Thursday, August 26, 2010


My husband Jack and I are always on the lookout for casual pubs, and admittedly we're a bit picky about the ones we choose as "regular" hang-outs. At least three or four of our favorite beers must be available (preferably on tap), the seats must be comfortable (meaning whatever we sit on must have a back), the interior must have enough light that we can see the beer level in our glasses and -- last but hardly least -- the food must be delicious.

For all of these reasons, we're singing the prais
es of the Amen Corner Sports Bar & Grill in Girard, Ohio. No matter how often we stop here, each time I say to myself, "Self, you absolutely must come here more often."

Let me be a bit more specific. First, the atmosphere is very casual; the front door opens into the bar "room," where there are a few booths and tables, a few TV sets and, of course, the bar. Walk toward the back to find a large dining room for those who prefer that option. The decor for the most part is golf-related; golf course flags hang from the
walls, and there's lots of dark wood and complementary dark green all around the rooms. Even the menu has a golf theme; appetizers are listed under "Teeing Off," and salads have the heading "Greens."

It's also a popular place; we usually go at off-peak hours just for this reason. Parking can be a bit bothersome as well -- it's really hard to find a spot on the street, but there's a lot behind the pub that has additional space.

As for the food, I could make a meal out of the appetizers with no problem at all. You'll find a few somewhat unique options like fried zucchini planks that come with a very tasty, and little bit zingy, Bistro sauce ($4.99), fried pickle spears ($5.99) and fried pretzel bites ($2.99). Other possibilities include a pound of steamed little neck clams for $7.99 and my favorite, hot banana peppers marinated in herbs, garlic and oil served with Italian bread ($3.99).

The hot peppers come in a relatively small bowl and are rather thinly sliced with lots of pepper seeds. At first bite, I declared them to be on the hot side; Jack tried a minuscule piece, quickly agreed and wouldn't touch another bite. Oh darn, I said, all the more for me! The flavor is wonderful -- and did I mention they're hot?

Another of our favorite appetizers is the Bruschetta, topped with chopped tomatoes, black olives and a variety of cheeses. There are four pizza-type wedges absolutely loaded with the "stuff" on grilled garlic bread -- very delicious and very filling.

If you're not sure what you want, try the appetizer sampler; you'll get onion rings, jalapeno poppers, mozzarella sticks, butterfly shrimp and zucchini planks -- all breaded and fried -- with that spicy Bistro, cocktail and marinara sauces for $9.99.

The wedding soup is quite good here, absolutely overflowing with veggies, greens, shredded chicken and meatballs in a delicious broth -- quite possible the best wedding soup Jack's ever had, he said -- and I tend to agree. But if you want a really terrific soup, try the house specialty sausage chili ($2.50 a cup). It's much like regular chili, but it has a real kick to it. It's packed full of sausage plus chili beans, onions, green peppers -- and it's wonderful!

There are plenty of choices when it comes to sandwiches and entrees, though I do feel compelled to pitch what amounts to a hissy fit over one item I love but, we were told at our most recent visit, no longer is available: Chicken Jambalaya, or chicken and Andouille sausage with green peppers and onions over rice. It is (or should I say was) so good that I rarely ordered anything else; a tasty red sauce peppered with small bits of the sausage and other goodies. It was a real treat for anyone who likes Creole-style foods -- and now it's gone. Please guys, consider bringing this delicacy back!

One of Jack's favorites is the hot roast beef open-face sandwich, with lots of relatively thick beef slices on Italian bread with mashed potatoes and lots of very tasty beef gravy ($5.95). Still another is linguine with clams -- oil, garlic and Italian herbs that comes with a tossed salad or soup for $11.99. The whole thing is topped with at least double the number of in-shell clams he's ever seen on an entree, although there were no discernible clams in the sauce itself. But the sauce is delicious and garlicky. Normally, he eats all the clams and has pasta left over -- but here, it was vice versa: He ate all the pasta and had clams left (of course, I was happy to get "rid" of them for him).

At one visit, I tried one of the daily specials, a 6-ounce char-grilled sirloin with my choice of fried shrimp or shrimp scampi, one side and soup or salad. For my soup, I chose that sausage chili once again; for my side, I picked spaghetti. The main course arrived on a large oval platter with the steak on one end, a bowl of four relatively large scampi in a tasty buttery sauce in the center and the spaghetti -- about the size of two fists -- at the other end, all nicely separated so nothing got mixed in with anything else. The steak was well tenderized and cooked fairly close to my order of medium rare (most restaurants, including this one, tend to err toward the side of medium). Although the spaghetti isn't the best I've had, it was very good, with a thick sauce of finely chopped tomatoes and peppers.

One of these days, I'm going to try the Bourbon Glazed Salmon and the Zing Chicken ($12.99 each); the latter features a chicken breast sauteed with minced hot peppers, onions and shallots in the three-cheese Alfredo sauce over penne and topped with roasted red peppers and minced hot peppers. My mouth is watering just writing about it!

