mama’s Pizza are also located in the same strip mall that sits along State Hill Road. Laxmi’s has two Philadelphia locations and recently held a soft launch of a third in Ardmore. A sign on the door reads “Coming Soon” but no opening date has been given for the Wyomissing location. You can learn more about Laxmi’s on their website.

Food News

Bowers Hotel

bowers-hotel

For a small town, Bowers offers a lot to the culinary scene in Berks County. Most notably, the tiny village of 326 residents is home to the Bowers Chile Pepper Festival, one of the largest festivals of its kind in the country.

But it is more than just a once-a-year destination for foodies. Like all small communities, Bowers has its own gathering place, one that serves great food and drinks to neighbors and strangers alike.

The Bowers Hotel has a long history that dates back to 1820 when Jonas Bower (of the family from whom Bowers is named) built a small log cabin that served as a tavern.

More than 100 years have passed since the log cabin was replaced by the current two-story structure, but the hotel does not show its age. It maintains some 19th century charm in the wallpaper (red with beautiful white scrolling) and dim overhead lighting with votive candles on the tables, but the tables and chairs are much newer and add a modern feel to the historic property.

We were seated in the first of what are three partially divided dining rooms with a more “early bird” crowd while later arrivals were seated in the far room where a jazz band kicked off their set toward the end of our meal.

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The menu also recalls the past with traditional dishes like liver and onions, shepherds pie, oyster pie and chicken pot pie (not the Pennsylvania Dutch favorite, but the baked-in-a-crust kind). And like most traditional restaurants, all meals are served with a basket of warm baked rolls.

bowers-hotel-pierogies-au-speck

We started our meal with the most interestingly named appetizer on the menu, pierogies au schpeck. The potato-filled pierogies were wrapped in strips of bacon and served atop a bed of sour cream, chives and sautéed onions.

The result was a cross between a pierogi and a baked potato, deep-fried and delicious. It had the perfect mix of texture, the crispy outer shell and bacon mixed with the fluffy potatoes and dense, creamy sauce made for an exceptional appetizer.

For my main course, I didn’t go in looking for something simple, but upon seeing pork and sauerkraut on the weekend specials, my decision was made.

bowers-hotel-pork-and-sauerkraut

Pork and sauerkraut may be the most quintessential of German American dishes, one that is normally reserved for New Year’s Day. But there’s no rule that says you can’t get some good luck in mid-November. And while I can’t confirm that the pork and sauerkraut brought me good luck, I can tell you that the Bowers Hotel brought me some darn good pork and sauerkraut.

The key to the dish is the sauerkraut: too sour and it leaves a poor taste in your mouth, not sour enough and you lose the flavor. This sauerkraut was done just right, injecting a jolt of acidity into the pork. Adding mashed potatoes to every forkful made it even better.

bowers-hotel-chicken-parmesan

Also opting for traditional, Julie decided on chicken Parmesan for her main dish. The chicken and spaghetti were covered in a thick tomato sauce and a layer of melted cheese. It was just about as good as any Italian restaurant.

We were tempted to continue our meal with dessert, but I managed to show restraint and leave on a full stomach instead of an overly full one. With Julie’s addition of an apple cider sangria, our total bill came to just over $40.

I always love things that are new and different, but sometimes it is good to remember that the classics are classics for a reason. And the Bowers Hotel does classics as well as anyone.

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

Bowers Hotel
298 Bowers Rd
Bowers, PA 19511

The New Bowers Hotel on Urbanspoon

Lunch & Dinner Reviews

5 Chains Berks County Is Missing

Berks County’s restaurant scene is constantly growing. New restaurants are opening all the time, and that’s a great thing. And while most of the restaurants are small, independent places, we have also seen an influx of chains in recent years. That trend is continuing with the recent opening of P.J. Whelihan’s and the anticipated arrival of Mission BBQ, Buffalo Wild Wings and others.

This got me thinking, what chain restaurants is Berks County still missing?

So I thought about all of the chains I have eaten at and researched a few that I haven’t.  I excluded any chains that were here in gone (sorry Hooter’s and T.G.I. Friday’s). Also excluded were regional chains from other parts of the country (In-N-Out Burger), big city chains (Shake Shack), and higher end restaurants (Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse).

What I came up with was a list of five restaurants that I think could be great fits in Greater Reading.

