OSWEGO – As I write this it is 28 degrees outside, the frozen ground is lightly covered with snow, and it is predicted to snow again. The sky is a clouded blue-gray, as though the lake were overhead.
I am thinking oatmeal or hot cinnamon-raisin toast with butter. I am thinking black, French- pressed espresso.
I am not thinking sugar snap peas, fried okra, or kale and corn. I am from the North. I was born in Buffalo on the first day of winter. I grew up in snow.
So, when I was told a new restaurant was soon to open in downtown Oswego, and that it would be a southern-style restaurant serving all those southern things I could never imagine anyone eating.
I thought. We’re Oswegonians here. We’re almost Buffalonians. We’re not in New Orleans. We’re not in Charleston, S.C. or Mobile, Ala.. We live in winter almost half the year. We eat comfort food. We barely know what jambalaya is, let alone eat it.
They better have a good bar, is all I thought.
Southern Fare is the name of the place at 189 W. First St. on the southeast corner of Bridge Street, in the new Litrato Building, and it’s beautiful. From start to finish, Southern Fare is a welcoming, light-filled, ray of bright sunshine, a class act in every respect, run by great, thinking, feeling, caring people, with tremendous experience in, enthusiasm for, and belief in what they’re doing. This could be one of the best things that’s ever happened to Oswego.
There are actually two restaurants here, almost working as one. Same people, same Chef Eric Balcom. One is dine-in, Southern Fare, and the other is take-out, The Cue. As I first began talking with owner/manager Patrick Mitchell, Balcom bellowed “I’ve heard some people say it’s the best chicken sandwich they’ve ever had.”
And so began a very thoughtful discussion with Mitchell as to just what they’re doing here, and it became more and more obvious that a lot of thought had gone into these two restaurant “concepts,” as he calls them.
Southern Fare food is southern inspired. “We’re taking the best from the low country;” Mitchell said, “we’re taking the best from that Texas barbecue; we’re taking the hushpuppies from Carolina, the shrimp and grits from New Orleans. We’re taking that all together, we’re kind of rethinking it and reimagining it, and putting it back out there all together.”
The Cue and Southern Fare have separate menus. You won’t be able to order The Cue food while dining at Southern Fare. The Cue is takeout and delivery only and is intended to stay that way.
“We’re doing that because some food travels great, and some food doesn’t,” Mitchell explained. “We don’t want Southern Fare food to travel. It’s not going to travel as well. So, we don’t want to send out a possibly inferior product. What we’re trying to do here is put the best product out at a reasonable price for the market. We’re not skimping. We’re trying to put a great product out there, and to put a product out there that’s not going to travel great, will not settle well with us. And that’s why we designed The Cue concept, because this food travels great.”
Even that aspect, the traveling from The Cue to your home, has been well thought out with quality in mind.
First off, all items are wrapped separately. On a sandwich, for instance, the meat, pickle, and cole slaw are all wrapped individually, “so that when you get your bun, it still has that crisp from the grill. It’s not soggy. It didn’t soak up all the sauces and pickle juice,” Mitchell said. And then the customer puts it all together at home.
“We really did a lot of research and testing and trials on how we package everything for this concept.”
The packaging is paper, biodegradeable, “made in such a way it allows the food to breathe, while keeping the heat in. So, it doesn’t get a lot of moisture in there. Everything doesn’t start getting soggy,” said Mitchell. “We went the distance with this stuff, to pay the price to get 100% biodegradeable, to get all the paper products for the environment but also for the food, because this is the best product to have the food transferred to their house.”
That’s all great, but what about the food. The Cue is barbecue. Southern Fare is not. Mitchell described The Cue as “Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in an edible quinoa bowl,” among other things.
It’s all made right there. Fourteen-hour smoked brisket, a 12-hour smoked pulled pork, smoked chicken, smoked chicken wings (fresh jumbo wings, cooked in a smoker over hickory and cherry wood for a couple hours, then quickly onto the grill to get a grill mark on them, served with house buttermilk dressing). The house barbecue sauce, a Texas-based style is Chef Eric’s grandfather’s recipe. It’s served on the side.
