The most overused words in American restaurants—-well, aside from “Everything’s good on the menu here”—-have to be “local” and “regional.” The terms are so overused, in fact, they’ve practically lost their ability to intrigue or surprise us.
Brick Ridge, a charmingly old-fashioned restaurant in Mt. Airy, takes a decidedly aggressive approach to the concept of regional cuisine: Every week owner Todd Bricken offers a handful of drinks, appetizers, and entrees devoted to a single U.S. state.
Two weeks ago, when I visited Brick Ridge, a former one-room schoolhouse, Bricken was featuring plates and spirits from New York state, including these fried hush puppies stuffed with sauerkraut and nubbins of corned beef. It was the restaurant’s take on the Reuben. Perhaps more conceptually interesting than tasty, I still admired Brick Ridge’s staunch pledge of allegiance to true regional American cuisine.
Bricken has been running through the states, week by week, ever since he opened Brick Ridge in 2000. “We’re on our eighth and about to start on our ninth cycle” of 50 state cuisines. The owner developed his love of regional food back when he was the chef of a women’s social club at Davidson College in North Carolina.
Bricken used to spend his spring and summer vacations traveling the country by rail, bus or some other cheap form of transportation so he could learn more about the regional variations in American cuisine. He figures he’s visited at least 42 states by now; he has cookbooks from more than 35 of them.
One thing that Bricken’s noticed is that coastal states have the most interesting cuisines, whether East, West, or South. “When you get into the Midwest, it’s not known for its cuisine,” Bricken says, noting that Midwestern food varies little from state to state, likely due to migration patterns moving east to west across the country. “In Kansas, I didn’t see much of anything I can put my finger on, except for chicken fried steaks,” he says.
The influx of Latino immigrants has started to alter the cuisine somewhat in mid-America, but Bricken admits that, still, “it’s hard to find things that people have never heard of.”
This week, Bricken and his chef, Dave Van Norman, are focusing on the cuisine of Pennsylvania. The specials include a Philly “strip steak,” a “Fish House Punch” cocktail (“A Traditional Recipe From Philadelphia’s Oldest Dining Club Made with Rum, Peach Brandy and Sweet Lemon Juice Served Over Ice”), and Dutch apple pie.