Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Road to Pocono Downs

Champion butchers, Victorian beer barons, a lazy river ramble and some dreaded Yankee youngsters.

Up above Allentown, Route 309 is an on-again off-again two-lane blacktop that winds toward the Wyoming Valley. Shiny diners, one-horse patch towns, practitioners of taxidermy, small family farms and the aftermath of coalmines dot the landscape.

The valley is shaped like a croissant. It was carved by the Susquehanna through the folded Appalachians. And pretty much without warning, as 309 splits into a divided four-lane, a granite marker that pays tribute to a comic-strip boxing hero rises up along the shoulder. It’s Joe Palooka, known to previous generations as the “Champion of Democracy,” a cartoon pugilist created by native son Ham Fisher.

Don’t blink or you’ll miss the Joe Palooka monument along the shoulder of Route 309.

Actually, the marker tells us that this particular Pocono foothill has been named Mt. Joe Palooka, a pretty fair indicator as to the scrappiness of the area. People around here are used to gettin’ ‘er done by taking matters into their own hands.

Our destination is Pocono Downs, the racetrack home of actual living champions. Also home to a mighty fine array of local beers, summer ales, sloppy joes, shrimp po’boys, cowboy ribeyes, cheesy sliders, hummus and tzatziki, Buffalo wings, tuna rolls, pot stickers and one amazing pizza called (appropriately enough) The Italian Stallion. Yup, we can take matters into our own hands quite nicely round here.

Lest we forget, the magic of a roadtrip is what we find around the corner and over the next hill. And there are plenty of happy pastimes up ahead before the first exciting post time at the Downs. Perhaps it’s best to simply offer the intrepid racetrack roadtripper an itinerant array of activities, eateries, scenery and all matter of spontaneous whatnot – all within a few clicks of Pocono Downs. Let’s buckle up and click the hotlinks to dig in deeper. Download the map, grab the wheel and head for the hills. In the meantime, we’ll look for you around the bends and back roads.

Hartman’s Grand Champion Butcher Shop
Pull over; it’s pork!

Roadtrip rule #4: Pull over whenever we see a pig statue, because, with any luck, it means local home-smoked pork. At Hartman’s Butcher Shop, heading north on 309 in New Tripoli, the mouthwatering collection of tasty butchery treats is no baloney. Heck, they’re national champs for the beef jerky! But the real surprise is the party in our mouth they call the cheesy beef sticks. Sound advice: keep a cooler in the ragtop’s trunk.

An endless collection of pickled tripe, hot bologna, jalapeño dogs and hillbilly jerky, just to name a few deli case masterworks.

Behold: The Blue Comet Diner!
Getting closer to Wilkes-Barre along rugged Route 309, we can’t pass up the beautiful Blue Comet. As we chow down on eggs over easy and golden home fries ($1.45!), we lose count of the cars of a big old freight train as it rumbles on past. (Overheard from a confiding waitress with a fabulous beehive hairdo: “I’ll never, ever, never get married again. Now, who gets these beautiful stuffed peppers?)

A painting of the original Blue Comet,
whose tracks still run right past the diner,
hangs in the back room.

Check into a Victorian masterpiece residing in a beer baron’s mansion

Old man Stegmaier turned his German beer-brewing chops into a 19th century fortune. (And no, the place is definitely, probably not haunted. We slept like Victorian beer barons.)
Every nook and cranny of the Frederick Stegmaier Mansion is chock-a-block with gilded paintings, woven tapestries, brass fantasies, ornate wazoos, Tiffany everything and sudsy memorabilia from the Stegmaier beer fortune.

It took Joe Matteo nine obsessed years to restore this downtown Wilkes-Barre B&B into a stunning experience of true Victorian splendor. A night here in 600-thread count luxury is living as well as one possibly could in the late 19th century. Of course it doesn’t hurt to discover a luscious 21st century selection of pastries outside our bedroom door in the morning.

