The Tastes That Define Our Towns

CHRISTOPHER LENNEY / NNY LIVING
Pan Seared Scallops served with 1844 House’s own barrel aged bourbon and canned cherries.

BY: Matt McClusky
If you were to close your eyes I would bet you could picture, possibly even feel your favorite hangout place within our beautiful tri-county region. Maybe that means you could shut your eyes and instantly find yourself cruising along, bouncing on a boat atop the waters of Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence River in the shimmering summertime.  Just the same, if you were to stop and daydream about your favorite restaurant, your favorite flavors would soon flood your taste buds and you’d be back to that restaurant experiencing the delectable signature dish that has been ingrained in your memory.

                A tasty dish can be found in the heart of downtown or on the outskirts of a village, practically always a stone’s throw away. With the truly great feature for foodies in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties being that much like the outdoor choices scattering the landscape, there are plenty of ways to please your palate. Go out along the waters for some of the best, freshest fish along the east coast. Further, go a little inland, maybe even toward the high hills of the Tug or the hustling, bustling city of Watertown, and you’ll find a completely different, completely satisfying smorgasbord of various meats to chow down on. From one end of the region to the other, the popular eateries that populate the north country often have their own styles, delicacies.

Art’s Jug, Watertown

                A signature dish at any one of the establishments around the north country sparks memories for generations.  Like at Art’s Jug, where the pizza has attracted countless customers as a must-order.

                As the restaurant touts on its website, Art’s Jug has had four generations of families serving families, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. Since 1933, the restaurant on Huntington Street in Watertown has been offering up its one-of-a-kind pies, a signature dish if there ever was one, to parents, grandparents and even great grandparents. So what makes the different variations of pizza, be it covered with peperoni, onions, or even anchovies, so popular that customers and their family members keep coming back? Meghan Sboro, whose family has been in charge of Art’s Jug since its inception, explained that her family has had the same approach to making the perfect pizza for 85 years. Sboro said Art’s Jug uses “fresh dough, made daily,” along with its own “homemade pizza sauce” and “homemade sausage.” The very ingredients that make Art’s pizza so much a part of the community come directly from the family itself.

                Anyone who has eaten at Art’s jug, however, certainly knows that there is more to offer than just the locally-famous pizzas. In fact, the eatery offers up a wide selection of stomach-filling Italian entrees, along with steak, seafood, chicken and other selections. There truly is something for everyone. Still, there isn’t much better than grabbing a slice and a drink at the institution known as Art’s Jug.

Clipper Inn Restaurant, Clayton

                Over near the St. Lawrence River, in northern Jefferson County, nestled on the outskirts of Clayton, stands an old stalwart with an ever-changing and ever-growing menu. At the Clipper Inn, which has now been in business for over four decades, owner and head chef Michael Simpson is known for serving up some of the best catches in the northeast. In fact, the menu is often features a number of flavorful specialty entrees featuring fish. Yet, much like how a water-skier might become a downhill skier with the changing of seasons, Simpson has catered the Clipper Inn’s menu to cater to all months, be they hot or cold.

                Travel led Simpson to tinker, to explore and to evolve the menu of the Clipper Inn, allowing for many influences on its food. Through the years, Simpson has prepared dishes which have roots connected to the Mediterranean, Asia, and several other exotic locales. There was one country, however, that truly grabbed Simpson’s culinary curiosity.

                 “In traveling around, in Italy, I was inspired to add ravioli to the menu,” Simpson said. The Clipper Inn, offers customers a wide variety of choices when it comes to their ravioli. In fact, Simpson has ten different varieties of the pasta dish. Some include seafood, like crab, while others have butternut squash or even goat cheese and wild mushrooms. “Every night,” Simpson proclaimed, “we have a different version, all of it is made from scratch.” Simpson said it’s a labor of love to serve the different types of ravioli, and that they are all made “by hand, from scratch, with homemade dough.” It’s not a surprise that the Clipper Inn, has been making people rave about ravioli.

                There’s a definite theme that resonates within the restaurant business in this section of New York. If you talk to anyone who has been in the local scene for a long time, the longest-running eateries in the tri-county area all seem to have a common trait: homemade dishes with homemade ingredients. Owners, managers and chefs all believe it’s imperative to not only incorporate the region into a menu, it’s just as important to utilize locally grown ingredients within those available meals. Sometimes a restaurant might do well due to its location, but just as important, the way to a customer’s heart is by giving them a taste of what’s all around them.

Hot Tamale, Canton

                It’s a philosophy followed closely at the highly successful Hot Tamale restaurants scattered up and down St. Lawrence County. Started by owner Marc Morely eight years ago, Hot Tamale now has locations in Canton (the original spot) along with Potsdam, Ogdensburg and Massena. Unlike an Art’s Jug or Clipper Inn, more traditional sit-down spots, Hot Tamale essentially provides a different version of quick-serve dining, where customers can come in and get their favorite Mexican cuisine in short order. And Morley says one of the keys to its popularity is the fact that his Hot Tamale restaurants all use available fresh ingredients. “It is fast food, but it’s homemade and it’s always made fresh,” Morely explained. Morley’s manager at the Canton location, Lisa Pitts, echoed that same sentiment, explaining that “we have fresh food and it’s all made in house.”

                Come lunchtime, any of the four Hot Tamales are likely to be overrun with patrons looking to satisfy their hunger pangs with one of its well-known burritos, quesadillas, or taco salads. “We’re looking to provide a healthy choice in the fast-food world,” said Morley. To top off the selection of Mexican dishes, Hot Tamale has the usual selection of salsas, including its own, very unique, “wild sauce.” When asked about the wild sauce’s ingredients, Pitts, the ever-loyal employee, simply offered: “I can’t really discuss that.” The mystery and, luckily enough, the taste remains.

1844 House, Potsdam

                There’s plenty of mystery within the history-rich 1844 House in Potsdam. Originally a farmhand’s home back in the 19th century, the structure on Route 11 was converted into a restaurant in 1986, and subsequently turned into its current form by Brian & Jenny Walker back in 2006. Its wide-ranging menu makes it popular, but 1844 House is also a hotspot for anyone looking for a cocktail, or two. Head Chef Amy Conger said customers love the selection, including “barrel-aged cocktails and 30 different varieties of scotch. “You can pair those drinks perfectly,” Chef Conger explained, “with our meals.”

                 Still, the chef speaks most glowingly about what comes out of her kitchen. One in which is her favorite known as the “Bayou.” This meal consists of shrimp, scallops, house-smoked andouille sausage, creamy Cajun sauce, rice pilaf and green onions. The Bayou and the other meals available at the 1844 House are made using local ingredients; local as in sourced directly at the 1844 House. The property has its very own garden on site with a variety of greens and seasonal vegetables.

                “We have a great garden out back,” Chef Conger said, “If I need a squash, I can walk right out back and pick it.” Cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and the usual garden dwellers are picked, sliced, diced and put directly into the main dishes. The chef said even the pork, beef, and sausage all comes from various local farms, too. It’s a way for 1844 House to “try to connect to the people” who live and eat in the area.

                That connection is exactly what restaurants are attempting to find and keep with their patrons, with their communities, in their own specifically unique ways. It’s what drives them to use as much “homegrown” and “homemade” products as possible. Because, as with the waterways, mountains, and the rest of the wondrous scenery that constantly calls all who have a love for them, the north country also provides a full assortment that can fill any menu and memory. The meals created from scratch are there waiting to be explored like that of the endless geography, you just need to go out and order them.