Bryn & Dane’s

It’s likely that you have never heard of Bryn & Dane’s, and I can’t say that I blame you. Currently, it is a chain with just two locations, both of them located in Horsham, Montgomery County. Bryn & Dane’s is fast food, but healthy. And yes, that does exist. Entree options are wraps, salads, quesadillas or chicken strips. The only sides available are sweet potato fries, popcorn (popcorn!) and seasonal fruit. And instead of Coke or Pepsi, they have natural fountain sodas and organic iced teas. If you’re looking for something sweet, Bryn & Dane offers a variety of healthy smoothies.

Bryn & Dane’s is different. Bryn & Dane’s is local. Bryn & Dane’s would make a great addition to Berks County.

Chickie’s and Pete’s

The Chickie’s and Pete’s inside Santander Arena is just a tease. I don’t want to have to pay for event tickets and parking just to get my hands on an order of Crabfries. With P.J. Whelihan’s now open, Chickie’s is probably the most well-known regional chain without a permanent presence in Berks County. Chickie’s nearest location is in Audubon, Montgomery County, so there is still plenty of room for a westward expansion.

A Reading restaurant just makes sense for Chickie’s and Pete’s. If it plans on remaining a “Philly” chain, Berks, Lancaster, and possibly York, are probably as far west as it can go.

Baja Fresh

The largest of the chains on this list, Baja Fresh has more than 250 locations across the United States, including two in Montgomery County, the only two in Pennsylvania. The restaurant is similar to Chipotle and Moe’s Southwest Grille, two restaurant that already have a presence in Berks County, in that it is fast casual Mexican food. Burritos, tacos, quesadillas and all of your south-of-the-border favorites are on the menu, but Baja Fresh has a few different items including their Fresh Line Caught Wahoo Tacos and Diablo Burritos.

With only two Pennsylvania locations, there is plenty of room for Baja Fresh to expand, and Berks County has plenty of room for more quick service restaurants.

Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes

Berks Countians love a buffet, but I can tell you that nothing around here compares to a Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes buffet. There are no carving stations and no mashed potatoes . But there are plenty of leafy greens, scratch-made soup and homemade pasta. Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes has 128 locations across 15 states (including 78 in Florida and California, combined), but the closest one to us is in North Carolina. While I don’t expect one to open up any time soon, the chain’s expansion is continuing and should reach the northeast sometime in the coming years.

Again, Berks Countians love buffets. Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes is very different from an Old Country Buffet, but it’s a concept that could gain traction here, especially if it’s the only location in the region.
Dickey’s BBQ Pit

Ten years ago I ate at my first Dickey’s restaurant in North Carolina. The Texas-based chain of barbecue restaurants had just started its eastward expansion and plans were already in the works for locations in Bethlehem and King of Prussia. While the KOP location never came to fruition, Dickey’s did open in Bethlehem and has now expanded their Pennsylvania presence to include Lancaster and Collegeville. Unlike Smokey Bones or the incoming Mission BBQ, Dickey’s is more like an indoor BBQ trailer. You order at the counter from a menu that includes brisket, ribs, pulled pork and sausage. Dickey’s also offers some excellent sides, including waffle fries, BBQ baked beans, jalapeno beans and sweet potato casserole. And to top it all off, each meal comes with free soft serve ice cream if you are lucky enough to have saved room.

While there is clearly no shortage of barbecue in Berks County, there is still plenty of room for a restaurant like Dickey’s.

Features Stories

Food News: Restaurant Openings and Closings in Berks County

Ciabatta Closes; New Restaurant Readying

Ciabatta recently closed its doors after nearly eight years of business along State Hill Road in Wyomissing. The restaurant has apparently been for sale for a while, at least since December, according to this Realtor blog. The good news is that the location already has new tenants in place. Renovations are already in progress on the restaurant’s interior, though there is no sign yet as to what will take its place.

Tilted Kilt Coming to Wyomissing? 

It appears as if Tilted Kilt may be the latest chain to find a home in Wyomissing. The former Bensi Restaurant in the Shoppes at Wyomissing has been vacant since 2012, but renovations are currently under way.Though there is no signage and no announcement has been made about the new tenant, Garrison Retail, owners of the shops of Wyomissing, has Tilted Kilt listed as the tenant on what would be the vacant space on their property map. Tilted Kilt is a Celtic-themed sports bar chain with about 100 restaurants in the United States, including nearby locations in Allentown and King of Prussia.

