`Friendly place with character'

Pa. diner's recipes in new cookbook

May 26, 2004|By Joanna Poncavage | Joanna Poncavage,THE MORNING CALL

FRACKVILLE, Pa. -- The word diner conjures up an image of a long restaurant with a counter on one side and booths on the other, a place where food is hearty and homey, and you can get a Thanksgiving dinner any day of the year.

The Dutch Kitchen Restaurant in Frackville excels at all of the above, even though its heart, a shiny Formica and stainless-steel Silk City Diner made by the Paterson Vehicle Co. in New Jersey in 1959, is now hidden by a brick facade.

Located at the intersection of Route 61 and Interstate 81 about two hours north of Baltimore, the restaurant was "discovered" in the late 1970s by Jane and Michael Stern, mobile mavens of regional cuisine and popular culture, who listed it in the first edition of their now classic book, Roadfood.

Now the Sterns have written down and served up the restaurant's down-home specialties in a new book, Famous Dutch Kitchen Restaurant Cookbook (Rutledge Hill Press, $19.99). The book has all the great diner foods, and all the foods that make this diner great.

As its name promises, the menu offers many Pennsylvania German specialties, including chicken croquettes, chicken potpie, pork and sauerkraut, baked sausage and bread filling.

Just as likely to be found are coal-country favorites such as halupkies (stuffed cabbage leaves), pierogi (potato dumplings) or fresh haddock fried in batter made with Yuengling beer from the nation's oldest brewery a few miles south in Pottsville.

"It's just the kind of place we as roadfooders are looking for," says Stern. "A place that expressed the character of the town, a family-run place with family recipes or local recipes and good food, a very friendly place with character, as opposed to corporate manufactured character."

In 1971, John Morgan had an auto-parts business in Frackville. His wife, Michelle, was from a restaurant-owning family -- her grandmother had cooked for the former Necho Allen Hotel in Pottsville's heyday. When a location along Frackville's Main Street became available, the couple decided to try the restaurant business themselves, and started to look for a diner to move to the spot.

They found the Dutch Kitchen Restaurant at the southwest corner of the intersection of Airport Road and Route 22 in Hanover Township, Pa. Slated to become a cloverleaf, the property had been condemned.

The Morgans bought the diner and its kitchen equipment for $6,000, and spent another $6,000 to move it 54 miles northwest to Frackville. After a lot of steam cleaning, the diner opened July 16. But the Morgans didn't change the restaurant's sign -- the Dutch Kitchen Restaurant was perfect. And money was tight.

The diner seated 60, but within a year a dining room was added to accommodate another 120. A liquor license allowed them to offer all the Yuengling beers. Shelves along the walls are now filled with gift items.

The Morgans are still very much involved with the restaurant, but the day-to-day managers are now their daughter, Jennifer, and her husband Tom Levkulic. Several years ago, when Jennifer was a teacher and Tom was a municipal engineer, they decided that working in the restaurant full time was too much fun to pass up.

Tom Levkulic brought the restaurant's inventory system into the computer age, and fine-tuned the potatoes. The Sterns' only criticism of the restaurant 25 years ago was that the mashed potatoes weren't made fresh.

Levkulic quickly discovered that potato variety, sugar content and how long potatoes have been in storage affect the result. "It took a whole year to learn it's not as easy as just cutting a potato and frying it," says Levkulic. "But now they're wonderful." In 2002, the restaurant served 11 tons of potatoes, peeled by hand.

Menu additions continue the restaurant's real-food tradition. Tom Levkulic created a hearty cheese tortellini soup with white beans and kielbasa, Schuylkill County, Pa.'s favorite sausage.

Jen Levkulic created a special called a Polish platter consisting of kielbasa, potato pancakes, pierogi, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. For the carb-conscious, she created a chicken Caesar salad. A talented baker, she also tried out 50 different shoofly-pie recipes to find the perfect one.

On a recent weekday, lunchtime diners included retired couples, younger duos, traveling businessmen and multigenerational groups of adults and children. In the kitchen, two cooks were busy turning out sandwich platters, including a very tempting croissant extraordinaire with baked ham, turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato. The restaurant's soup special was hearty sausage stew. The colorful salad bar offered fresh bread and lots of sweets and sours, including homemade chow-chow.

About the time Tom Levkulic was thinking that the restaurant should have its own cookbook, the Sterns called to say they wanted to do one. The Levkulics began writing down recipes. With lots of photographs and local history, the cookbook is, like the restaurant, a slice of place and taste.

Among the more than 50 dishwashers, cooks and waitresses are individuals who've worked there for 30 years. "We hire good people and keep them happy," says John Morgan. "We have a lot of family," says Tom Levkulic of the employees who are related to each other.

The restaurant is family to the community, too. It's the kind of place where regular customers call to ask that the weekend special be halupkies because they'll be having weekend guests. Tom Levkulic, who is of Lithuanian heritage, says he makes "awesome" halupkies, but doesn't put them on the menu often. "They take tremendous manpower," he says.

He may have more help soon. The Levkulics' three children, ages 1 to 5, are happy to spend time in the restaurant. Their oldest, Tom, is very good at separating eggs.

The Morning Call is a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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