My wife spent most of her pre-college years in Allentown – Pennsylvania’s third most populous city behind only Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. I’ve joined her for family meals at the home of her parents, who still live there, for many years. But we only eat out during those visits occasionally, and those meals are often at restaurants in other towns within or near the Lehigh Valley.
There is an Allentown restaurant called Wert’s Cafe that is fairly well known for its burgers. I’ve been meaning to get there for years, but the right opportunity never seems to arise. The fact that they’re closed Sundays has been an issue a couple times.
Beyond Wert’s, I wasn’t aware of any other Allentown restaurant that fits the mold of the type of old-school places I look for when I’m outside of the Philly region – at least until a month or so ago. That’s when I came across Ritz Barbecue while browsing restaurants online. They’ve been around since 1928, but had somehow escaped my attention for a shockingly long time.
I immediately added Ritz to the list of restaurants in Allentown that I need to try at some point, thus doubling its length. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. I also noticed a hot dog place I want to get to around the same time I found Ritz Barbecue. For anyone who is familiar with Allentown and wondering, I’ve been to a couple Yocco’s Hot Dogs locations already.
As luck would have it, an opportunity arose for my wife and I to have lunch with her parents in Allentown Saturday, leaving me with a decision of Wert’s or Ritz Barbecue. Although I’ve wanted to get to the former a lot longer, I opted for the latter. The atmosphere looks so appealing – in a roadfood sense – and they have fountain service. That’s a tough combination to top.
The restaurant is located right next to the massive complex that is home to the Allentown Fairgrounds and Farmer’s Market. My father-in-law has been telling me about the farmers market, where he picks up meat and other goodies for our family meals, for years. But I had never seen it in person and couldn’t believe the size of the building. As was the case with that slice of pizza the other day, the photo doesn’t really do it justice.
We would check out the Market later. Lunch was our immediate priority. The joint was packed when we arrived, but our wait for a table was a short one.
I’m normally excited by the sight of a pie case upon entering a restaurant. But I wasn’t nuts about the look of most of these particular pies – I prefer regular crust to crumb – and had ice cream in mind for dessert anyway.
Ritz Barbecue serves all three meals, but we arrived a little too late to order breakfast. They had specials posted and a nice array of hot and cold sandwiches, as well as entrees, on the menu.
The restaurant’s name is actually misleading. They don’t serve anything that even closely resembles real barbecue. Their trademark barbecue sandwiches are just sliced or shredded meat – pork, turkey, beef, ham or hamburger – with the addition of barbecue sauce on a roll. I’ve had ham barbecue sandwiches that were similar in western Pennsylvania, but not for many years. In any event, none of us ordered one.
We started with a selection of appetizers: corn nuggets, potato cakes with apple sauce and sautéed perogies.
I’m not sure of the extent to which corn nuggets are regional, but I’ve seen them around Pennsylvania over the years and don’t recall them being on many menus in other parts of the country. They are sweet and full of corn kernels.
The potato cakes were perfectly crispy and went well with the apple sauce that accompanied them, while the perogies were filled with mashed potatoes and came with sautéed onions and sour cream.
Ritz has a pot-pie of the week and it was beef when we were there. My father-in-law was enticed enough to go in that direction. It appeared to basically be beef stew inside a thick pie crust. His comments indicated that he was more impressed by the crust than the stew within. His meal also came with a salad topped with the house warm bacon dressing.
In the Lehigh Valley, cheesesteaks often come topped with tomato sauce unless requested otherwise. And that was the case with the one my mother-in-law ordered at Ritz Barbecue. It also came with pickles in addition to fried onions. As you can see in the photo below, it bears little resemblance to the cheesesteaks I normally write about.
Her one complaint was that she would have preferred a sturdier roll, but it can be tough to find sturdy or crusty steak rolls outside of the Philly region.
My wife had a salad after partaking heavily in our appetizer bonanza. As was the case with the rest of us, she had one eye on dessert.
And with that in mind, I ordered the smaller of their two burger sizes at a quarter-pound. It was a fairly big burger in terms of circumference, but it was also very thin. I would guess it dropped down to less than four ounces while cooking.
The burger looked like it could have been of a frozen patty, but the menu indicates that Ritz’s burgers are “hand-made.” I couldn’t tell for sure because of how thin it was and the extent to which it was covered with melted cheese. If I go back there, I’d consider getting the half-pounder. I suspect a thicker patty would give a better indication of how good Ritz’s burgers are. I remain neutral after eating this one. As thin as it was, they managed to avoid overcooking it.
One of Ritz’s claims to fame is its fountain service. They offer roughly 40 flavors of ice cream and a full array of toppings for sundaes.
My in-laws kept it simple, each ordering a pair of scoops; moose tracks and coffee for her and black raspberry and vanilla bean for him.
My wife and I both opted for hot-fudge sundaes. She had hers with black raspberry and tandykake ice creams – the latter named after one of Tastykake’s most popular snack cakes.
As is almost always the case, I went with vanilla ice cream, or French vanilla to be precise, for the base of my sundae. I also ordered it with chopped peanuts.
All four of us were extremely content after eating our ice cream – but not too stuffed to move on to a guided – by my father-in-law – tour of the Allentown Farmers Market next door to the restaurant.
Unfortunately, they had “No Photos” signs posted prominently, so you’ll have to take my word that there is a wonderful array of savory and sweet treats in there.
I wasn’t hungry enough to eat any more, but I did manage to pick up a jar of Japanese barbecue sauce that I had been in search of for a while. My wife stocked up on fresh pickles.
All in all, it was a beautiful and culinarily productive afternoon. Next, on to Wert’s Cafe!
7 thoughts on “Going Old-School in Allentown, PA”
Love warm bacon dressing although for me it has to be beef, lamb or turkey bacon…
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They have corn nuggets at the Drift Inn Crab House in Mechanicsville, MD. That’s the only place I’ve seen them. I’ve never seen tomato sauce on a cheese steak, though, or pickles. Jalapeños, but not cucumber pickles.
For some reason, the pickles look sweet to me.
Most places that serve cheesesteaks in the Philly region have pizza steaks on their menu, which are cheesesteaks with sauce. I get one every once in a while for a change of pace.
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Have been searching for fried corn nuggets since we had them in Lakeland, FL about 8 years ago. Loved them and will keep an eye out if we head your way. Tried several varieties in the freezer area of grocery stores but none any good. On another note, it looked liked a lovely dense ice cream – yum!
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The corn nuggets aren’t exactly common around here, but I see them periodically. It at least partially makes up for the difficulty in finding hush puppies in the region.
Corn nuggets are definitely scarce around here, but it feels like I’ve seen them before.
Your father-in-law’s pot pie looks like it could’ve used a bit more gravy.
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I felt the same way about the gravy.