Lavigna & Sons Opens in Sinking Spring

Lavigna & Sons Philadelphia Hoagies has opened next to Spayd’s Nursery (formerly Green Valley Nursery) in Sinking Spring. According to an article in the November 5 Reading Eagle, the Lavigna family has a history of serving the Berks County community, with the original Lavigna & Sons operating from 1959 to 1969 in downtown Reading. A new generation is now carrying on the family tradition with the new restaurant, which specializes in Philadelphia-style hoagies. With Crave Cafe, it is one of two restaurants now operating at the site.

Food News

Coastal Grille

coastal-grille

As a general rule, I will never visit a restaurant during their first month in business.

It’s not that I’m not anxious to try new places. I am.

It’s not that I don’t want to give them business. I do.

It’s that I don’t want my opinion of a restaurant to be clouded by a bad experience early in its life. I hear stories all the time from people who go to a restaurant during its first two weeks, and all they talk about is how long the wait is, and how long it took to get drinks, and how long it took to get food.

So I wait. Not in an hour-long line to get in, but until the restaurant has had some practice. No amount of mock service days can prepare you for when the open sign comes on for the first time and you have customers waiting out the door.

That’s why I waited until recently to make my first trip to Coastal Grille.

Coastal Grille opened in late September in the Broadcasting Square Shopping Center, taking over a building that has seen Uno Chicago Grill, Mason’s Chophouse and, most recently, Seafood Shanty come and go.

Like Seafood Shanty before it, the new restaurant plays heavily toward the seafood lover. The connection to the ocean is apparent from the moment you walk through the door and see the large aquarium that separates the main dining room from the bar. Silver sculptures of deep sea fish hang on the wall, shimmering brilliantly between the windows.

More than a month removed from their opening, Coastal Grille was still packed on this Saturday night. Many more people streamed in behind us during our 30-minute wait until we were escorted to our table.

coastal-grille-ciabattta

The menu is heavily inspired by the sea, but it does borrow a few favorites from its sister restaurant, Austin’s, including baby back ribs and shoestring fries. And like Austin’s, you have the option to begin your meal with a loaf of bread. In this case, it’s a warm, fresh-baked ciabatta that required all the willpower we had not to devour before our food arrived.

As someone who prefers animals that graze to those that swim, I passed on the surf and opted instead for turf with the Reggae Ribeye.

coastal-grille-reggae-steak

The menu describes the Reggae Ribeye as a 12 oz. steak that was marinated and basted in a sweet and spicy sauce. I was expecting a typical steak that had maybe been brushed once or twice during cooking. What I got was a beautiful cut of meat, glistening from the reflection of the light on the sticky sauce.

A rush of flavors hit my tongue on the first bite. The sauce tasted like a mixture of teriyaki, barbecue and chili oil, a mild kick tempered by the cooling sweetness, with a hint of salt besides. Cooked medium well, with just a hint of pink in the middle,  it was one of the best restaurant steaks I have ordered.

All of their grilled specialties, and most of the entrees on the menu, are served with the vegetable of the day and a choice of side. While I love Austin’s shoestring fries, I knew I needed to change things up so I opted for house-made chips instead. The kettle-cooked chips were extra dark—not burnt—sealing in the flavors absorbed during the cooking process.

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While none of the entrees include a starter salad, you can substitute a salad as one of your sides. That’s exactly what Julie decided to do, opting for Caesar. The leafy greens were piled high on the plate and topped with deliciously flavorful croutons that were obviously homemade.

coastal-grille-baked-haddock

Deciding that at least one of us had to order seafood, she decided on the Boston baked haddock for her entree. The fish was topped with a garlic cream sauce with lumps of shrimp and crab. The dish offered a mix of flavors and textures, with the cream sauce bringing everything together in a coherent dish.

Sadly, dinner proved too much for me and dessert was not in the cards. It was especially disappointing after seeing a Chocolate Bag walk past me. The Chocolate Bag is a dessert unique to Coastal Grille: hardened chocolate in the shape of a small bag, filled to the brim with whipped cream and topped with cherries. I may or may not have let out an audible “oooh” when it came near.

Instead we called it quits after our entrees, our total bill coming out to about $45.

After waiting a month (and an extra 30 minutes) my first visit to Coastal Grille did not disappoint.

I’m happy we waited, and will be even happier when we go back again soon.

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

Coastal Grille
2713 N. Meridian Blvd
Wyomissing, PA 19610

Coastal Grille on Urbanspoon

Finer Dining Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Photo Blog: Iron Chef Hamburg

hamburg-iron-chef-2

Ever since I left the first annual Wilson Iron Chef competition stuffed and smiling, I was counting down the days until November 2.

