OGDENSBURG — McDonald's or Buster's? Go with the national chain or go with the local restaurant?
The two eateries are right next to each other, just a stone's throw from the main highway. You'd figure McDonald's would be the obvious favorite. But last Thursday night, we had trouble finding a place to park outside Buster's Sports Bar Restaurant.
It's a sports bar, all right. A baseball bat for a door handle at the entrance kinda gave it away. Inside, old, boxy TVs lined the walls. Where there weren't TVs there were old covers of Sports Illustrated. Where there weren't TVs or magazine covers there were old uniforms of no doubt famous athletes — behind glass.
But what really got our attention was the expansive dining room filled with youngsters, oldsters and in between-sters. A dining room outfitted with two fireplaces and a huge — about 8 feet long and 4 feet high — well-maintained fish tank, part of a three-quarter wall that effectively separated the dining area from the bar.
The tables are all decoupaged with sports memorabilia, but what really attracted our attention was a pastry display case next to the salad bar with the biggest, tallest cream pies we've ever seen. We went over to the case to marvel at the in-house homemade pies and an unnecessary sign suggesting we save room for dessert.
The menu — no exaggeration — is 12 pages long, eight for food and four for pictures of the food. Appetizers and finger food, soups and chili, pizza and wings, nachos and quesadillas, salads, sandwiches, steaks, zingers, Italian specialties, shrimp dishes, nightly specials, a kids menu, a seniors menu, a low-carb menu. REALLY, how can they pull this off?
We were about to find out.
For starters, we ordered a seafood-stuffed portobello mushroom ($7.99), a basket of St. Lawrence River perch ($8.19) and a full order of zingers ($9.59).
OK, I know you're dying to know what zingers are, so let's start there. They're boneless chicken wings. But not the previously frozen and deep-fried ones that come from a restaurant supplier, made from ground up mystery chicken parts. These were made from real chicken breast, cut into long strips, lightly breaded, quickly deep-fried and sauced (we went with medium hot sauce, although barbecue was enticing). The extra effort to make this appetizer fresh was certainly appreciated. Traditional blue cheese dressing and celery sticks accompanied.
The next great surprise was the basket of St. Lawrence River perch. First of all, it didn't come in one of those beat up red plastic baskets — it came on a real plate. Second, it's about the best deep-fried perch we've ever had — and it's the middle of winter. Third, it was great.
The fish was delicately battered, deep-fried to a golden brown and tasted so fresh, for a fleeting moment I thought it was the middle of the summer and I was on Cape Cod. And it was good to the very last bite. Homemade extra pickley tartar sauce and a neat Southwestern dipping sauce (ranch dressing mixed with salsa) came with it.
The seafood-stuffed portobello might have been better had it not been blanketed with some kind of cheesy white sauce that resembled mayonnaise. There were really nice pieces of shrimp in the stuffing, but the heavy sauce all but obliterated any seafoodiness in the dish.
Most entrées included a trip to the salad bar, which was clean and neat and had all the basics — iceberg lettuce, rough-chopped tomatoes, sliced red onion, black olives, boxed croutons, imitation bacon bits and all the usual dressings.
Here's one reason why the place was so crowded. The Thursday night special was fresh oven-roasted turkey dinner for $8.49. No shortcuts here — real turkey, real mashed potatoes, real dressing and very tasty gravy. Canned peas finished the plate, along with a roll and cranberry sauce. The stuffing in particular was terrific, seasoned well and suitable for Thanksgiving.
Not as good was the Cajun jambalaya pasta ($18.99), shrimp and giant pieces of chicken sautéed with tomatoes, onions and giant pieces of green pepper in a very spicy Cajun sauce. Not really sure what the sauce was, but its appearance was a big turnoff — a big puddle of oil in the bottom of a big rimmed soup bowl.
To make it more authentic, we chose the rice option, but that didn't help soak up the greasy sauce. And it was a ridiculously huge portion.
For a taste of Mexican, we got the fajita stuffed burrito ($9.99), a flour tortilla stuffed with peppers, onions and our choice of steak. It came with chopped iceberg lettuce and bland Spanish rice, sour cream and mild salsa. There was a nice charred taste to the peppers; the thinly sliced steak had good flavor, too.
Nice touch with sliced green onions sprinkled on top.
As a low-carb option, the chicken bruschetta ($12.99) was a good choice. Two large, marinated breasts were perfectly seasoned and perfectly grilled, rendering juice as they were cut into. They were topped with chunky fresh tomatoes, real chopped garlic and mozzarella cheese. We appreciated the real garlic, but you'll want to keep the Altoids handy the next day.
Dessert. The pies in that showcase were staring at us all night long, and it was time to take action. Comments at our table: "Wow, what a great selection of homemade desserts." "I've never seen pies that large." "Best dessert ever."
Apple pie had a flaky crust with cinnamon-enhanced diced apples and an easy-to-dig-into lattice top. Pecan pie had a very tasty filling with sweet pecans and a perfect amount of brown sugar — sticky good. Coconut cream and chocolate cream pies were overflowing with real whipped cream and fluffy deliciousness.
"Rose's famous desserts" cost five bucks apiece and were worth every penny of it. These were the best desserts ever, and since we just couldn't finish them, they were equally good the day after — crusts still flaky, whipped cream still holding together.
An evening of food for four came to $108 with tax. We spent an additional $17.50 on beer. Hey, it's a sports bar, right? Lisa, our server and 16-year veteran of Buster's was attentive and well equipped to answer all our questions.
Buster's might be a sports bar, but, at least at dinnertime, it was more like a busy family restaurant — busy because the food was well-prepared and the kitchen went the extra mile, using real, fresh ingredients and offering a good number of homemade items, especially those phenomenal pies.
As we left, there were three cars at the drive-up window of McDonald's next door. I wanted to run over and bang on their windshield and tell them about Buster's.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Buster's Sports Bar Restaurant
1130 Patterson St.
Well-prepared food in a family-friendly atmosphere
HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday
Dinner 2 to 9 p.m. seven days a week
OUR PICKS: St. Lawrence River perch basket, zingers, roast turkey dinner, chicken bruschetta, any of the phenomenal homemade pies.
Here's a link to their entire menu: www.dreats.com/restaurants/New-York/Ogdensburg/Busters-Sports-Bar-6372