As the makeshift license plate inside announces, Clem's Cafe is hog heaven. This Central/Western PA staple is where barbecue fiends chow down to the trademark barbecue sauce and smoky hardwood "firing" technique. Much press and word-of-mouth have brought tourists from outer bounds to this casual, but reputable establishment, making Clem's mass appeal and regional charm parallel to the likes of Primanti Brothers. Forget about frou frou pork belly and sea-salted crusted pork rind. Here at Clem's, "the other white meat" is served as old-fashioned slabs of baby back ribs, country ribs and pulled pork. The original "white meat" should not be discounted: though it doesn't score top billing at Clem's, chicken still achieves fanfare as succulent cuts of legs and breast or half and whole portions of the bird.
I tried this culinary attraction for the first time when Matt and I were en route from Pittsburgh to Johnstown along peaceful Route 22. Outfitted in a leather jacket and matching renegade shades, with a fiery blaze behind him, Clem's mascot pig looked both mischievous and dignified posted above the front doors. Inside, Clem's serves its food in a cafeteria mode. After customers order their fare at the counter, the staff plops it onto a heavy plastic tray and instructs them to head to the cashier, who's steps away from all the flames and heat of the visible kitchen. For a barbecue joint that's supposed to project warmth, I found the atmosphere at Clem's strangely austere with its drab wood paneling and nondescript booths. Beside a few pig-related plaques hanging here and there, this Clem's branch possessed no inviting qualities. Fortunately, the comfort of Clem's food is a contradiction to its sterile climate.
We both passed on the hearty platters of ribs and dove into the more delicate barbecue subs instead...or so we thought. In exchange for just five bucks and some rattling change, we received mammoth vessels crammed with slow-pulled pork, the infamous barbecue sauce and on-the-house toppings. Clem's deserves applause for baking its own bread, but it was too crusty and flaky for my liking. Despite the crumbly structure, the texture brought forth a toothy bite. This isn't the kind of meal you feast upon using Dresden porcelain and Auntie Minnie's antique silverware. Just lift your submarine up with your grubby hands and take chomping mouthfuls. If you can manage to down this beauty in one finish without sporting a barbecue goatee or dropping the fixins on your lap, then you've got refined manners and posture. Wetnaps are provided for less regal diners like myself and Matt. Slices of fresh jalapeno, sauteed mushrooms and shredded pepper jack cheese landed on our plates and the table. The legendary barbecue sauce streamed down our cheeks and snaked its way throughout our fingers. But no matter - the sweet, tangy and smoky flavors were worth the sloppy experience. If you want to douse yourself with this vixenous brew a la Stephen King's Carrie, Clem's sells it by the quart for a meager seven bucks. Beneath the avalanche of sauce and toppings, lounged a benevolent portion of meaty, but tender pulled pork. It was easy to chew and hard to face the end of. The main draw at Clem's may be the meat, but the sides like the mac and cheese and coleslaw have lured patrons in for years. Matt paired his sub with skin-on garlic mashed potatoes while I enjoyed a side of skin-on red potato salad - packed with hunks of potatoes in a dense, but creamy herb dressing. As they say, this was a meal fit for a king (regal or otherwise), and we haughtily admit that we finished it off from end to end.
At Clem's, being called a pig is a compliment....
Clem's Cafe (Blairsville, PA, branch)
1985 Route 22 East
Web site: www.clemscafe.com