On tap: great food and plenty of beer at Bart & Urby’sAbout a couple dozen beers are on tap at Bart & Urby’s in downtown Wilkes-Barre, from local hero Stegmaier (their Oktoberfest is awesome) to Victory Storm King Stout. A better-than-bar-food menu with the likes of sushi-grade seared tuna, homemade empanadas and hand-cut sweet potato fries is icing on the cake.

Outlet Army and Navy sells good things cheap

How about a six-pack of “sox” for 2.99? Camo t-shirts and canvas rucksacks at bargain prices. Or sturdy Dickies workwear for a song. Also, stock up for the end of the world with a tasty variety of MRE’s said to stay fresh for 9 or 10 years. (We found the spicy penne to be not terrible at all.) This place is a hoot.

Just maybe the best chocolate milk in the entire free world.
Just outside of town is The Lands at Hillside Farms. It’s a dairy farm with a store and restaurant across the road. Cheese and yogurts and chocolate milk that’ll make you feel like a 7-year old again. A very lucky 7-year old.

Does this horse make us look fat?
We take a slow ride in the woods on the biggest horse we’ve ever seen.

John Mertz has been putting people up on gentle horses at Dear Path Stable for more years than he’d care to count. He put us up on Baron, no doubt the largest animal we’ve ever had the honor to sit upon. (John said this was the one animal on earth that might handle our girth without complaint. A hint we should drive on past the next barbecue joint we happen to see?) Old Baron paid us no mind, and seemed to enjoy his routine stroll through Deer Path’s meandering, sun-dappled trails. Our ride was a very good 45 minutes or longer – just $28 cash money well spent.
High atop Baron, we can’t help wonder what kind of conditioner he uses to keep his mane so silky smooth.

John Mertz is a very funny guy. He’ll put you in a good mood and in a good saddle at Deer Path Riding Stable. Riding our own horse is a great warm up for watching ‘em run at Pocono Downs.

In spring, the river is high and the rapids are, well, rapid. Summer waters are shallower, slower and mighty peaceful.
Down the lazy river with a paddle sure beats up the creek without one…
Off the horse and into a kayak. It’s a whole other kind of trail ride. The good folks at Susquehanna Kayak & Canoe are a short ride from Wilkes-Barre along a beautiful winding road that hugs the shoreline of the Susquehanna River. We take a van a few miles upstream and climb into a kayak and let the lazy current push us back down. Along the way we watch bass jump, hawks circle, minks slink and a gigantic bald eagle soar overhead. It’s so relaxing and quiet here, we forget to hear ourselves to think.

Youngster Yankees in a beautiful mountain bandbox.
As we’re mighty partial to the Phillies and Pirates (yup, we’re National Leaguers all the way), it’s a little weird to walk into beautiful PNC Field where the Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees play ball. It’s like watching dreaded rivals of the future earn their pinstripes. Lucky for us the Pawtucket Red Sox take it to the Yanks this afternoon, but in deference to the home team fans surrounding us, we don’t holler too happily. (We reserve our vocal chords for the horses later on tonight.)
There ain’t a bad seat in the house
where the young Yankees learn their craft.
The hot dogs go down with a cold draft, too.

Tony’s in Kingston: Sandwiches and omelets with extreme personality.
Roadtrip rule #7: Avoid eating anything that’s bigger than your head. Every rule has its exception, however, and in this case it may be Tony’s Fat Bastard omelet. Many eggs envelop homemade sausage, meatballs, onions, cheese, hot peppers - all topped with some red gravy and a side of sausage. Good luck with that.

Tony’s grill master and owner: “I’m a porketta patriot.”

For our money (and for our tummies), we stick with the tried and true porketta hoagie. Owner Jimmy Zambito (son of Tony) is a madman with a spatula. The secret: grilling the long rolls inside and out. A masterpiece for your mouth. (Caveat: if you’re offended by extreme Tea Party sympathies, you may wanna order for take-out. The joint is decorated the way Rush Limbaugh sounds.)
“Probably the best
Roadfood destination
in Northeast Pennsylvania.”

Is it a garage or a coffee shop? Yes!