That was the date of the fourth annual Iron Chef Hamburg, the longest-running such competition in the area, and my next chance to experience an amazing culinary event.

And of course, my next chance to sample all of the amazing food.

Like others that have mimicked its style, Iron Chef Hamburg is really four events in one. The People’s Choice competition, food tasting and auction lead into the main event, the Iron Chef competition.

People’s Choice

Our first stop was the People’s Choice room. Nine area restaurants were set up inside the high school gym, each one with their own unique dish created using the year’s secret ingredient: apples.

Up for grabs for the two top vote-getters were places in next year’s Iron Chef competition so all of the chefs brought their best, most creative dishes.

hamburg-iron-chef-bernville-eagle-hotel

First in line was the Bernville Eagle Hotel, who had what was probably the most original of the nine items. The chef was busy plating more when I bit into mine, and he busted out laughing when I said, “This is really good, but I have to ask. What did I just eat?” What I ate was a puff pastry topped with Swiss cheese, apple and mushrooms, drizzled with balsamic. It was a flavor that stayed with me as I made the rounds.

hamburg-iron-chef-it-s-just-bbq

Next up was a stop at It’s Just BBQ, a Deer Lake restaurant known for the famous “Pink Pig.” With a limited menu of brisket, ribs, pulled pork and chicken, they had little room for adaptation, so they used the apples in the best way they could: in the sauce. Their already sweet barbecue sauce was infused with chunks of apples and drizzled atop their tender pulled pork. It was delicious, but it’s nothing I hadn’t tasted before.

hamburg-iron-chef-pappy-t-s

Stop number three was Hamburg’s Pappy T’s Pub & Lounge, who opted for roast duck topped with apples and bacon. I can honestly say that I never expected to taste duck on this trip. The duck was good, though it was a little chewier than I like, but that was probably because it had to sit in a warmer for an extended time.

hamburg-iron-chef-adelphia-seafood

Moving on, we arrived at Adelphia Seafood, who made the trip from West Lawn with their apple and cheddar bisque  topped with crab and/or bacon. Not being a fan of crab meat, I opted for bacon-only, and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t find myself wanting more.

hamburg-iron-chef-schuylkill-country-club

One dish that I would have really loved to have tasted when it was fresh was the meatballs being served by the Schuylkill Country Club of Orwigsburg. By the time I got mine, it was lukewarm, though the flavors still popped, a combination of sweet and savory with the apple really shining through.

hamburg-iron-chef-indian-fort-inn

The Indian Fort Inn went for a dish that was both simple and complex. The Hamburg restaurant gave us chicken and apple atop fried wontons. The only thing that hurt this dish was that the wonton was a little too strong, throwing off the balance just enough that the wonton was the only flavor that stayed with me.

The biggest disappointment of the day came from the Virginville Hotel, not because their food was bad, but because their food was already gone by the time we got there. What made it worse was seeing the description of their pork-based dish sitting on the table in front of an empty warming tray.

hamburg-iron-chef-bowers-hotel

Apparently knowing I was coming, the Bowers Hotel prepared traditional Pennsylvania Dutch schnitz und knepp. I was almost forced to vote for it on principle, especially as the chef kept scooping more onto my plate in an effort to ensure I got a dumpling. It was everything I could have hoped for, I only wish I would have had a bowl so I could have better enjoyed all the juice that had pooled on the plate.

hamburg-iron-chef-kempton-hotel

Last, but certainly not least, was the Kempton Hotel. The restaurant came in with the same idea as It’s Just BBQ, opting for pulled pork with an apple-based barbecue sauce. It was good, but tasting the same thing twice turned me off to voting for both dishes.

In the end, Julie and I split our votes between the Bernville Eagle and Bowers Hotels. I won’t tell you which side my votes fell two days later during the election, but I can tell you that we did not cast the winning votes in the People’s Choice. Instead, it was announced that Adelphia Seafood earned the top honor with It’s Just BBQ coming in runner-up. In all honesty, I would not have been shocked by any of the eight dishes we tried earning the nod.

Food Vendors

With such great participation in the People’s Choice competition, I was a little disappointed with the vendor area. Of the 25 vendors, only a handful were restaurants. The rest were a mix-and-match of food-related businesses that included Pure Wild Tea, Solude Coffee, Tastefully Simple and Dove Chocolate. The Hamburg School District also prepared a multitude of dishes using their kitchen’s vendors like Tyson chicken and Jennie-O-Turkey.

hamburg-iron-chef-bowers-hotel-chili

But there was good food to be had, including white chicken chili from the Bowers Hotel.

