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Serving the Neighborhood

by B.A. Nilsson on March 1, 2012

The Ugly Rooster Café, 159 North Main St., Mechanicville, 664-2769, uglyroostercafe.com. Serving breakfast and lunch 6-3 Mon-Fri, 7-3 Sat-Sun. MC, V.

Cuisine: from-scratch diner

Entrée price range: $3.25 (two eggs with home fries and toast) to $7.25 (sliced steak salad)

Ambiance: neighborhood joint

A restaurant is a fantasy. Often it’s a corporate fantasy: “We’ve market-researched you and are prepared to offer the food and drink you’ve been trained to crave in a nonthreatening environment and only ask that you visit often and spend lots of money.” Sometimes it’s an ego-driven fantasy: “I am the greatest chef in the universe and unhumbly ask that you indulge my whimsy by spending lots of money.” Every now and then it’s a dream that’s more down to earth: “I love the food-service business and would reward your company with good eats. Come here and spend some money.”

I’m sure you can guess where my allegiance tends to travel. But I hardly expected it to persuade me to travel to Mechanicville.

An excellent hamburger will send me miles out of my way, however, and I found one at the Ugly Rooster Café. My wife and I visited on a recent Sunday afternoon and my mouth was set for something in the breakfast realm, but the we-make-it-from-scratch aspect of the place suggested the burger would be worth pursuing. A half-dozen preparations are suggested, each with grilled chicken breast or ground beef at its center. They start at five bucks (add 50 cents for cheese) and can be enhanced with ham and Swiss, or mushrooms and sour cream, or avocado and bacon, in a Creole style or the way I ordered it, with blue cheese and Buffalo-wing sauce—and each of those plates, which comes with a deli salad or fries, is $6.50. (I was warned that prices may have to rise a bit soon, and I can’t blame them.)

I ordered the burger medium-rare, and that’s how it arrived. Take that, chain restaurants: I’ll take responsibility for what I consume.

Soup or chili is available ($2.25/$3.50). I’m enough of a chili purist to make me very annoying, preferring to find no tomatoes or beans in the brew, but I mentally substitute the appellation “beef and kidney bean stew” when it’s menu-listed, and that’s what I was served and enjoyed very much because of its variety of ingredients, beans included, and sparkle of hot pepper.

Lunch fare also includes deli sandwiches ($5.50) and such specialty sandwiches as a Reuben, patty melt, Philly steak and fried fish ($6.50 each) as well as a fried green tomato sandwich for $7. A beef or chicken burrito is offered ($5/$5.50), along with tacos ($1.50 per) and quesadillas (highest-priced is the $6.50 shaved steak variety).

My wife was in more of a breakfast mood and ordered the Foghorn, I say, the Foghorn Leghorn burrito ($6), a whimsical wrap of scrambled eggs and shaved steak and stuffed with peppers and onions and cheese, requiring not only a good grip on the tight tortilla but also an angle of approach to keep the contents from cascading from chin to lap. It was served with a generous portion of home fries grilled with the right amount of crispness. Other egg-centric breakfast burrito variations are available, or you can get your eggs in such omelet stylings ($6 each) as Greek (feta and tomato), hardy (sausage and onion), Benedict (hollandaise and asparagus) and veggie (per the day’s selection). Two eggs any style with home fries and toast will run you $3.25, which is insanely cheap. Huevos rancheros go for $5.50. There is an abundance of add-ons, like bacon or sausage, corned beef hash or even steak, to add to your assembly.

Fried green tomatoes are also offered as a breakfast side ($2.75), and what a great discovery! They’re battered with Cajun-seasoned cornmeal and lightly fried, served with a garlicky mayo alongside. And they have a rich and slightly more bitter flavor than their carmine cousins, which works well in this context.

Dress your French toast with layers of fruit and pastry cream ($6) or with mascarpone cream and chocolate ($6)—or enjoy them unadorned by the slice ($1.75 for one; $4 for three). Pancakes and waffles also can be plain or fruit-enhanced, and are similarly priced. If you’re toting a massive appetite, the pancake challenge puts two thick 12-inch cakes before you, filled with a massive amount of fruit and smothered with whipped cream. When you fail to finish it in 20 minutes, you pay $15 and your mug shot goes up on the “Wall of Shame” exhibit.

The Ugly Rooster opened two and half years ago in a much-restauranted space that’s been Matteo’s Trattoria and Penny’s Main St Café, and served as a grocery store for many years before that. It was the dream of Ariel Pagan, who has been in the business since he was a teenager, working at such places as the Glen Sanders Mansion and Longfellows. He also worked at Latham’s Circle Diner when it opened in 1999, which is where he met Bill Hohenstein, who now is a partner in the Ugly Rooster.

“I bought a house here in Mechanicville five years ago,” says Pagan, “and had been keeping my eye open for a space. But when I opened it I had no idea it would take off like this. It’s been busy! We’re serving over 1,600 customers a week.” He also does specialty baking, which you can see on the restaurant’s website as well as in the onsite display case. “I do as much of it as I can handle right now,” he explains, “but I hope to expand it in the future.”

It’s the kind of place where all of the patrons seem to know one another, and I took it as a very good sign that, as we approached its door, a boy emerged carrying a takeout bag, which he took into the house across the street. Now, that’s serving the neighborhood!