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At Mike’s Pig Pen in Watertown, pulled pork and more

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The ad in the paper said “Look for the Huge Pink Pig on the Roof!”

That was a pretty good invitation to visit Mike’s Pig Pen on Outer Washington Street by the car dealerships, in the wedge of land backed by Watertown Center Loop road. Mike’s opened last summer in the building for years occupied by Harby’s Hots, an icon on that end of town for decades.

First impressions mean a lot. We were greeted by two smiling employees behind the counter. Ann Coburn serves up the soups and works the cash register; the owner himself, Mike Cornell, mans the grill and the fryer.

Totally renovated, it’s a bright and clean and tidy little place. There’s a lunch counter with a few screwed-to-the-floor round-seated stools where you can watch Mike work under the big exhaust hood, putting the finishing touches on burgers, sausages and hot dogs. Additional stools line the picture windows facing Route 11 and the restaurant’s expanded parking lot.

The simple menu is written on a white board: Hofmann dogs and sausages, hamburgers and cheeseburgers. Toppings are extra: peppers, onions, cheese, bacon and sauerkraut. For sides, hand-cut french fries and onion rings. There are usually three homemade soups. Beverages consist of soda, coffee, milk, iced tea, lemonade and bottled water.

The menu is the same each day they’re open, Monday to Friday. Pulled pork sandwiches are added Wednesday through Friday, fried haddock sandwiches Thursday and Friday.

We grabbed the only table in the place, right in the center of the room next to the neatly organized condiment counter, and placed our order with Ann at the counter. She served up the soups and Mike got to work on the rest of the food.

Tomato macaroni soup with beef was very good, thick with beef, thin on macaroni and a bit spicy. Lots of chunky tomatoes, too.

Bean and bacon, another homemade soup, was on the sweet side. Maybe a touch of honey mustard in there?

Both soups — decent portions, warm and hearty — were served in sturdy Styrofoam cups. Plastic utensils are found on the condiment table.

A cheeseburger with onions and peppers was mighty tasty. It must have been cooked just before we arrived, because it plated almost instantly. That’s the only way to do it if you want to get people in and out in a hurry during lunch hour.

Nothing wrong with that, except you can’t call your temp. While it was well done without a trace of pink, it was still very moist and tasted great — perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper. Good fresh bun, too.

We were all familiar with Hofmann’s German Franks and Snappy Grillers, but had never tried their Italian sausage. (For those of you who may not know, Hofmann’s is one of the oldest and most famous sausage companies in the U.S., based in Syracuse for over a century).

It was good — a pork sausage, not too sweet and not too hot, some Italian seasonings that we couldn’t identify, very flavorful. A side of hand-cut fries was a little soggy, a common trait with fresh fries, but had a true potato flavor. Ketchup comes from a pump bottle on the condiment table.

We added onions and peppers to the sausage. Mike dices and sautÚs them each morning before he opens, he told us.

Pulled pork was available the day we were there, a generous amount of shredded and sauced pork piled high on hamburger bun. This was good stuff! A side of homemade coleslaw was also a keeper, on the slightly creamy side, which is the way we like it.

Mike explained his process of slow-cooking the pork butt. He first seasons it with spices from Buck’s Seasoning, a company in Mallory, near Central Square.

After several hours he adds Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce and continues to cook it until it literally falls apart.

Sounds easy. Now I can make my own pulled pork! Maybe I’ll open my own pig pen somewhere down South where it’s warm when I retire.

They advertise homemade ice cream, but we didn’t try any. It just didn’t seem right on a day when the wind was howling and the snow was blowing sideways past the windows.

Lunch for three came to $37.93.

We all agreed that we’d return to Mike’s Pig Pen. It’s a nice, clean spot with a friendly staff and good homemade food.

They’re open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. All they do is lunch, and they do it well.

TIDBITS

My travels have taken me past Nolt’s Country Store on Route 812 just outside Lowville toward Croghan for years. I finally got to stop by a few weeks ago.

It’s a Mennonite family-owned store, specializing in homemade baked goods, fresh produce at great prices, bulk foods and spices, jams and jellies. They’ve got a good selection of all-occasion cards, kitchen utensils and cookbooks. Childrens’ clothing and sewing supplies, too.

It’s a big store (they doubled their space about a year ago) with an extensive inventory. Stop by next time you’re in the Lowville area. They’re open from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday.

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I had the occasion to be in Saratoga Springs recently and revisited one of its iconic restaurants, the Olde Bryan Inn.

It’s a beautiful circa-1773 stone building. Lots of brick, stone and wood inside and out. Real wood fireplaces in several of the rooms. It takes you back in time with its ambiance and upscale comfort food menu.

We enjoyed the sesame ahi tuna presented over cucumber slices with edamame seaweed salad, French onion prime rib sandwich topped with melted provolone and Swiss served with onion soup au jus and a turkey panini with sweet peppers and pear slices on sunflower wheat bread.

Olde Bryan Inn is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Walter Siebel has been part of the Northern New York restaurant scene for more than three decades, cooking in restaurants from casual Adirondack eateries to fine-dining establishments, and lending his culinary talents to numerous charity events. You can contact him at wsiebel@wdt.net.



Mike’s Pig Pen

Route 11 (Outer Washington Street)/ 18938 County Route 165

Watertown, N.Y.

681-4027

A nice, clean lunch spot with a friendly staff and good homemade food, formerly Harby’s Hots.

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday

OUR PICKS: Tomato macaroni soup with beef, cheeseburger with onions and peppers, Hofmann’s Italian sausage, Mike’s pulled pork (available Wednesday through Friday only)

RATING: 3½ forks

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