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Trusty friend offers new takes on old favorites

The Anthracite Café in Wilkes-Barre sits like a miniature welcome wagon into the city’s Parsons section.

S. JOHN WILKIN/THE TIMES LEADER

You’ll excuse us if we’re back in football-food mode what with the Super Bowl just two days away. But know this: When we stopped in to check up on a new menu and a new chef at an old friend called The Anthracite Café in Wilkes-Barre’s Parsons section, we weren’t thinking football food.

We weren’t thinking pizza, wings or even sandwiches. We were thinking appetizer, dinner and perhaps dessert, a traditional meal from a place with a reputation for putting nontraditional twists on the comfortable classics.

But when we arrived to a jam-packed parking lot and an equally jam-packed dining room and bar area, with pretty much standing (or waiting) room only on a recent Thursday night, we quickly had to change our mindset. The outdoor message board read “Wing Night,” and everyone and their brother (or father, spouse, sister and cousin twice-removed) was indulging in same.

We’d have felt like party-crashers had we asked the obviously harried kitchen staff to cook us something else. So today you get a two-for-one. We’ll tell you about what has to be one of the hottest wing nights in town, then we’ll tell you what else is new and attractive on the Anthracite menu, based on a revisit.

Wings and pizza first. You can have the former 43 ways here. If you’re a fan of the customary you’ll want mild, hot, barbecue, cajun, red garlic, Old Bay or somesuch. If you tend to go for the more innovative, order up cactus, ginger teriyaki, sweet Thai chile, hot maple garlic, rosemary ranch or maybe even mango jalapeno. And if even those bore you, how about peanut butter and jelly or Kentucky Fried Chix?

Our recommendation is mix things up and make a mélange. Only rule is you have to order six of one kind (at 40 cents a pop on wing night).

At the request of a guest who believes you can’t judge a wing-maker unless you know how he does mild, we ordered six of those, threw in six Old Bay Garlic Butter and added a half-pound of boneless and breadless strips (normally $4.99 but on special, too, for wing night) in Sweet Thai Chile.

Each sauce was a high-scorer, though I especially adored the Thai and the way it bear-hugged the boneless variety.

It’s harder to judge the wings themselves because the second two batches clearly outshined the first. This is a risk you run on a crazy-busy wing night, we suppose. Some of the actual wings on our mild plate were skimpy, almost meatless, for which our server profusely apologized. He attributed it to cranking out so much chicken amid so much chaos, and we did sort of understand. The second two sets of six more than redeemed the first, however.

We also ordered a tray of pizza, a new addition here, and I just might have a new local favorite.

The basics: This is pan-style pizza, though served in a round pie. You’ll pay a slight premium for a large with toppings, but a few bites and you won’t mind.

We started with a $10.99 pie and added mushrooms and pepperoni for $1.25 each. Roasted peppers as a topping also greatly tempted, but we restrained ourselves.

We managed to take two cuts home, which is no small feat considering the absolutely perfect, somewhat buttery, not-thin but positively not-thick handmade crust. The plum-tomato sauce was a sweet surprise, and the cheese … oh heavens, the cheese. All Anthracite will advertise is that it’s a “unique blend,” and it is indeed hard to pin down. Not in question is that the texture is super-soft, not chewy and not what you’d expect. It’s almost like a goat cheese, except tangier than most.

As for toppings, mushroom fans will be happy to know these clearly did not hail from a can. The fat, fresh slices had those lovely black markings that assure you you’re eating the real, earthy thing.

Now, about the “real” food: I have to say it was hard to go back and not order pizza, but somehow we did. Reading descriptions of Beef Tenderloin Troeganoff ($15.99), which is tenderloin tips, mushrooms and onions in Troegenator Doublebock and sour-cream gravy, and meatloaf-stuffed chicken ($13.99) made the job a tad easier. It’s not all that hard to justify such decadence on these bone-chilling winter days.

The beef Troeganoff, first off, was huge and tasty (the gravy especially creamy and flavorful), but the small matter of temperature threw things off a bit. Served lukewarm, it was hard to fully appreciate this dish, which improved considerably heated to bubbling for a next-day lunch.

On both passes, though, you could not fault the huge, real mushrooms, which were meaty enough that you might mistake them for the beef, which was sliced perhaps a bit too thickly, compromising its tenderness.

The meatloaf-stuffed-chicken ($13.99) was more intriguing, largely because it was not what we expected. Instead of a bulbous breast of chicken shot through with a mound of meat and cheese and swimming in total tomato sauce, this was a lovely presentation of pounded white breasts with a thin center of homestyle meatloaf topped with brown gravy. All in all, a very homey, very Sunday-dinner-type dish.

Anthracite is a fine choice for any night of the week, though, if you consider the new lineup of burgers, including the Coney Island (which mixes hot dogs into the chuck and adds chili sauce) and the Mel’s Diner Bacon Cheeseburger (in which the bacon and cheese are plied into the meat). Or choose a soft-pretzel sandwich, a club, a cheesesteak, crab cake or even a tuna steak on bread.

Pasta fans will be happy to find eight forms and five sauces with monster meatballs or sweet Italian sausage as add-ons

And lighter eaters will happily stick with soup or salad bowls, “bodacious” though they are.

In other words, the options are abundant. If, that is, you can pull yourself away from that pizza …

Did we mention how much we liked that?

If you go

What: The Anthracite Café

Where: 804 Scott St., Wilkes-Barre

Call: 570-822-4677

Credit cards? Yes

Handicapped accessible? Yes

Hours: 4 p.m. -- ?? Tuesday through Saturday

Online: www.anthracitecafe.net

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