a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, June 13, 2011

Houston - we have a problem in national burger contest

The big, sloppy and tasty Vestaburger served at Rye's Bar and Grill in Centerville, Pa., (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

CENTERVILLE, Pa. – Houston may have the best burgers in the United States if you believe the readers of Travel + Leisure who responded to a recent survey conducted by the magazine.

They loved the Texas city’s penchant for serving triple-decker burgers and especially those made with a pound of beef at such places as Lankford Grocery and The Hubcab Grill.

Unfortunately Pittsburgh did not make T+L’s top ten burger joint list because its unlikely the magazine’s comfort foodie readers ever ventured into Southwestern Pennsylvania coal country to eat at Rye’s Bar and Restaurant.

That restaurant on a back road in Centerville has a sandwich named the Vestaburger, which is almost too big to handle and as sloppy as the muddy banks of the nearby Monongahela River. It’s named after a coal patch here where strong men once worked Vesta Coal Co. mine under the hills of the Mon Valley.

This burger reminds me of home because it tastes just like those my mom prepared in her black cast iron skillet using the cheapest and greasiest cuts of ground beef.

Rye’s tops this great sandwich with charbroiled bacon, cheese, sautéed green peppers, grilled onions and mushrooms, lettuce and tomato and a condiment concocted with the restaurant’s homemade spicy Italian salad dressing and mayonnaise.

Everything on the menu is homemade and served in big portions, a server says after I belly up the bar on a muggy spring evening in June. She points me in the direction of a sign advertising the hearty list of the day’s soups, which includes potato dumpling and the staple, French onion.

I notice another sign next to the front door that jokingly advertises “warm beer, cold food" as she returns to take my order for this coal town burger.

“You should see this place on (chicken) wing night. It’ll be packed,” she says.

The customers on this night mostly appear blue collar, judging by the conversations across the bar. However, the owners have installed a free, nonpassword protected wireless Internet signal for those customers who show up with laptop computers.

A guy is whining about cost cutting problems at a local coal mine. A middle aged man sitting on the next stool and wearing a scruffy beard and beer belly rambles about his distaste for lowlifes who receive government disability checks and use the money to purchase marijuana.

By dinnertime the restaurant in the gutted back room is filled with customers, mostly families.

A waitress scurries to serve them in this remote 1800s brick farmhouse, which has been painted blue/gray at 248 Old National Pike. The two-lane is part of the original 1806 National Road, the first interstate ever built by the federal government. This stretch of country road was first bypassed in the 1920s when the National Road was rerouted, modernized and renamed Route 40, and then even further obliterated after Interstate 70 came along.

Yes. Texas just might be too big to notice the finer things in "Little Washington County."

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