Right around the corner from Pocono Downs we find Lispi’s, the weirdest and perhaps most beautiful old coffee shop/lunch counter ever. It’s attached to an auto repair shop so we might get our car inspected, our oil changed, maybe even arrange a tow. Then enjoy a cup o’ joe and maybe a cruller. Where Rt. 315 meets Fox Hill Road.

Life on the upside at Pocono Downs
There are all sorts of strategies on how to pick a horse.
We happened to like the name of this one.

It's better in groups at Pocono Downs.

When we finally make it to the track – just in the nick of post time - we meet a whole gang of friends who have the beer buckets chilled and the wings ordered extra hot. The track at Pocono Downs is a splendid oval, with a gorgeous backdrop of mountain foliage. We have a ball watching the horses’ pre-race parade and one of our railbirds is absolutely convinced that we should peel our eyes for a horse that’s pooping. (“That’s the one to pick,” he argues. “It’ll lighten the load!”)

Well, we don’t see that kind of action, but in the sixth race the number 5 horse speaks to us: Urbino Hanover, out of Pennsylvania’s own Hanover Shoe Farms. The best pacers in the world come out of that farm, so who are we to argue with success? To make a 2-minute race story even shorter, thank you, Hanover Shoe Farms. Urbino comes in like he should and we fill up the beer buckets again and still have pocket change for the roadtrip home.

Here’s to the road (and racetrack) ahead! Let us hear from you as to where you been, what you've seen, who you've met, and what you've eaten - before it's too late.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The road to The Meadows: 16,000 years of rock shelters, cherry pies, trolley cars, trail rides and a beloved father of harness racing

Our roadtrip begins 16,000 years ago, after a lovely winding ride along a very rural Route 50 toward the West Virginia border. We’re en route to the last homestead of local hero Delvin Miller, known around here as the father of American harness racing. His story’s worth telling, but it’s what his brother Albert found on the family farm that drives us forward into the past.

Some years back Albert was walking his dog along the Cross Creek when Ol’ Blue chases a groundhog down its hole and digs up ancient Indian arrowheads, tools and other artifacts of social activity in the process. One dig leads to the next and – eureka –the oldest continually habitated spot by human folk on the North American continent.

The archeologists tell us people have been coming to this spot called the Meadowcroft Rockshelter for nigh on 16,000 years. (“It was like a Paleo motel,” says one of our guides.) That’s 1,600 centuries of fishing trips, hunting parties, family picnics, campfires and every manner of post-ice-age barbecues. All now protected by a dramatic wooden enclosure more Frank Lloyd Wright than pre-Clovis paleontology.

Even for us lay folk, who think the patched denim jacket we just found balled up in the back of the ragtop trunk is old, this place is a certified jaw dropper. They’ve been digging around here with tiny little razor blades since the ‘70s – which seems long enough – and they’ve gotten through about a third of the sandstone that’s given up countless prehistoric treasures.

A couple stones throw away, on this same piece of property, is the Meadowcroft Museum of Rural Life. We stroll through a frontier town, check out the squash growing in a 400-year old Indian village garden and land inside two galleries that tell the stories of the Miller brothers who put this spot on the map.

Albert was a gifted photographer, and his chronicles of old-time rural living fill a beautiful gallery. Next door, a story of one of the great sportsmen of any archeological era comes to life. Albert’s brother Delvin Miller drove his first racehorse when he was a teen, and kept at it till he died at the age of 83. The room is chock-a-block with sulkies, loving cups, regal proclamations and amazing memories. It’s a one-man hall of fame from the most romantic era of sports.

After gawking through a few generations of geological and harness racing ephemera we put images of flint arrowheads and riding silks in our rear view. We have a desire to hop a streetcar at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum down near The Meadows Racetrack, our feature destination. (Did we mention that it was Delvin Miller himself who founded that beautiful racing oval back in ’63?)

Alas, like the best laid plans, ours is interrupted, this time by hungry happenstance along the two-lane. We do a double take at an art deco filling station now reborn as a bakery with the tastiest pies this side of the Wellsboro Diner. Their aroma fills the air, so of course we bang a uey to have a looksee.