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Deitsch Eck also brought some of their housemade pies. Having already sampled the shoo-fly pie on my visit, I grabbed a piece of peach pie. I’m looking forward to going back to the restaurant for a full slice.

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Keeping with the sweets, Way-Har Farms had three flavors of ice cream to sample: strawberry, peanut butter and my choice, vanilla fudge.

hamburg-iron-chef-penn-werner-hotel

Penn Werner Hotel was also there, though all that was left when we arrived were chicken bites that you could use to sample hot wing sauce and promote the 2015 Pepper Jam.

Benefit Auction

Between the end of the food tasting and the start of the Iron Chef, guests could buy raffle tickets or bid in the live auction.

The big prize was the opportunity to be the fourth judge for the Iron Chef, a prize that went for well over $500.

There was also a door prize raffle, and I was glad my number wasn’t called because it seemed that every prize package included two tickets to see Tony Orlando.

Iron Chef Competition

hamburg-iron-chef

The grand finale of the day was the Iron Chef competition. Three chefs were competing for the title of 2014 Iron Chef: Paul Weitzel of Haag’s Hotel, Ron Liszcz of Stirling Guest Hotel, and defending champion Tim Twiford of Prime Steak and Wine (at the Crowne Plaza).

The three chefs had 35 minutes to make and plate their dishes, using all of the three secret ingredients: top round steak, Brussels sprouts and Ramen Noodles.

hamburg-iron-chef-6

Chef Twiford came well-prepared, bringing his own cart full of gadgets, including a smoker gun which got the audience’s attention as soon as he lit it.

With the steak serving as the entree, chefs had to get creative with their sides and the required salad that would be presented with it. Chef Weitzel, stationed on the opposite end of the auditorium stage, took his Ramen noodles and used them to garnish his salad.

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When the 35 minutes passed, the chefs presented their dishes to the judges, and the crowd had a chance to bid for a taste as two plates from each chef were auctioned off for a combined $600.

After the votes were tallied, Chef Twiford was declared the winner, successfully defending his title and earning him a place in next year’s competition.

It was a fun day to be a foodie, an event that I’ll be anticipating again next year.

I already circled November 1, 2015 in my calendar.

Food Festivals & Events

Berks Food News: PJ Whelihan’s Opens; Reading Eagle Announces Readers Choice Winners

PJ Whelihan

PJ Whelihan’s opens in Spring Township

PJ Whelihan’s has officially opened the doors of its new location in Spring Township. According to the restaurant’s Facebook page, it held mock service nights and a VIP night over the weekend before opening for business on Monday. PJ Whelihan’s is located in the former Toscani location along Van Reed Road. It is the 15th PJ’s location, all found within Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

Reading Eagle announces Readers Choice Award winners

On Sunday, the Reading Eagle published its annual list of Readers Choice Award winners. Reading Eagle readers chose their favorite businesses in more than 100 categories, including a variety food and drink categories.

The Pike Cafe led the way with three wins (Best Bar, Best Sports Bar and Best Wings) while Tomcat Cafe (Best Breakfast and Best Brunch), V&S Sandwiches (Best Cheesesteak and Best Sandwiches) and Exeter Family Restaurant (Best Diner and Best Family Restaurant) all earned two nods apiece.

For the most part, the readers picked well. My biggest gripe with the vote is that Dunkin’ Donuts managed to earn a nod over the county’s great independent donut shops and bakeries (Frying Dutchman and Dosie Dough come to mind). I was also surprised that two out-of-county establishments – Boehringer’s Drive-In and Johnny’s Bar & Steakhouse – made the list, though both are at least close to the county line.

