Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Berks County Eats Has Moved!

Berks County Eats is now BerksCountyEats.com!
Visit our brand new site!


Berks County Eats has moved to a brand new home for 2014. The all-new BerksCountyEats.com will continue to provide honest reviews of the best Berks County restaurants and dining establishments. In addition, Berks County Eats will offer news and information on grand openings, restaurant closings, special events and more.

Thank you to everyone who has made Berks County Eats a success, and we look forward to making the future even better.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Stouch Tavern

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By Zach Brown
The business section of the Sunday Reading Eagle is not normally a place to look for inspiration - I spend less time looking through section D than I do catching up on the adventures of Prince Valiant and Hagar the Horrible - but inspiration can strike at any time.
As I leafed through the classifieds one week, one ad, in particular, stood out to me:
Historic
Stouch Tavern
Restaurant
Real Estate, Business Equipment
Liquor License, Living Quarters
Plenty of Parking
$295,000

I already knew the business was for sale before my last visit to the Womelsdorf establishment in February. Former owners William and Diane Crumrine passed away within a few months of each other last year, leaving the business in the hands of their children. To the family's credit, the Stouch Tavern continues as it did in the years before, minus William playing the piano in the first floor bar room.
For more than 200 years, the building has served as an inn, restaurant and meeting place in Womelsdorf, a small town on the western edge of Berks County. Now the oldest tavern in the county, the historic inn played host to George Washington during a 1793 trip to Carlisle. Our first president now lends his name to the ghost that is said to inhabit the building's upper floor.
From the moment you walk in, you can feel the building's history. A steep staircase rises in front of guests at the main entrance. Portraits of former owners peer down on diners in every dining room.  The wooden floor creeks with every step.
Tables are shoehorned into the narrow rooms, fitting as many patrons as possible. It's a lesson in how not to design a restaurant, but the building has lived through four centuries, and sometimes you just have to forgo modern luxury.

Our waiter weaves between tables and the salad cart to deliver my first course, a bowl of cream of asparagus soup, the soup du jour for the night. I love asparagus so I loved the soup. Though it was a little thinner than most cream soups, and a little saltier than I would have preferred, I still lapped it up quickly.

Then came the main course. a juicy filet mignon, cooked to my liking (always medium well), covered in mushrooms. There are no choices for the sides. Every entree is served with the fresh vegetables of the day. Our waiter used the back of two spoons to grab the potatoes, squash and carrots and place them, one at a time, on our plates. It's an awkward process, but the vegetables are fresh and cooked to a perfect al dente.

As good as my food was, I suggest any first-time visitor try the Specialty of the House - beef medallions and a slice of ham, smothered in mushroom sauce and Monterey jack cheese, topped with a fried onion ring (a surprising addition considering it's the only fried item on the menu). Everything melts together into one meaty, cheesy, salty dish. It's a unique combination of flavors only available at the Tavern.


No true Stouch Tavern experience is complete without dessert. More than just a sweet final course, dessert is a show. The bananas foster (as well as the cherries jubilee) is made tableside. Start with a heaping helping of butter, add brown sugar, bananas, rum and fire, and you get part dessert, part performance art. The gooey bananas mix is then poured over a giant bowl of ice cream. The sugar rush is worth the wait.
The late William Crumrine used to make the bananas himself. "I do the easy jobs," he said. "I play the piano and make the bananas." The Crumrines can never be replaced, but hopefully a willing buyer can be found, preferably one who is willing to make bananas foster.

The Stouch Tavern is open every day except Tuesday for dinner, and open for lunch on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. In addition to its regular menu, the Tavern offers a buffet during lunch hours. 
Stouch Tavern on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 6, 2013

Panevino

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By Zach Brown
The Goggleworks has truly been a blessing to the City of Reading. Thanks to this community arts center, the neighborhood has truly blossomed into the city's cultural district. Reading Area Community College opened the Miller Center for the Arts in 2007 and the IMAX theater opened a year later. 
What the area lacked was a signature restaurant, a place to go before or after the cinematic, musical and theatrical events taking place every night.
That changed in 2011 with the opening of Panevino.
The restaurant actually sits under the Washington Street parking garage, directly across the street from the IMAX theater. It's nothing glamorous from the outside, but it's beautiful on the inside with low lighting, fine china and glassware, and modern styling.
Self-described as "rustic Italian cuisine," the menu mixes traditional favorites like rigatoni and thin crust pizza with Panevino's unique dishes, like the straw and hay - spinach and egg fettuccini served with lamb meatballs, eggplant, tomato, raisins and pine nuts.