The Pie Place has rolled ‘em out for more than 15 years now, and we cannot tell a lie: the crimson cherry pie with the lattice-work lard crust is so tempting we don’t make it out of the parking lot. We devour the whole enchilada right off the ragtop’s trunk.

Wipe the last speck of cherry filling from the corner of our smile and we finally make it to the Trolley Museum. Yup, there she is, the very same streetcar named Desire made famous onstage by good ole Stanley Kowalski. To this day it inspires cries of “Stella!” from many who happen upon this big old trolley barn.

Desire is part of a collection of more than 40 antique trolley cars, most of ‘em painstakingly restored and gleaming with nostalgia. Motorman Walt Copland welcomes us aboard for a trundle through the nearby woods and meadows. He tells stories of the bygones and answers every question with a wink and a smile.

By now the light is late-afternoon lush, and we hop off the trolley just in time for the first post at The Meadows, where our potential fortune (and a couple cold trackside brews) awaits our arrival.

This place is beautiful and bustling. Gentlemen sport Irish caps and chew pencils while they study racing forms. Kids ride on dads’ shoulders up and down the rail, pointing at one splendid horse after another. It’s colorful; a carnival atmosphere festive with families who keep Delvin Miller’s equine vision alive and trotting.

Aha! A pacer from Pennsylvania’s great Hanover Shoe Farms is listed in the first race. So we plop down two bucks on Big Time Hanover to win and then claim a spot with the railbirds down where they finish.

The bugle calls the horses to the post and the reverie raises back-neck goosebumps. The thrill never gets old, especially when Big Time Hanover comes thumping from the outside to take the lead at the ¾ mark with just enough oomph to hold on past the wire. We hop and holler and wave our winning ticket. The Hanover horse pays $4.20; the next cold beer is on the house.

We stay through the 8th, the big feature race, where we put our faith on another pacer from our favorite place. This time he’s a big fella by the name of Dagnabit Hanover. He’s won two in a row, but this evening, dag nabit, he can’t make it three. All in all, though, we did alright.

Turns out watching all those horses run around in ovals pushes our hungry and thirsty buttons. So we find happiness in the tavern room at Palazzo 1837 Ristorante, a new-school Italian in a beautiful old-school brick building just down the road apiece.

Matt Sager holds court at the bar here and mixes a varied menu of mean vintage cocktails. (His wife Susan manages their downtown Pittsburgh outpost; we make a mental note to stop and say hello.) We quaff one of Matt’s speakeasy Lime Phosphates (caution: they go down too easy) and savor a mélange of sautéed sea scallops and oxymoronic jumbo shrimp. Roadtrip dinners seem best eaten at the bar, where conversation with locals usually digs up tomorrow’s unexpected treasures. No exception this time, as Matt boasts of a wood-burning pizza oven just up Route 19 in Mt. Lebanon.

Lucky for us Il Pizziaolo is just a few clicks from bucolic Rolling Hills Ranch, where a gentle saddle horse named Forbes takes us for a morning ride through the woods. We clip=clop beneath the forest canopy and dream of driving a Hanover champion to the winner’s circle at The Meadows. After a very pleasant hour or so, we prepare to chow down on Neapolitan pizza topped with baby arugula and oh-so-thin prosciutto.

The itinerary is tight. We’ve still got a barn full of Alpacas to discover, a tour of a dairy farm to take (and their ice cream to scream about) and a night to spend at yet another working farm where we’ll help pitch hay, milk a cow and sleep like 16,000-year old rocks. But that’s a whole other story yet to tell.

In the meantime, we’ll look for you around the bends and back roads.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The road to Harrah’s: Riverfront racing, buttered burger buns and royalty-related fainting goats

Listen carefully. When the horses round the first turn on the other side of the infield, the thundering hooves take on a slightly different tenor. That’s because this riverside racetrack is so close to the Delaware that the southeastern turn is actually over the riverbed, on a trestle of steel. It’s one of the idiosyncrasies that delight us about the horse course at Harrah’s in Chester.

