A Day in Reading, PA [A Guest Post by Shaun]

Courtney grew up just outside Reading, PA, and whenever we visit the area, I make sure to sample the unique regional fare. From whoopie pies to sweet bologna, shoofly pie to soft serve, our visits usually leave me smiling like a hedgehog prepared for hibernation. Our most recent visit took me to two new spots and one repeat classic: Bell Alley Pretzel, Screpesi’s Sandwich Shop, and The Peanut Bar.

Courtney’s grandmother let on after Christmas dinner that “the best pretzel shop in Reading” would be closing at the end of the year. Two things immediately came to mind: 1) this was high praise from a woman who’s lived all of her life in the “Pretzel Capital of the World” and 2) I want to go to there. So, the next morning, we ventured to Bell Alley Pretzels to stuff a few twisted treats down our throats lest we never again get the chance. As soon as we parked in front of the bakery, I knew the oncoming carb coma would be worth it. The handwritten menu nailed to the door like Luther’s theses confirmed that I would be happily spending the morning cooing in the fetal position. I excitedly snapped shots to a soundtrack of laughter and recited facts about the bakery. Opening in 1945, they’d continuously hand-fed the coal oven since. And while they currently “only” twist and fire about 55 dozen a day, they once regularly moved 300 dozen in that same period. These two were pros and the product was proof. My teeth split the crispy exterior of the golden pretzels to reveal a soft, chewy interior still bread-like enough to dissolve in your saliva–that is, if you were ascetic enough to do anything other than try to single-handedly return the bakery to its peak production. A monastic mission on either front. We did our part and left with a dozen. If you’re even remotely near the area, you should do the same. But, hurry! While they no longer plan to close before the new year, they’re not sure how much longer they’ll be able to keep the fires burning.

I’ve always been confused by the nuances of the sandwich world. I understand that a panini is grilled and that we’re all greatly indebted to John Montagu, but I can’t distinguish between a hoagie, a sub, a grinder, a dagwood, etc. In fact, I’m a bit skeptical of the whole affair and wonder if it all might be a ruse aimed at confusing Southerners in one final bout in the War of Northern Aggression. Still, there are few things I enjoy more than stacking meat, cheese, veggies, and condiments between two pieces of bread and stuffing the whole concoction into my face. So, while the rest of you have been enjoying your burritos and wraps at lunch, I’ve remained true to my first culinary love: The Big Sandwich.* Thus, I unsurprisingly suggested we venture to Screpesi’s Sandwich Shop for an Italian Sandwich and Good’s Potato Chips for lunch. Because there’s little variation with the ingredients of an Italian Sandwich, a novice might think there’s little room for a sandwich shop to distinguish itself in the medium. However, anyone with experience in the genre knows that the true measure of the quality of an Italian sandwich is in the bread. Screpesi’s was out of their acclaimed soft rolls, so we went with hard. The rolls were good, not great. Still, if you’re accustomed to the flavored sponges hawked at the likes of Subway, Screpesi’s hard rolls will blow your mind. The interior is just soft enough to soak up the oil and vinegar; the exterior just hard enough to keep either from soaking through to your hands. All in all, while I wouldn’t travel great distances just for Screpesie’s, especially if I were nearer to Philly, this is a great place to stop when in the area. And, if you have any questions about Good’s Potato Chips: lard.

For dinner, we made our way to The Peanut Bar. A Reading institution, this wasn’t my first visit. As the speakeasy trend hits your town, and it surely will in the near future if it hasn’t already, note that most places that sold alcohol during Prohibition weren’t haute. Rather, most were unassuming sanctuaries for working class folks (often Irish or Italian) to get a quick drink after work. These were dubbed “blind pigs.” The rarer, flashier inspiration for the current trend mixed liquor with bands, dancing, and other entertainment. These were the “speakeasies.” My understanding is that The Peanut Bar was once a speakeasy, even if it now more closely resembles a blind pig. The Peanut Bar once boasted a black onyx dance floor, but it’s hard to imagine anything of the sort underneath the current (growing) brush of peanut shells. However, one element hasn’t changed: patrons still pile into the windowless bar to chase their meals with the hard stuff. In this way, The Peanut Bar is more authentic than the hippest Prohibition-revival in your town. After all, no one ate truffled popcorn or drank Twinkie martinis during Prohibition. I opted for the all-you-can-eat wings, for $8.99! There were two options: (Northern) BBQ and garlic butter. I loaded up on both. Keeping with the theme, I washed it all down with Yuengling Lager. I left satisfied and exhausted, probably not unlike my Prohibition-era predecessors. The main difference being that they were likely worn from the day’s work, and I was merely fatigued from my pursuit of fattiness. Maybe times really have changed.

*When I lived in Charleston, SC, my family used to go to a sandwich shop for dinner at least once a week. Although I no longer remember the name, I recall it being one of my favorite restaurants as a child. I think I even requested it for birthday dinner one year. Either because my Dad was also confused by sandwich names or because he knew I lacked the faculties for managing such sophisticated distinctions, we simply referred to all sandwiches sold at the shop as “Big Sandwiches.” And if that doesn’t work for you, I can’t help you.


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Categories: Food


Courtney grew up in Reading, PA, and has lived in New York City (where she earned a bachelor's degree at NYU), Prague, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where she received a J.D. from UVa Law). Courtney and her new husband will settle in Philadelphia following a six-week Euro-trip extravaganza in September of 2012. Courtney's interests include music, writing, criticism, fitness, travel, cooking, and sports. Please enjoy the blog. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/courtney-marello/1a/375/b30 Tumblr: http://abarrelofoddsandends.tumblr.com/


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