Every meal is served with a unique appetizer I have never had anywhere else. It is served in two parts to eat together or separate. The first is a slice of bread - more closely resembling a thick pizza crust - topped with fresh tomatoes. The second, a wedge of polenta and a thin slice of roast beef, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. It seemed like an odd pairing, but somehow it worked. All of the flavors blended nicely together.

I started my meal with a bowl of pasta fagioli, a staple on any Italian menu, and a great indicator of the meal to come. The fagioli is served in a small crock, a paper doily resting underneath. It was very good, sweet and spicy, meaty with a hearty serving of beans. The dish was completed with thin cut slices of farfalle pasta, one of the many pastas Panevino makes from scratch.

Salads have never been my favorite, but I had to try the Arugula, a mixture of arugula leaves, pears, gorgonzola and leafy greens drizzled with white balsamic vinaigrette, and served in a parmesan bowl. Despite my general disdain for salad, I found myself enjoying this, especially the edible bowl. The parmesan flavor was strong and concentrated, much more so than the flavor of grated parmesan. The closest thing to compare it to is the pre-packaged breadsticks some restaurants serve, but with a better, fresher, stronger (sometimes a little too strong) flavor.
There was a long wait in between courses, not unexpected because every dish is prepared fresh. Panevino is not a diner. It's dining - a living reminder of the old adage, "good things come to those who wait."

The main course was, by far, the best part of the meal. Thick, fresh cavatelli pasta with pork meatballs, peas and broccoli raub in a light cream sauce.
Everything worked well together. The pasta was cooked perfectly, starchy enough to absorb the sauce. It was a rich sauce that continued to thicken as I ate. The meatballs were tender and moist - with all the spices, they didn't taste much different than traditional beef meatballs; the peas didn't add much flavor, but the broccoli raub was delicious, with a hint of smokiness that I wasn't expecting. Unfortunately, there was no way to finish the meal so half of it had to come home with me.

That didn't stop me from ordering dessert, a warm piece of pecan pie with caramel drizzle and vanilla ice cream - good, but nothing special as far as pies go. The crust was a little overcooked, but the ice cream hid it well.   
The wait staff worked as a team - at times this was helpful, and at times it wasn't. At the end of the night, it took long time for us to get our bill, and two separate team members wanted to take our dessert order.
For all the food we got - two entrees, a cup of soup and dessert - the bill was surprisingly reasonable, about $25 per person. With the delicious food in a fine dining atmosphere, it was $50 well spent.  

Panevino on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Kauffman's Bar-B-Que Chicken

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If you live anywhere near Berks County, you're familiar with Kauffman's BBQ chicken. The wagons are everywhere during the summer, selling the famous chickens and baked potatoes at fundraisers throughout Berks and its neighboring counties.
But the aluminum foil-wrapped dinners are just a tease – a taste if you will. To get the true Kauffman's experience, you have to make the trip to the ranch, Kauffman's BBQ Restaurant in Bethel.
Kauffman’s is found as close to the middle-of-nowhere as you can find in Berks County, just south of Interstate 78 and the Lebanon County line on a winding country lane, appropriately called Gravel Pit Road.
An 18-hole miniature golf course spreads across the lawn with an old-fashion plow, a wishing well and  a wagon wheel guarding the holes. The ranch’s pet peacocks roam free through the parking lot. A giant rooster stands guard at the entrance.

If you aren’t hungry when you arrive, you will be. Inside, a picture window reveals the magical process, allowing diners to watch the chickens as they rotate in the rotisserie ovens, flavor dripping onto the birds below and marinating the potatoes that bake on the bottom rack.
Meals are served cafeteria-style, and the line for the dining room winds through the take-out area, and sometimes out the door. A pair of menu boards announce the platter options, including baked ham, Salisbury steak and clam strips. But for most diners, the only real option is whether to get a ¼ chicken or ½, and white meat or dark.