We sail the ragtop through Boeing defense plant country to find it. Past what look like enormous centrifuges and helicopter gunship factories. And down along the waterfront ports and just this side of the looming towers of a state pen is the purple Harrah’s logo, big and bright as luck itself. We bang a left into the only racetrack where standard-bred railbirds are next-door neighbors with workaday shipyard river rats.

Upstairs beyond the whirl of the slots parlor we enter the world of the horseplayer. Big flat screens take us to exactas and trifectas the world over, and opposite this media Mecca is the great grandstand overlooking the river. Out in the sunshine a gravel oval and green infield spreads out beneath us. Chocolate brown horses pull sulkies as drivers get a feel for the surface pre-post time. A huge Shanghai freighter glides past the backstretch to unload its mystery cargo next door.

Nice to sip a cold one, ponder the program and watch the river flow. Hard to believe, but a horse named Riverboat Captain is going off 12-to-1 in the third race so we can’t help but plop down two bucks and hop on board. Turns out a good group of the grandstand faithful are with us, and they stand to holler him home to a thankful third.

“There’s pride in third place,” calls out one of our grandstand friends, brandishing his show ticket. In line to cash out, we hear scuttle among the victors of steamed dumplings, roast pork and applesauce, and perfect pink prime rib over on the casino buffet. Heck, we’re still feeling the onion/relish aftermath of a mushroom burger and junior malted from Jake’s, down off Route 202. The legendary grill joint sits right smack on the PA/Delaware border, and it’s an insurmountable temptation if you’re heading to the track from that direction. (Even worthy of going out of your way for the grilled buttered buns alone.) But that Harrah’s buffet calls to us. We find green Thai curry and butterscotch pudding that tucks in perfect between the fourth and fifth races.

By the time we collect the ragtop from the valet, our pockets feel deeper and our bellies a bit fuller. Glad it’s a quick ride over to Chadds Ford, where we walk off some buffet with a guided tour at the Brandywine River Museum.

Settled in nicely along the banks of the Brandywine, this may be the world’s perfect art museum. Certainly the most relaxed and comfortable. We mosey lush trails and hum along with the burble of the creek. It’s mighty quiet after the rumble of the riverfront trestle track. Inside the brick barn of a gallery, the life work of Andrew Wyeth, his family and other local painters offers an illustrated history of this neck of the woods.

Andrew’s effervescent granddaughter, Victoria, takes us on an insider’s journey through the paintings she knows so well. Through her unique perspective, we really get to know the cronies and characters that populate these canvases – and the rolling green neighborhood. (Imagine strolling around Giverny, gossiping about Monet in his garden with his grandkid.) It’s intimate, utterly fascinating and we feel like family.

A stone’s throw and we’re wandering about Chaddsford Winery, where we load the ragtop’s trunk with a new release of blushing rosé, perfect for our weekend brunch. Then north toward America’s Route One, and the back roads to Glen Mills and a gentlemen’s horse farm called Sweetwater. There’s a guest cottage the size of a small condo reserved for us there, with a queen bed and a king’s breakfast included.

Chris Le Vine runs Sweetwater Farm, and knows a thing or two about horses. His grandfather was Jack Kelly, legendary bon vivant, oarsman and horseman. (AKA brother to Grace Kelly, star of Hollywood, Princess of Monaco.) Jack was one of the founders of Atlantic City Race Course, where 35,000 fans would once convene to spend afternoons on the edge of their seats. It’s kinda cool to swap horse tales with the grand nephew of a princess about the sport of kings.

Chris’s father Don was a champion thoroughbred trainer, so he grew up along the backside rails of the greatest racing venues in the world. Today, his 18th century farm is home to horses, sheep, and some oddball fainting goats. One mean look or sharp sound and the goats simply fall over from surprise. Sweetwater’s our home, too, for 24 hours or so. But we see nary a mean look and hear nothing to make us wanna faint.

