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Fun dining at the Pickle Barrel

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DEPAUVILLE —You're probably familiar with the TV cooking show “Iron Chef.” But have you ever heard of Depauville's “Cast Iron Chef?”

Mike Sharpstene is the Cast Iron Chef, and he runs a restaurant in downtown Depauville called the Pickle Barrel Café. Locals recall the location being home to Valley Peetza in the '90s and, more recently, Gramma's Kitchen, a country diner.

Mike loves to cook with cast iron frying pans. You probably have one around the house somewhere, but Mike has dozens of them, visible in his open kitchen and hanging on the walls throughout the restaurant. He's got a skillet for steaks, a skillet for burgers, a skillet for chicken … you get the idea.

Old washboards, fishing poles and wooden snowshoes alternate between the black skillet wall décor, giving the eatery a rustic feel. A short knotty pine wall separates the small dining area from the kitchen, allowing an occasional glimpse of the chef at work.

We knew we were going to have a good time as soon as Sarena, our seasoned waitress, brought menus to the table. She was pleasant and jovial, with a great sense of humor — and a hard-working lady, holding down three jobs in this rural area west of Watertown.

The Pickle Barrel is open for lunch and dinner. It doesn't matter what time of day you arrive; Mike will happily serve up home-crafted starters, deep-fried appetizers, hot and cold sandwiches, soups and salads, burgers and dogs or one of his folksy family-style dinners like fried shrimp or chicken, grilled ham steak, liver and onions or baby back ribs.

We got started with a Pickle Barrel specialty—deep-fried pickles ($3.25). Four large, bias-cut slices of dill pickle were coated with an abundance of beer batter and deep-fried. Ranch dressing was served on the side for dipping. A wee bit greasy, but likable and quite tasty.

Another specialty, barbecue baby back ribs, is available as an appetizer ($5.95) or a dinner (whole rack $14.95, half $12.75). We got the appetizer.

Four reasonably meaty and quite tender ribs were crusted with a caramelized barbecue sauce (chef's secret recipe—we tried to arm-wrestle it out of Sarena, but she wouldn't give in). They weren't overly slopped up with sauce, which was nice for a change. No need to open the Wetnap packet that was supplied.

The burgers all weigh 16 ounces—a full pound, served with chips and a pickle. A signature item on the menu is the Pickle Barrel burger ($5.95), topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, cheese and special sauce. (Again, we tried to get Sarena to spill the beans on the sauce, but she wasn't giving in. All we know is it was the color of Thousand Island dressing but didn't taste like it.)

It was a huge patty, overhanging the hamburger bun, squashed down with a spatula while cooked in one of the chef's pans. A more than necessary amount of meat, but if you judge a good restaurant on portion quantity, this one's for you.

Here's one I'll bet you've never had anywhere: a “dogrrito” ($5.95). It's a grilled foot-long hot dog, cut in half and stuffed into a large, rolled flour tortilla with chili, sour cream, shredded cheese, onions and crushed Doritos. Like a hot dog burrito! And surprisingly enough, it was pretty good.

We understand the chef has a special skillet just for steaks, so we ordered his Delmonico steak dinner ($15.75).

A juicy hunk of rib-eye with criss-cross grill marks (yes, there is a cast iron grill pan) was served with house-made mashed potatoes and gravy and steamed mixed veggies.

The steak was good — a substantial portion —but the potatoes needed seasoning (butter, salt … something) and the veggies were bland. The gravy served was a little on the drab side, too. It even had a funny purple-ish color.

Old fashioned liver and onions ($8.95) was a smallish portion, cooked to our request of medium rare, but not quite as juicy as we expected. Onions were a little dry and a wee bit overcooked, as was the bacon (add $1.25) on top.

It came with cole slaw (“Dawnies” cole slaw, made fresh daily by Mike's wife) that was quite tasty—noticeably sweet with what we thought was a flavor of onion, and just slightly creamy.

Haddock dinner ($11.95) can be prepared deep-fried or broiled in garlic butter. We went with broiled.

It's billed as a 10-ounce portion but was definitely less than that. For being cooked with garlic butter, it somehow still needed more seasoning. It came with a mountain of fresh-cut fries that nearly concealed the fish and a side of delicious, moist homemade cornbread—sweet and cake-like.

For dessert, warm homemade apple crumb pie ($3.25) with distinct cinnamon overtones was our favorite.

We tried deep-fried Twinkies ($2.95), mostly just to be able to say we did. It was covered with the same batter used for the pickles, like beer batter, topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Just a big soggy mess, really. But if you're a Twinkie fan, it might be right up your alley.

Same with the deep-fried Oreos ($2.95). No crunch left to the Oreos whatsoever. The batter was filling and a little overwhelming after the full meals we had consumed.

The tab for our culinary journey to Depauville came to $81.67 before tip. Luckily I noticed a sign on the way in that they do not take credit cards. I checked to make sure I had enough cash to avoid an embarrassing moment. The last thing I wanted to do was wash Mike's dirty skillets in lieu of payment.

The Pickle Barrel has a very homey, laid-back feel and is obviously loved by the local clientele. There was hardly a seat to be had on a Tuesday evening, partly because it was Seniors Day, with a selection of $5 meals for folks over 60.

Hours of operation are limited now due to the slow winter months, but we're told they're lined up out the door waiting to get in during the summer.

You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: wsiebel@wdt.net.

The Pickle Barrel Café

HOURS (until March):
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday
2 to 7 p.m. Wednesday
11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Closed Sunday, Monday and Thursday

We really enjoyed the barbecued baby-back ribs and the deep-fried pickles. For something really different, do the “dogrrito.” Burger lovers will appreciate the 1-pound burgers. Be sure to try the homemade cornbread and Dawnies coleslaw, too. As far as the deep-fried Twinkies go, you be the judge. …
Good food at a very fair price.
Ask for Sarena to be your waitress. A great server with a great sense of humor.

3 Forks
5 — Fabulous — don't miss it
4 — Excellent
3 — Good
2 — Fair
1 — Not worth it

The “fork” ratings are based primarily on food quality and preparation, with service and atmosphere factored into the final decision. Reviews are based on one unsolicited, unannounced visit to the restaurant.

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