HASKINS — If you haven’t noticed, popping up along all the state highways are fast food restaurants, replacing the small-town diners, steakhouses, and other ma and pop eateries.
New management at Mail Pouch Saloon in Haskins recognized the trend and isdoing something about it.
“It’s not good for you, it’s no fun, and there is no atmosphere there,” said Mail Pouch’s new managing partner Connor Brown in reference to fast-food restaurants finding their way into suburban developments.
Brown saw an opportunity in Haskins, and he jumped on it.
“I pretty much came back from Denver, thinking about life, reset and all that kind of stuff,” Brown said. “This opportunity came up and people here wanted it bad, so we said, ‘Hey, why not, you know?’
“We opened it back up and are giving the community what they want, and it’s been awesome. The amount of support that we have had is insane. They have shown it. We’ve been packed all the time.”
The sports bar and restaurant originally opened in 1977. It closed for a year before being reopened by Brown and his partners, which includes Brown’s father and an arrangement with the previous owners, who still own the Mail Pouch Saloon in Swanton.
On a hot Saturday afternoon, the restaurant was already packed, both on the patio and indoors — and that was 4 p.m., in between typical mealtimes. The outdoor swings, which hang on ropes along the tiki bar, were already swaying by drinking and eating customers.
Brown, who says he has been “a cocktail and bar guy” all his life, decided not to settle with a sports bar menu — so he hired head chef Joseph Hines.
“We opened with a smaller menu that we could get started with,” Brown said. “Now that the time is up, we are going to a little bit more formidable of a menu. We’re adding some stuff in that is more loveable.
“It works around here, you know. Just booze would not be enough. We want to give the people food and that is why we have him over here to bring up that end of it.”
One of the new specialty items is the Garden.
“It is Mediterranean chicken pasta,” Hines said. “It has spinach, sun dried tomatoes, garlic and basil.
“We pan fry the chicken and then it gets mixed in with pasta and then its covered with that, then it’s allowed to simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes before we bring it out.”
A layering method makes it special.
“When I was taught how to make it, we layered it, so when we bake it all in together, we turn it all into one dish, and essentially set that up with lots of noodles,” Hines continued.
“I think the grated parmesan that goes into it — you get that cheesy taste, but it’s not overbearing. It’s very light because parmesan itself is a very light cheese.”
As a specialty item, it will not be available every day, but the Garden is already building momentum.
“We did a silent launch of it last week, and everybody I gave it to gave it astounding applause and we could not keep up with orders,” Hines said.
Hines trained as a chef at Ciao! and LongHorn Steakhouse, then assisted Cheer’s Sports Eatery in Holland with the development of their menu, and even did a stint as a district manager with Tim Hortons.
“Then I met one of the owners (Brown’s partner) here. We talked on the phone, and he seemed like a great guy,” Hines said. “I came and met Connor.
“I’m coming on board with the goal of bringing fresh ingredients at a quality price and making sure everybody leaves here with a full stomach.
His favorite question to answer is “Why did he become a chef?”
“There is nothing more satisfying in life to me than creating a dish and putting it down in front of somebody and they give you the nod of approval, seeing the smiles at tables, and people’s reviews,” Hines said.
“They take pictures of it, and it’s just nice knowing that I created that, and that I was a part of that.”
Hines loves to think out of the box, too, and Mail Pouch is willing to let him do that.
“We have a wedding in October, and they allowed me to hand create a menu for them,” Hines said.
The Garden — creamy chicken pasta.
J. Patrick Eaken | Sentinel-Tribune
The Garden (Creamy Chicken Pasta)
48 ounce penne pasta
6 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast
12 teaspoons of dried oregano
Extra virgin olive oil
18 large garlic cloves, minced
1½ cups chopped sun-dried tomatoes
6 cups of grape tomatoes
6 cups whole milk
12 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups grated parmesan cheese
12 cups baby spinach
Boil a large pot of water and salt it well. Add the pasta and cook according to package instructions or until al dente. Reserve about half cup of the cooking water before draining the pasta.
While the pasta is cooking, work on the chicken. Pat the chicken dry, then using a sharp knife, slice into small bit size pieces or strips. Season with a good dash of kosher salt, black pepper and dried oregano.
In a large pan, heat 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over medium high heat until simmering. Add the chicken and cook, tossing occasionally, until the chicken pieces are cooked through. They should have a golden-brown hue; takes about 7 to 8 minutes.
Add the garlic and sun-dried tomatoes to the pan with the chicken and stir it around for about 30 seconds or so, then add the grape tomatoes. Toss to combine and turn the heat to medium low.
In a small bowl, whisk the milk, flour and parmesan cheese. Pour the mixture into the pan and add the baby spinach. Add a little bit of the pasta cooking water (just a couple teaspoons) and stir for a few seconds to help the sauce thicken.
Add the pasta and mix to combine.