In fact we fall asleep to a gentle rain tapping our cottage roof and a happy little blaze dancing in our fireplace. We have visions of the coming breakfast feast: ham scones, cranberry muffins, fruit parfaits, home fries and eggs-anyway conjured up by Sweetwater cook Farrell Leo, whose morning smile is pure sunny-side-up.

We can’t stay as long as we’d like, as there are horses to saddle up for ourselves just down the two-lane at Ridley Creek State Park. And then a proper English lunch at The Whip Tavern, way out in Chester County’s horse country. But not too far out to keep us from some more afternoon harness action back at Harrah’s. As the old honky-tonk song reminds us, “Ew whee, we feel lucky today!”

Until post time, we’ll look for you around the bends and back roads.


Here's where to stay, what to eat, what to see. (Hit us with your own ideas, won't you?)

Harrah’s Chester Casino and Racetrack
The cool industrial architecture reflects the working heritage of the riverfront, and the racetrack runs so close to the river, part of the backstretch was built right over the water. The harness racing features some of the best drivers in the country, and the family atmosphere welcomes horse lovers of all ages. And the valet parking is free!

Jake’s Hamburgers
Does it taste so good because they grill the buns and hand pack the patties? Or because the grill jockeys still wear paper hats. One thing’s for certain: the burger of the month is a must, no matter what it is. And grab a shake that tastes as good as your 7th birthday. It’s right on the border, so you might eat your burger with one foot in Delaware and the other in PA. 16 West Chester/Wilmington Pike, Chadds Ford. 610.358.5810.

Mickey Vernon Sports Museum
This little oddity is a baseball lover’s treasure. Mickey Vernon grew up in these parts and became a legend with the Boston Red Sox. Wait till you see the horsehide on which Mickey collected the autograph of every ALer who played at Fenway in ‘57. Hidden inside the Brandywine Visitors Bureau, this little hall of fame honors local stars from baseball, football – even the Olympics. It’s a fun freebie, but a donation is always ‘preciated.
One Beaver Valley Road, Chadds Ford. 800.343.3983

Brandywine River Museum
Spend time with Andrew Wyeth’s portraits and landscapes and NC Wyeth’s timeless paintings for Treasure Island, Kidnapped and other classic adventure tales. Visit NC’s house and studio. And by all means ask about granddaughter Victoria’s effervescent guided tours. 1 Hoffmans Mill Road, Chadds Ford

Chaddsford Winery
A tour of this successful winery whips up a fine thirst for a delicious wine tasting. Enjoy a picnic lunch, smell the grapes ripening on the vines and take home a case or two of the good stuff. 632 Baltimore Pike, Chadds Ford. 610.388.6221.

Sweetwater Farm
A gentleman’s farm owned by the grand nephew of Princess Grace Kelly is a romantic retreat for a night, a weekend, a wedding. Innkeeper Meghan Feeney welcomes you in a house full of Kelly family memorabilia, and the 18th century barn has been restored with marble slabs originally part of Independence Hall. Wait till you get your hands on Farrell Leo’s home-baked scones. 50 Sweetwater Road, Glen Mills. 610.459.4711.

Ridley Creek State Park
Inside one of the most beautiful state parks is Hidden Valley Farms. Saddle up on a trail ride through the woods for a morning horseback experience before the afternoon post time at Harrah’s. No matter how much a newbie you are, there’s a horse to carry you at Hidden Valley. 610.892.7260., or

The Whip Tavern
The décor is pure horse country. The menu is English pub fare and the taproom pours local brews and UK ales. Don’t miss the Scotch egg; the most sophisticated bar food you’ve ever put in your mouth. 1383 North Chatham Road, West Marlborough. 610.383.0600.

The Blue Pear Bistro
Small plates, big flavor. This is the casual wing of the amazing Dilworthtown Inn “gourmet compound.” Sit at the bar and chow down with the locals on smoked salmon ravioli and curry crusted lamb. And by all means have your way with the value-priced wine list. 275 Brintons Bridge Road, West Chester. 610.399.9812.

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