The Cue opened in December. So far, it all seems pretty successful.
“We’re super-proud of this concept, The Cue concept,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had awesome success with it so far.”
“Awesome” may be the key word in describing everything they do at Southern Fare and The Cue. It came up again and again as an overriding philosophy. It determines the food, the bar, the health considerations, the environmental concern, the way they’re handling the COVID restrictions, the look, the feel, and the goal that every customer have an awesome experience.
Both Southern Fare and The Cue are as gluten-free, while maintaining excellent quality, as it gets.
The fried chicken sandwich is “done in a completely gluten-free way, minus the bun,” Mitchell said.
The only things on the menu that aren’t gluten-free at The Cue are the bun and the macaroni in the macaroni and cheese.
“Everything else is 100% gluten-free,” Mitchell continued. “The kitchen’s 100% gluten-free. We really put measures in place to allow anyone who has that intolerance or that allergy to be able to freely order what they would like to. So many places, that’s such a hindrance on what people can order. We’re using a different type of flour to maintain that it is gluten free, but it also gives it a better crunch. And it stays crunchier.
“Anything we’re doing, we’re trying to do so everyone can enjoy it. There will be a couple things that we just cannot do, but the overall theme is if we have a way, or if it’s possible, we’re going to make it gluten-free.”
The extent to which Mitchell and crew have gone to ensure the safest COVID protections possible are truly impressive. They’ve made great use of technology to everyone’s benefit.
“The online platform has been awesome for us,” Mitchell said. “You don’t have to talk to me, you don’t even have to see me. And right now, that’s so great.”
You order and pay online and pick up at a station in the enclosed entranceway.
“You walk in the door, you grab your bag, and you leave,” Mitchell said. “You don’t have to see us. You don’t have to talk to us. For so many people right now, that is a point of stress, and rightfully so.”
When Southern Fare opens, Jan. 27, people will be dining inside.
“We do have the percentage limitation, and we have the number of people per table limitation, which we’re definitely going to abide by, and actually take the next step as well,” Mitchell noted. “We’re going to drop down the capacity below where we need to be to make sure everyone is distanced appropriately. First and foremost, everyone’s health and safety is the number one priority. So, we’re going to go that extra step. We’re going to have barriers between tables. We’re going to have QR code menus. On your smartphone, you just scan the code, and then the menu will pop right up on your phone. So, you don’t need to handle a physical menu. There will be a physical menu if you want it, but if you don’t, that’s an option as well. We’re actually going to take that one step further, which I haven’t personally seen locally yet. We’re going to have QR code ordering, meaning if you don’t want a menu, you don’t need one. If you don’t want a server, or don’t want to talk to anyone, you can order on your phone. You can pay on your phone. You can sit down at a table in the corner, enjoy the environment, the ambiance, the music, the people moving about, but not actually interact with somebody. So, you’d scan the QR code, the ordering system would pop right up on your phone, and you would say, ‘I want a vodka tonic to start. I want one of those flamingo drinks that sounds fun, and let’s start off with some popcorn.’ Type in your credit card information. It sends your order to the kitchen. It sends it to the bar. Everything gets made and is dropped off at your table. You don’t have that interaction if you don’t want it. That’s that one step further that we’re trying to go to make sure everyone is comfortable. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
And then there’s the bar. Cocktails will be based on freshly-squeezed juices, lemon, lime, and orange juice pressed every day. All the syrups and mixers will be made in-house.
