The menu choices at Akron's New Era Restaurant certainly seemed simple enough: coleslaw, applesauce, or Spanish rice; hamburger, cheeseburger, or goose liver; pork chops, spaghetti, or "our 75-year-old signature dish," chicken paprikash. (And no, darling, that doesn't mean the paprikash on your plate has been cooking since 1930.)
So, how hard could it be to order some soup from the list of bean, chicken noodle, or chili? Well, check out this recent exchange:
Me: "I'll have a cup of bean soup, please."
Young Waitress: "No cups. Just bowls."
Me: "All right. Then I'll have a bowl of bean soup."
YW: "No bean soup. Just potato."
There, in a nutshell, you have one of the two major problems with real down-home dining: You can expect no more respect than if you were sitting around Mom's kitchen table. The other problem? Unless Mom was Julia Child, "home cooking" is vastly overrated -- at least when measured against modern gourmet standards.
That's not to say that we don't still adore the grub we grew up on -- even if, seen from a distance, it was pretty drab stuff. Who doesn't harbor fond memories of Mom's fruit salad, made with a can of pears and a can of peaches dumped into a Tupperware bowl; or her bacon-and-ketchup-topped meatloaf, oven-roasted in its own grease; or those overcooked green beans, slathered with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and sprinkled with canned onion rings?
And so it is at New Era, where the bread is white and squishy, the applesauce is fresh from the jar, and if a sack of truffles or a wedge of chèvre were to materialize suddenly on the countertop, the cooks' first impulse might be to dial 911.
Still, it's hard not to regard the place with affection. How many menus, after all, still feature chicken livers, goulash, and grilled cheese? How many restaurant meals will set you back less than $10? And how many joints (the old homestead included) have a proud heritage that spans three generations and more than 75 years?
That heritage, in fact, has made New Era one of Akron's foremost family-run restaurants, a true landmark in a city of no-nonsense eaters. Founded around 1938 by Yugoslavian immigrant Lucille Juric, the tavern has always aimed to do nothing more than provide made-from-scratch sustenance for hard-working men and their families, by means of a well-stocked bar and a menu of homey American and Eastern European favorites. Once the business was established, Juric brought her cousin, Lucija Strebick, here to serve as cook -- a position the 77-year-old Strebick holds to this very day. Strebick's daughter, Mary Lou, and son-in-law, Mitch Lekic, took over the operation in 1983. Now the Lekics' three children are involved in the business, waiting for their own era to arrive.
Despite the remarkable continuity in ownership, though, much has changed at New Era over the past few months. The original building, hunkered down at the corner of East Market Street and Massillon Road, was demolished in January; the restaurant's brand-new home, built only a few hundred feet away, opened in February. In the process, the eatery's space has gone from about 1,500 to 7,500 square feet, and the seating has grown from 70 to more than 200.
Despite the improvements in layout, no one will accuse the place of going upscale. Napkins and placemats are still made of paper, tabletops are laminate, and the flatware is unapologetically mismatched. Although the new nonsmoking dining room is fresh and tidy, cigarette smoke hangs in clouds in the nearby lounge, where guys in trucker caps suck down bottles of Blatz, Bud, and Miller High Life while watching sports on a couple of flat-screen TVs.
The only background "music" is the rhythmic clink of knives and forks on sturdy china plates, augmented by the occasional wail of a bored toddler, caged within the confines of a high chair. Fellow diners are more likely to be wearing work boots than wingtips, and overalls than Armanis; and snippets of overheard conversations tend toward NASCAR, fishing, and the fabulous dining adventure that Cousin So-and-So had at the Olive Garden.
Nor is the wholesome, filling food likely to be confused with something from a Tremont salon. Cubes of beef in one night's goulash, for instance, melted on the tongue like ice cubes on a hot V8, but the flavors were strictly one-dimensional. Similarly, roasted turkey was the real deal, not processed mystery meat sliced from a spongy "roll"; but the accompanying gravy was wan, and the dully seasoned stuffing more mushy than moist. (Mary Lou Lekic admits that, since moving to larger digs and hiring more kitchen staff, quality control has suffered; it may take a few more months before everything returns to pre-expansion standards.)
On the other hand, half a dozen pieces of grilled cevapi (coarse Serbian-style sausage made from a mixture of lamb, beef, and pork, with a vague hint of garlic) had savor to spare; and with homey sides like canned sweet corn, smooth mashed potatoes, and Spanish rice (a blend of rice, stewed tomatoes, onion, celery, a hint of hot pepper, and paprika, similar to the "hot rice" or "hot sauce" popularized by the Barberton chicken houses), it made us remember that Mama can sometimes work a little magic.
Thick, creamy, and built upon the honest flavor of freshly cooked spuds, the potato soup (in a bowl, not a cup) proved delightful too. But as for the famous chicken paprikash, about all we could muster was a shrug. Four hunks of pale skin-on, bone-in chicken -- a leg, a thigh, and two small breast sections -- were so tender, a knife seemed superfluous. But the paprika "juice" (the menu's term) that surrounded them was thin and understated, without the traditional sour cream; and the flour-and-egg dumplings below them were gooey, not firm. Fortunately for this dish, as for several others, the addition of salt and pepper worked wonders.
It was another story entirely, though, when dessert time rolled around. As always, dessert at New Era means one thing only, and that is strudel -- the impossibly flaky, hand-pulled pastry wrapped around fillings of caramel-brushed apple or a blend of cream and cottage cheeses, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and cut into broad ribbons for a final taste of something not too sweet, but immensely satisfying. While a single generous slice is a bargain at $1.50, why stop there? A mere $11 snared us half a strudel -- at least a dozen servings by normal standards -- to take home, and it tasted just as good with a cup of Sunday-morning coffee as it had with Saturday night's iced tea. (And predictably enough, by Monday morning, said strudel was just a happy memory.)
So, yes: For all but the most snobbish gourmets, there is still a niche to be filled by New Era and other homey places of its ilk. Those Saturday evenings after a long day of yardwork, when pulling on anything fancier than a clean pair of Levi's seems preposterous . . . those Thursdays when the wallet is thin, but the cook is weary . . . or whenever the rugrats finally wear out their welcome at every Bob Evans within a 20-mile radius . . . New Era Restaurant is waiting for you.
What could be more down-home than that?
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