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PETE TITTL: What's Old is new again with local chain's third location

With all the disruption caused in the restaurant business by the pandemic, it is nice to see the growth in recent years of locally owned restaurants like Vatos Tacos (soon to open another place on Ming Avenue) and Old River Grill, which has opened its third restaurant at The Marketplace.

Owner Roger Coughenour first opened in a small space near medical buildings off Stockdale Highway in 2013 but quickly outgrew that and moved into a more appropriate location near Action Sports at Brimhall Square, then took over an old burger location on Hageman.

What I have loved about his restaurants is the way they have evolved in the mold of 24th Street Cafe/Milt’s: great ingredients, some imaginative creations on both the regular menu and the monthly specials insert, the fantastic cakes made on the premises, the intelligence of the way they do things, all on display at the newest locations. There’s a fantastic patio with fans, shading from plants, misters and giant air coolers that don’t blow so obtrusively as my hair-conscious companion noted.

No reservations, but you can get put on the list from home via Yelp, which we’ve used while out of town and it is really convenient. There is coffee and water for you while you wait, breakfast is served late, the staff is always upbeat and the food is amazing.

Old River was one of the first to offer the trendy 50/50 burgers made of equal parts beef and bacon, and that is still on the menu ($15), but here are some of the great items we’ve enjoyed in the past:

  • Multigrain banana walnut pancakes ($11), notable for being made with 10 ancient grains. Like the Johnny cakes we ordered on this visit, they seem so substantial your hunger will be tamed.
  • Jalapeno cornbread waffles with bacon and spicy fried chicken ($14), with a maple hot sauce and crispy fried jalapenos. Just great flavor combinations here.
  • Bourbon Street omelet ($16) made with shrimp, mushrooms, Cajun sausage and a Cajun cream sauce. Same as above.
  • Deep-fried French toast ($11) made with thick sourdough bread.
  • Sourdough pancakes ($11), as irresistible as the bread typically is.
  • Mile-high fried chicken and biscuits ($16), a plate that includes a fresh-breaded chicken breast, bacon, buttermilk biscuit, cheddar cheese, eggs and country gravy.
  • Mighty Killer Kern burger ($16), made with that 50/50 patty, fried jalapenos, bacon and pepper jack cheese
  • New Orleans-style shrimp po'boy sandwich ($16) made with fried shrimp on a Pyrenees French roll.

That should give you some idea of what they offer, and though we ventured into new territory on this visit, there were no disappointments along the way.

My companion ordered the New England Johnny cakes ($10 for a short stack) off the July specials menu, and I chose the pastrami hash and eggs ($14). It was supposed to be one of those meals where forks could go back and forth between the plates, but after one taste of the hash, she renegotiated the whole deal to a "halfsies" sort of arrangement.

I don’t believe I’ve ever had pastrami hash, but I know I never had it this good. The thin slices of meat were finely chopped and mixed with red and green peppers, onions and potatoes and, as the menu said, "grilled up crispy." We debated whether there was any mustard powder in the mix. If there was, it was subtle enough that we thought perhaps we were just mentally associating the common sandwich meat with the condiment we usually pair it with. The country potatoes and eggs with it were perfect, the potatoes in small chunks that were soft inside and crunchy and brown outside, but simply prepared. It was such a winning choice that I can’t imagine not getting it again within weeks.

The menu gave us a bit of a history lesson on the Johnny cakes, mentioning that the cornmeal pancakes were probably a mispronunciation of the American Indian tribe’s Shawnee cakes. Like the sourdough cakes, they are less sweet, and we ordered only two as we weren’t quite expecting how filling they were. The corn taste really worked well with the maple syrup, and I immediately added it mentally to the list of favorites above, though it’s only on the monthly special list and may not endure.

In the future I will be sampling other tempting choices, including the smoked salmon hash ($16) made with house-made smoked salmon grilled with capers, cherry tomatoes, onions and peppers; the July cake of the month, white chocolate raspberry ($6), which had pureed raspberries between the layers; the lemon pepper grilled trout or pan-fried trout plate ($15); and the white chocolate berry pancakes ($11) made with strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. 

There is full bar service, beer in bottles and wines by the glass. As we mentioned, service was competent and cheerful from Rebecca, and the restaurant is already popular, so get on the list on the Yelp app to save waiting time.

Old River Grill can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter: @pftittl.