“If there’s a pineapple peppercorn honey syrup, that’s something we’re creating in-house,” Mitchell said. “We’ll have a hand-crafted beverage program. I love to create a great cocktail. Even the classics, when done appropriately, are awesome. You take a margarita and you squeeze a lime today and use a quality tequila and an orange liqueur, that’s a fantastic drink. When you’re crafting a cocktail, and you take the time to make your simple syrup and press the juice and actually make a cocktail, it’s significantly better. Everything we’re doing, we want it to be awesome. Anything we start, and we look at, and we say, ‘Is that awesome? No?’ Well, we’re going to hold off on that until we can get it there. That’s where we’re going with everything.”
They’re developing a selection of bourbons.
“When I say American whiskeys,” said Mitchell, “it’s typically bourbons and ryes, and we’re just going to continue to develop that portfolio of bourbons and ryes, because they really blend so well with our food and our concept. You know, taking from that southern cuisine, what’s huge down there? Bourbon and rye. We have our kickoff lineup and we’re going to continue. When we can get one more, we’ll get one more. When we can get another, we’ll get another. We’re just going to keep going. Many of these right now are so popular, you just can’t get them. So, my goal is to develop that library and portfolio of these so we have a hub for that awesome one-off.”
They’ll also have all the standard liquors that make for a full bar, of course, vodka, gin, scotch, rum, tequila, cordials, etc.
“Like our bourbon selection, we have a beer selection that is very limited,” Mitchell said. “It’s allocated stuff. It’s not stuff you find everywhere. All of our beers are super-highly rated.”
They have eight different beers on tap. They’ll be selling gift packs of four bottles of beer.
“Everything we’re doing on the beer program will match the quality and standard of the Southern Fare food,” said Mitchell. They’ll also have more regular beers, Bud Lite, etc. “because there’s a time and a place for that. But if you want to enjoy a great beer, we’ve got it.”
They’re even selling a special four-pack of beer a month.
“Our beer box is a collection of these beers. It’s $22 a month. It’s a subscription,” Mitchell said. “Some months we’ll have a theme. Maybe it’s an IPA theme, maybe it’s a sour theme, maybe it’s a summer theme, maybe it mirrors a beer trip that myself or chef or one of our bartenders went on. It’s just our continuing to reach out and do something new and different.”
They’re working on sourcing coffee from a local roaster, and desserts will be homemade. Even the desserts “will match what we’re doing,” Mitchell said.
The concept for The Cue and Southern Fare came to Mitchell and his wife through their extensive travels. Mitchell also has worked in New York, Boston, New Orleans, and Las Vegas, and “this,” he said, “was kind of taking a little bit from each of them.”
Both Mitchell and his wife are from Oswego. He’s been talking with Atom Avery, owner of the Litatro Building, about this restaurant for about three years. A $25,000 grant from the city got the ball rolling.
“That city grant,” Mitchell said, “this project wouldn’t have happened without that. That was my kickstart funding. That’s what got me over the hump to start all this. Without Mayor Barlow’s help, without his foresight of what this could be, it never would have happened.”
Both Mitchell and Chef Eric Balcom are experienced restaurateurs. Mitchell has extensive managerial experience in restaurants and has also worked in about every other restaurant position. Balcom has been working in restaurants over 20 years. Most recently, he was Chef D’Cuisine at Lemongrass in Syracuse’s Armory Square. He’s originally from Riverside, Calif., but moved to Oswego almost 20 years ago.
And speaking of Chef Eric, boasting about what some say is the best chicken sandwich they’ve ever eaten, how about one? He asked me what I’d like to try. I tried to push off the generous offer, but he insisted. “Aren’t you hungry?” he asked.
“Well, I’m always hungry,” I said.
“All right then. What’ll it be? A little jambalaya?”
“No,” I said. “Let me have that great chicken sandwich you were talking about.”
It came with fries and pickled veggies. I took it home and cut it up for the three of us. And every single one of us said, “This is the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever had.”
I almost couldn’t believe it. But it was the best chicken sandwich ever.
Southern Fare’s number is 315-529-0187. They’ll open Jan. 27 and expect to be open five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday.
The Cue is open now. You can reach them at 315-216-6855 or online at www.thecuebarbecue.com.