It was Thanksgiving vacation in the college towns of Canton and Potsdam. We thought it would be a good time to explore two of the casual eateries while the college kids were home on break.
Cascade Inn in Canton has been around forever, it seems. But I have to admit, it’s one of the few diner-type restaurants I’ve never set foot in since I arrived in the north country decades ago.
Hot Tamale opened in downtown Potsdam last month, the sister of the restaurant of the same name that made its debut in Canton earlier this year. We reviewed the Canton Tamale shortly after it opened in the springtime, and we were excited to see how the Tamale in Potsdam compared.
Here’s how things went.
4 W. Main St.
Driving from Watertown and passing through Canton along Route 11, you can’t miss the Cascade Inn. As Route 11 takes a right at the first light, you’re staring at the Cascade, a dated, one story building with neon signs on top: MOTEL-BAR-DINER.
I was in the area the day after Thanksgiving. I called a friend and said, “Let’s do lunch at The Cascade.” He hadn’t been there in more years than he could remember, but agreed to give it a try.
Like me, he thought, “Why the heck don’t they do something with the exterior?” Once inside, we discovered a mish-mash of decor from bygone eras — pink and gray tile floor, dark ’70s paneling on the walls, a long lunch counter with a dozen stools screwed to the floor. And the place was as clean as could be.
This was like a too-good-to-be-true time warp discovery.
There were two or three veteran waitresses holding forth as we entered. “Seat yourselves anywhere,” one of them shouted. We settled into a booth and began to study the menu, printed on a clean, plasticized placemat. Homemade soups were listed on the specials board. Friday fish fry specials, too. Homemade pies filled a display behind the counter.
We were amazed at more than three dozen hot and cold sandwiches on the menu. I spotted liverwurst and said to our waitress, “I haven’t had a liverwurst sandwich in years.” To which she promptly replied, “And you’re not going to today, either, because we’re all out.”
And that’s how things went with Una for the rest of the time we spent at the Cascade. Quick. Witty. Sharp. Humorous. Entertaining. Engaging. A lady who loves her job, and it showed. She knows the menu, and no matter what we asked, her reply usually concluded with, “And we make it right here.”
First, the soups.
Corn chowder was wonderful, thick and creamy, hot and hearty, full of flavor. Onion soup had Campbell’s overtones, but was fine, a beefy stock with finely chopped onions.
In lieu of liverwurst, I got my second most favorite sandwich, chicken salad, and it didn’t disappoint. Chopped chicken breast, celery and mayo — simple, just the way I like it — between two pieces of fresh wheat bread with sliced tomato and a nice piece of leaf lettuce. Yummy.
It’s tough to pass up a fish fry on a Friday. We ordered the dinner portion, which included mac and cheese and a trip to the salad bar. The battered haddock was OK. It’s a commercial product, Icelandic brand, known for a quality pre-frozen product. Mac and cheese wasn’t the best, with overcooked noodles and not enough cheese.
But the salad bar was a treasure chest of fresh goodies and homemade salads, clean and well-organized. We particularly like the potato salad (popular year-round, Una told us) and the broccoli and cheese salad. Homemade cole slaw, too.
We had difficulty narrowing down the selection of pies to just two. Cherry pie and butterscotch pie were our choices, both with flaky crusts and tasty fillings. And generous portion size.
Lunch for two with fish fry leftovers for dinner came to $25.15. Except for the mac and cheese, we were very impressed. And Una is a gem.
By the way, if you’re not comfortable eating in a diner atmosphere, there’s a cozy dining room attached overlooking the Grasse River.
The Cascade Inn is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day except Monday. On Sundays they close at 9 p.m.
34 Market St.
With less than six months of restaurant experience under his belt, the owner of Hot Tamale in Canton has opened a second location 10 miles away in downtown Potsdam.
While there’s no mistaking it for anything but a fast food restaurant, the layout is tasteful and welcoming (even a bit more so than the Canton Tamale), the signature green, yellow and red walls much the same, the service area on a side wall rather than way to the back of the restaurant.
The menu, relatively small and basic, is printed on a chalk board behind the counter. There’s also a nicely designed hand-held menu that’s a little easier to comprehend. Either way, they’ve got made-to-order burritos, nachos, tacos, quesadillas, tamales, sides and beverages, pretty much identical to what they offer in Canton.
It’s set up like a Subway (ironically, there was a Subway at this location many decades ago). You place your order with the food assembler and follow down the production line as your order is created. Items that require cooking, like quesadillas and tamales, are made in a kitchen out back.
The names of some of the menu items have been localized to reflect the Potsdam community, such as the Sizzling “Stoners” Fajita Burrito, the Golden Veggie “Knight” Burrito and the “Bear” Naked Burrito Bowl, playing on the names of the college and high school sports teams.
We ordered the Sizzling “Stoners” Fajita Burrito, a soft tortilla wrapper packed with tasty pork (our call), rice, shredded cheese, salsa, homemade pico de gallo, grilled onions and peppers, sour cream and lettuce. This was one big-time burrito.
We also sampled a chicken quesadilla — chicken and lots of cheese sandwiched between two soft tortilla shells, then pan-fried like a grilled cheese sandwich. It was tasty and substantial, with a hint of smokiness from a touch of barbecue sauce. A side of pico de gallo was particularly notable.
We got a side of guacamole, not too limey or too garlicky, that added a nice flavor dimension to both the quesadilla and the burrito.
Finally, we tried the tamales, a traditional Latin American dish made with masa (a corn dough), steamed together with shredded pork inside a corn husk. These were quite genuine, with a bit of heat coming through at the end.
For beverages, we tried an Izze brand fruit drink made of 70 percent fruit juice with a splash of sparkling water. They offer pomegranate, clementine and blackberry, all natural and all good.
Lunch, more than enough for two, came to $23.
This was good fast food with good, fresh ingredients — crisp veggies, tender meats and flavorful sauces. And it’s kind of fun watching everything made in front of you, walking you past the ingredients as they assemble your meal, almost like you’re making it yourself.
Hot Tamale is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday with late-night hours extended till 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: email@example.com.