On the sandwich side, there's plenty to choose from as well, including a build-your-own burger section (starting at $5.99 for the basic). There's a pepper and egg sandwich on a Kaiser roll, which also sounds great, as do the lunch specials of chicken or tuna salad on a croissant. When I noticed a fried balogna sandwich on deli marble rye with fries or hot chips, though, I just had to have it. The fries here are not spectacular, but they're good; the balogna had to be close to half an inch thick and the toasted bread was wonderful ($4.99). I will point out, though, that it comes barefoot -- and the only condiments on the table are mustard and catsup. So next time I get this sandwich, and there will be a next time, I'll order it topped with green peppers and ask for mayo on the side.

On that same occasion, Jack tried the Philly steak stromboli, which comes with marinara sauce on the side for $6.95. It had to be close to a foot long, with a soft, pizza-dough-like crust wrapped around a ton of shredded Philly steak, onions, peppers, mushrooms and melted cheese. He was able to finish only about half; the rest we brought home, wrapped and stashed in the freezer, and a couple of days later (thawed and reheated) it tasted as good as it did in the restaurant.

Several varieties of pizza are served here as well, including a Monte Cristo; at $7.99 for a 12-inch, this one is a "white" with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses that sounds delicious. So far, though, the only one we've tried the Brier Hill, with a thin crust (we always add pepperoni), and it's quite good.

Dessert? Quite honestly, we've always been so full after appetizers and/or entrees that we can't even think about it. But for those who crave something sweet to end the meal, check out "Ellie's Homemade Desserts" for $3.75 each (the cherry or strawberry cheesecake and peanut butter pie caught our eye, but our stomachs insisted there was no room.

If you go: Amen Corner Sports Bar & Grill
20 W. Main St.
Girard, Ohio 44420
(330) 545-5694

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Iron Bridge Inn

Several times a year, my husband Jack and I take a leisurely drive over the border into Pennsylvania. Sometimes, it's to pick up a case of our favorite Yuengling Ale at the drive-through in Hermitage (the ale, made at America's oldest brewery, isn't sold in Ohio). Other times, it's to get photos in McConnell's Mill State Park or check out the bargains at the outlet mall in Grove City. Even more likely, it's to visit historic Volant and pick up a few bottles of those wonderful wines -- cherry in particular -- at the Volant Mill Winery.

Unless we're in a big hurry, which is unlikely in these semi-retirement days, we'll have a meal somewhere along the way, and often it's at the Iron Bridge Inn on State Route 19 not too far from Mercer. The Inn is without doubt our favorite eatery in the Springfield Restaurant Group stable that includes the
Springfield Grille (Mercer, Boardman and Mars), Hickory Bar & Grille Grille (Hermitage), Rachel’s Roadhouse (outside Mercer not far from Rachel's and Springfield Grille) and the Log Cabin Inn (Harmony). We love the others too, mind you, but the casual, sort of "hunting cabin" atmosphere at the Iron Bridge Inn makes it particularly appealing to us. The Inn is within a few yards of an old green iron bridge, which, I suppose, is how it got its name.

The outside is "decorated" with lots of interesting old signs; a pretty rock garden with flo
wers greets visitors at the front entrance. Inside, there's plenty of dark wood, old photographs and yes, stuffed whole critters and critter heads on the walls as well as hanging plants and cozy fireplaces that roar when there's a chill in the outside air. Wood booths make dining a private affair for the most part, and real cloth napkins add a touch of elegance that also helps set this place apart. There are a couple of large dining rooms and a very nice bar, the latter toward the back as you enter the restaurant). One of the on-tap beers is Yuengling (now you really know why we love this place), served up in no-handle glass canning jars like the ones I'm familiar with that used to come from the Ball Corp. in Muncie, Ind., maybe 30 miles from my home town of Union City, Ind.

I must admit we're not strangers to the Iron Bridge Inn in an "official" capacity, either; we've made special trips for no less than three articles Jack or I wrote for The Business Journal of Youngstown, Ohio. As a restaurant reviewer for the newspaper many years ago, Jack wrote about our experience there; more recently, I included special Iron Bridge offerings in articles on salads and exotic appetizers. Not a subscriber to The Business Journal? Click here to check out the online version.

Our latest official visit, though, was for to collect information for this blog (oh heck, who's kidding who? We stopped there simply because we were in the area and love the place)! I'd be remiss if I didn't warn you that this place is almost always crowded, even during non-peak hours; typically, we time our travel to arrive somewhere between 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., and so far, we haven't had to wait for a table.