Here is a list of winners in some of the food-related categories:

Best Bar: Pike Cafe
Best BBQ: Muddy’s Smokehouse BBQ
Best Breakfast: Tomcat Cafe
Best Brunch: Tomcat Cafe
Best Burger: Five Guys Burgers and Fries
Best Cheesesteak: V&S Sandwich Shop
Best Chinese: China Penn Asian Bistro & Sushi Bar
Best Cupcakes: Sublime Cupcakes
Best Dessert: Sweet Street Desserts
Best Diner: Exeter Family Restaurant
Best Donuts: Dunkin’ Donuts
Best Family Restaurant: Exeter Family Restaurant
Best Fine Dining: Judy’s on Cherry
Best Hot Dog: Schell’s
Best Ice Cream/Frozen Yogurt: Boehringer’s Drive-In
Best Italian: Mom Chaffe’s
Best Lunch: Isaac’s Restaurant & Deli
Best Mexican: Alebrije Mexican Restaurant
Best Pizza: Mama’s Pizza & Grill
Best Ribs: Austin’s 
Best Salad Bar: Ruby Tuesday
Best Seafood: Super Duper Delicious Seafood
Best Soup: Zoup!
Best Sports Bar: The Pike Cafe
Best Steak: Johnny’s Bar & Steak House
Best Sub & Sandwiches: V&S Sandwich Shop
Best Sushi: Go Fish! Seafood Market & Sushi Bar
Best Thai: Thai Cuisine
Best Wings: The Pike Cafe

Food News

Port Clinton Hotel

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Long before our region was defined by the railroad, our cities and towns were carved by canals.

The small hamlet of Port Clinton, located just a few miles north of Hamburg and just across the line into Schuylkill County (quite literally, the border of Port Clinton is the border for the county), was a canal town.

Businesses in the town grew around the waterway. Businesses like the Port Clinton Hotel, which served meals and rented rooms to the canal boat crews who passed through on their way to or from Reading.

Today, the Hotel still serves a unique clientele. In addition to the residents of neighboring communities and those just visiting on their way to Cabela’s, the Port Clinton Hotel is a go-to for hikers along the Appalachian Trail.

On the opposite side of the Schuylkill River, the trail descends from the mountains, hanging a right through Port Clinton before crossing over Route 61 and leaving civilization again on its ascent to Maine.

The proximity to the trail means the Port Clinton Hotel is a sort of right-of-passage for hikers. Perhaps this is why the Port Clinton Hotel is serving portions fit for someone who hasn’t eaten in for days.

While I can appreciate those who dare to trek the trail, I favor the short drive over the long walk, so the only hiking I had to do was from the parking space to the back door.

Like many establishments that still have “hotel,” “tavern,” or “inn” in their names, the restaurant crams more seats into the dining room than would seem possible. Our party of six was placed in a side room, two four-person tables pushed together with just inches between our chairs and the wall.

The daily specials are found on a hand-written piece of paper in the center of the table, while drink specials are found on a dry erase board on the wall. The menu itself is extensive with pastas, dinner entrees, salads, and lots of fried foods and sandwiches.

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As small as the dining area may feel, the portions seem just as gargantuan. On a previous trip, I had made the “mistake” of ordering an actual dinner: a chicken pot pie special served with a homemade roll. And because I was hungry, I started with a cup of chili. As it turns out, the “roll” was half a loaf of white bread, the pot pie could have probably filled four soup bowls, and I would have been satisfied with just the chili.

This time, I was more prepared, opting for a simple hot roast beef sandwich.

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My sandwich was served floating in a reservoir of gravy with shreds of meat taking an evening swim. The top slice of bread bulged in the center as the pile of beef tried to force its way out the top.

The beef pulls apart, not like the slabs or slices you find at some diners. I managed to find a piece that wasn’t fully submerged and found it to be tender and moist. Even without the gravy, it would make a delicious sandwich.

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Next to me, Julie was attacking a monster meal of her own. Her cheesesteak sandwich wrap was sliced in two, with each half being about the size of your average sandwich.

The wrap was simple—steak and cheese with a little bit of onion—but it was balanced perfectly. Like most of the sandwiches on the menu, the wrap came with side of potato chips, a bag of Lay’s placed right on the plate. With so much food already on the plate, there’s a good chance you’ll take the chips home anyway so it’s better to leave them in the bag.

Another reason to leave them in the bag is the Port Clinton Hotel’s famous French fries. The fresh cut fries are not available as a side order (except as part of a select few dinner combinations) so if you want them, be prepared to share.

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With the large portions on the entrees, a small basket of fries is easily enough to satisfy a table of four (a large basket should probably be reserved for a small family reunion).

But when it comes to the Port Clinton Hotel, it’s not just quantity. It’s quality. Many restaurants offer their foods in big portions, but the food at Port Clinton is so good that you can’t help but try to finish it.

Four our two sandwiches and fries, our total bill came to around $30, a steal for such good food—and for so much of it.

The canal is gone, but the hotel remains, still serving great food to everyone who passes through the town, no matter how they arrive.

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