Customers file down to a narrow lane where you pick up your tray and pick out your desserts from a refrigerated case (sneakily located at the front of the line) before placing your order. Meals are served on disposable paper plates and cups.

All platters include a trip to the salad bar, which has all the staples, including a flavorful macaroni salad that can be used instead of dressing.

Naturally, the best part of every meal is the chicken. Cooked to a golden brown, the skin is full of flavor — a little sweet with a hint of spiciness, especially in the blackened edges of the wings and thighs. There is no extra sauce because it doesn't need it.
Every platter comes with a choice of potato: baked potato, french fries or potato filling, a delicious mix of mashed potatoes, bread crumbs, celery  and herbs, loaded with brown gravy.
And of course there's the dessert options, a variety of fresh baked cakes and pies, including a classic apple crumb pie with a thin, flaky crust and apples that melt in your mouth. Or if you prefer something a little colder, Kauffman's has a full ice cream stand in the take-out area with soft serve and a freezer full of Hershey's hard ice cream. Grab a cone and enjoy it on their enclosed porch, furnished with retro yellow fiberglass picnic tables.
All of the platters at Kauffman's are priced under $10, and the miniature golf is just $4 a person, the perfect prices for an afternoon outing with the whole family. Make sure you plan your trip for later in the week because the restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you can't make it to the bar-b-que ranch, you can get the same quality chicken at fundraisers all summer.
Kauffman's Bar-B-Que Chicken on Urbanspoon





Sunday, March 24, 2013

La Cocina Mexicana - Kutztown

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By Zach Brown
I have high expectations every time I visit a restaurant for the first time. I want a reason to come back, something that sets it apart from the hundreds of other restaurants in Berks County. I'm looking for a unique experience. I'm looking for attentive service. Above all, I'm looking for great food.
Unfortunately, it's inevitable that I will be disappointed from time to time. 
La Cocina Mexicana is successful enough for two locations, one in Temple and one in Kutztown. The Kutztown location sits in a nondescript two-story brick building on the corner of Main St. and Constitution Blvd.
But inside the building comes alive. Vibrant shades of red, yellow, orange and green pop from the carved wooden tables. A self-portrait of Frida Kahlo hangs on the wall, her ominous unibrow staring at the diners below.

I ordered the mole poblano, described as "pieces of chicken smothered in rich, red or green mole." Mole poblano is normally a delicious dark sauce made of chili peppers, a dozen different spices, and sometimes chocolate.  The flavors should dance across your tongue, a perfect blend of spicy and salty.

My meal hit none of those flavors. The chicken was boiled, dry and tasteless. "Pieces" is a great way to describe it because it was hard to tell what type of meat I was eating. Some of it was dark, some white, all of it flavorless. The sauce was as flavorless as the meat. There was no hint of chili peppers, or any other flavor to speak of.
Every order comes with rice, refried beans and a side of guacamole. The rice was yellow and dry while the "beans" were a brown, watery mess that was all filler and hardly any beans. The guacamole at least looked appealing, even if it didn't taste it.
Mexican food, when done right, is flavorful and exotic. It uses spices that other ethnic foods don't, and opens diners to a world of flavors that otherwise go undiscovered. My meal at La Cocina wasn't even close. There were four of us in total, and everyone left disappointed with their meals.  
The only redeeming part of our meal was dessert, fried ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce piled high atop a fried tortilla shell. The shell was like one you would get for a taco salad, deep fried, yet still light and airy. The ice cream was covered in a delicious, crumbly fried shell. It's the only reason I would have to go back again.  

The service wasn't much better than the food. The food came very shortly after we ordered, which should have been the first clue that it wasn't going to be a hand-crafted meal, but we had to wait a long time to order. When the meal was finished, we split the check, part cash and part credit, but our waitress missed a $10 bill and charged my card for the additional amount.
I want to try the original La Cocina in Temple because I can't imagine business was good enough to expand without better food and service than what we got.
Berks County has plenty of other options for Mexican dining, so save the trip to Kutztown and try someplace else.   
Share your stories in the comment section below, or share your suggestions and comments using #BerksCountyEats on Twitter.