That's a bit more difficult on Sundays, though; there's an absolutely fabulous brunch -- actually their words, not mine, although I heartily concur -- that's served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Priced at a reasonable $14.99 per adult, it's almost standing room only. Seniors like us, I should add, pay a buck less, and kids 10 and under are $6.99 and there's plenty on the tables to keep their tummies filled. As with just about all brunches, you can eat your fill of delicacies like hand-carved roast beef and smoked ham, numerous "breakfast" treats like eggs Benedict and much, much more. If you can't get to the Iron Bridge for any other meal, this is the one to pick. Just don't eat much for at least two days before you visit -- it's far and away one of the most extensive Sunday brunch spreads I've seen in many moons!

If you go for a regular meal, or just pop in for drinks and a couple of appetizers, you'll find quite a few possibilities that make choosing a bit complicated. I won't go into the more exotic appetizers I wrote about in the newspaper article other than to say we heartily recommend the Tri-Muchroom Bourdelaise ($6.99) and the BBQ Prime Rib Quesadilla ($7.99). And, since I'm not a fan of hummus, I won't dwell on that one, either, although I have a friend who swears it's the best around (served with rosemary flatbread, it's $5.99). Sometimes, we'll share a platter of Sharon's Favorites, a compilation of potato skins, riblets, stuffed mushrooms and boneless wings for $10.99. Still another of my faves is the Jalapeno Stuffed Shrimp, or deep-bried shrimp stuffed with japapeno cream cheese with sweet & sour sauce ($6.99), but unless we're really, really hungry I don't get it because Jack isn't a hot peppers fan.

Something like six big salads are on the menu as well as several "build your own" varieties that on their own aren't very expensive ($4.99 and $6.99, depending). To these, you can add grilled chicken breast, the house prime sirloin, grilled shrimp or seared tuna for a few bucks more. My choice is from the "as-is" menu -- the Asian Ahi Tuna Salad with seared tuna, Szechuan-marinated noodles, cashews, broccoli and Thai peanut vinaigrette over field greens ($11.99).

Of course, there are plenty of sandwiches, including a variety of paninis and burgers (try the Pittsburger, topped with coleslaw, fries, provolone cheese, lettuce and tomato on a ciabatta roll, $7.99). I'm nowhere near a vegetarian, but I don't eat lots of red meat, either; so the Portobello Wrap, with those delicious mushrooms rolled up in a tortilla shell with red onions, field greens, feta cheese and tomatoes with a side of balsamic dressing makes a great meat substitute for $6.99. The meat-and-potatoes guy who usually accompanies me, though, much prefers the Reuben, made with house-cooked corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing on grilled marbled rye bread for $7.49 (according to the restaurant's online menu, you can get it Panini style if you like, but that's not an option we've tried yet.

When it comes to entrees, the decision starts getting really tough -- except for me. The Iron Bridge boasts about serving the "best" prime rib in the world since 1979. I can't vouch for that claim since there are a handful of prime rib joints in a couple of other countries at which I haven't tried it yet (yes, that's a feeble attempt at humor), but I will proclaim, quite loudly, that this is the best I've had in many, many moons. A 10-ounce portion that's more than enough for me is $15.99, and you can pair it with soup or a salad and one side (among them apple sauce, fries, cole slaw, a baked potato) Fresh-baked bread comes with the territory as well.

If you like chicken, try the Iron Bridge Wellington, a chicken breast wrapped in a homemade pastry crust together with broccoli, cauliflower and Monterrey Jack cheese. It's topped with a delicious hollandaise sauce. Or, another favorite of mine is the Stacked Chicken Cordon Bleu, or chargrilled chicken breasts stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese, this time with a dijon hollandaise sauce on top.

Seafood lovers that we are, we don't go hungry here. The Scallops & Risotto are outstanding (it's a vegetable risotto with sun-dried tomato pesto, as is the Herb & Garlic Crusted Salmon perched on balsamic sauteed mushrooms and fresh spinach. One of these days I'm going to try the Fire Cracker Ahi Tuna, seared with sesame and accompanied with soy vegetable rice and "fire cracker" Asian hot sauce -- I mention it because it sounds wonderful, but I have to admit I haven't tasted it yet (although based on how good everything else is here, I'm certainly not worried).

If all this isn't enough, you'll find plenty of beef, ranging from a 6-ounce filet mignon to a humongous 24-ounce slice of that glorious prime rib. The chops and ribs are excellent as well, and I'm told by someone who likes lamb that the New Zealand Rack of Lamb is outstanding, too. For good old stick-to-your ribs fare, don't pass up Aunt Sandy's Meatloaf, served over garlic mashed potatoes with a mushroom demi-glace and fried onions.

I've never had a centimeter of room for dessert here, but the offerings are plentiful (all priced at a quite reasonable $1.79). Jack is always up for an ice cream sundae, which can be ordered with either chocolate or caramel topping.

If you go: Iron Bridge Inn
1438 Perry Highway
Mercer, PA 16137
(724) 748-3626
Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.