La Cocina Mexicana on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Berks restaurant to be featured on Food Network tonight

Maniaci's Italian Bistro in Mohnton will be featured on tonight's episode of Restaurant: Impossible on the Food Network. The episode, which airs at 10 p.m., shows the transformation Maniaci's by chef Robert Irvine.

Maniaci's Italian Bistro in Mohnton, Pa., was a thriving family business that was run by Mrs. Maniaci until her death: Five years later, her three sons are running the business into the ground. Chef Robert Irvine has two days and $10,000 to overhaul the menu, d├ęcor and give the Maniaci brothers a fresh start to keep their mother's dream alive.
Berks County restaurants have been featured on television in the past.  Ady Abreu of Ady's Cupcakes in West Reading was the winner on an episode of Cupcake Wars that aired last May on Food Network. The Peanut Bar's Chef Andrea Heinley was a contestant on season five of the FOX show Hell's Kitchen, and the Peanut Bar itself was featured on the Travel Channel special Bar Food Paradise.

Tune in tonight at 10 p.m., and support a local Berks County restaurant!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Steak Shack

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By Zach Brown

For some restaurants, it's the location that makes it special, like a country restaurant with a riverside view. For others, it's the ambiance: a rustic inn with  Victorian furnishings or an upscale wine bar with chic modern style.

When the Steak Shack opened three years ago, it was, quite literally, a shack. The small wooden structure was set in a parking lot along Route 61 in Leesport. Surrounded on one side by a roadside flower stand, and a utility shed salesman on the other, the location was less than ideal.

So last year the Steak Shack packed up and moved inside Body Zone Sports & Wellness Complex, just off Route 222 on Paper Mill Road.

Now instead of watching cars pass by on the highway, you can enjoy your dinner while watching amateur hour on one of Body Zone's ice rinks. The view is great, if you enjoy middle age Mennonite men trying to play ice hockey in jeans.

But while the Steak Shack has always lacked in ambiance and location, it has always delivered on the two things that matter most: food and service.

I knew from its time in Leesport that the Steak Shack is Cash Only, but I somehow managed to forget until after I placed my order. A walk to the ATM at the entrance of Body Zone proved useless - instead of the $20 I asked for, I got a "communication error."

With my tail between my legs, I returned to the counter with four $1 bills and $2 in change, all that I had on my person.
"Don't worry about it," the cashier said as I emptied my pockets. I insisted on downsizing my order, but he refused. "I'm owner," he said, "Don't worry about it. I want to make repeat customers."
This above-and-beyond personal service can only be found in small, local establishments, and it's one of the reasons that I am loyal to the Steak Shack. The other reason is just as important: the food.
The sign proclaims "Authentic Philly Cheesesteaks," and that's what the Steak Shack delivers. The meat is sliced thin, and cooked to perfection. Rather than choose from the selection of cheeses (American, Swiss, Provolone, American Whiz or Cheddar Whiz), I took my steak sandwich with sauce and onion.

There's something about the Steak Shack's sauce that just blends well with the other ingredients. The sauce is the perfect texture - not thick like a marinara sauce, but thick enough that it doesn't run out of the roll. And the roll itself is ideal: soft on the inside, but with a crunch on the outside so it's sturdy enough to hold everything together until you're finished.
Then there are the fries. At Leesport they were short, thick "race track" fries, but now they're cut thin like fast food restaurants. But the flavor is still the same - a fresh-cut flavor with a little grease. Add a little vinegar and the fries reach a whole new level.
Other menu items at the Shack include chicken cheesesteaks, homemade potato chips, and New York style pizza with over 25 available toppings. When another customer asked about the chicken cheesesteaks, the owner summed up why the Shack is the best. "We use real chicken, not that processed stuff," he said. "If you don't like it, I'll give you your money back." The Steak Shack takes pride in its food, and it has a lot to be proud of.
The Shack is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Just remember to bring cash. Even if the ATM is working, it's a $2.50 surcharge.

Want to share your own experience? Have a suggestion for where I should go next? Leave a message in the comments section, or tweet using the hashtag #BerksCountyEats
Steak Shack on Urbanspoon