A Watershed in Owego

I don’t think it’s any secret that food tastes better when you eat it waterside, or it that does to me, at least. Since I first moved to the Southern Tier, in 2000, friends and I have marveled at the preponderance of riverfront property available and the comparatively scant number of restaurants situated to capitalize on those views. The Susquehanna River isn’t the most scenic waterway in New York State, but it’s here, and it’s certainly better than staring at a parking lot while you masticate.

MJ’s Bar and Restaurant opened last spring in Owego, and wonder of wonders, it’s got a view. The folks who transformed this old building did a wonderful job with the remodel. The interior is modern rustic, cozy but cool, and the whole back portion of the dining room focuses on its view of the river, with a big glass-paneled garage door that opens up in the warmer months to give everyone a sense of the outdoors.

I loved the industrial lighting and the raw-edged wood tables, and even the ladies restroom, which had a gorgeous vessel sink and a corner toilet, but being in there on a snowy day in February really made me long for nicer weather and the ability to enjoy a couple of cocktails out on MJ’s gorgeous deck.

But let’s talk about the eats, shall we? To start, the drinks are well thought out here. The beer list has a mix of domestic and international mass market varieties, plus local craft brews, while the cocktails are creative enough to be distinctive, without being so complicated and out there, you feel like you’re drinking a bowl of potpourri. The wintry take on a Moscow mule I tried had cranberry and orange to offset the richness of the ginger beer, plus a sprig of rosemary to add a heady, seasonal scent to each sip.

We started with the quesaria – which is just queso to the rest of us. In fact, I Googled the word quesaria, and it did not come up as a recognized food term, so I’m not sure how they named this dish. I can tell you it’s delicious. It’s warm cheese dip with pico de gallo mixed in, and you can add crumbled chorizo for 50 cents, which DUH. Do that. The dip was rich and flavorful, and came with plenty of crunchy tortilla chips for dipping. It was also a good portion size for the $6 price tag. My favorite part was probably the little hot sauce floater on top, which we swirled into the cheese with our chips. This dish will most likely be on our table at every future visit to MJ’s. Shawn’s only complaint is that it wasn’t served over some kind of sterno heater or something so that it stayed warm the entire time we were eating it, and I would have to second that comment. It did congeal a bit before we were done enjoying its cheesy goodness.

Shawn ordered the brisket sandwich on the advice of our friendly waiter, who we chatted with throughout our visit about football, burgers, and life. This $9 BBQ lunch was so hearty, he didn’t need dinner that night. The smoke flavor was prevalent in the tender, juicy brisket, and the slaw was both bright and spicy enough to stand up to the richness of the meat. I am also pleased to report that MJ’s hand cuts its French fries, in accordance with the prophecy, and then sprinkles them with dried oregano and a little feta cheese when they come out of the fryer. They were crunchy and delicious.

I got the torta sandwich, which is pulled pork with a little cheese, cilantro and avocado. The pork on this was delicious, but the sandwich wasn’t quite what I expected. Usually a Mexican torta sandwich will be spread with refried beans or pureed black beans, or have a chile sauce of some kind on it. This one was predominately meat, and the small amount of cheese and avocado weren’t really enough to stand up to its richness. The bun, too, was crustier than I would expect with a traditional torta – delicious, but not authentic. A torta is typically built on a fluffy bolillo roll. I would consider this more of a pulled pork sandwich with a slight Latin flair than a true torta - yummy, but not what I was expecting from the sales job the menu gave.

I switched up my carb order and tried MJ’s heavenly hash, which is a play on Cracker Barrell hash brown casserole, and loved it. The cheese on top was crispy and browned around the edges, and the shredded potatoes inside were tender and flavorful. I highly recommend this side when you visit MJ’s (you can also get this at brunch – yum!)

After all that food, dessert wasn’t an option, but some of the ones MJ’s has posted on its Facebook page have looked delicious. Overall, I would give the food here a 6 out of 10 on the BHS scale, but the ambiance and service bump that score up to a 7 with a bullet. I think they’re developing a lot of the menu items here by pure experimentation in the kitchen – which is encouraging, but a few details may still need to be dialed in.

They have what they’re calling a pho-nomenal sandwich on the menu, which I assume is supposed to be a play on a bahn mi (the Vietnamese cult sandwich of French bread, pate, pork and pickled vegetables), but theirs has something on it called awesome sauce, which probably is not pate. I don’t mind twists on classics, to be sure, but it does leave me wondering where the chefs here are getting their naming conventions, since pho is a soup. Unless the sandwich is supposed to echo the soup rather than a bahn mi? But then it would most likely be made with beef rather than pork – you know what? I can’t unravel this mystery. I’m just going to have to eat it instead.

What else do I plan on eating my next visit? Sopes, street tacos, stuffed mushrooms and cheeseteak, please and thank you. And the brunch menu looks insane – the biscuits and gravy are calling me like a siren, to crash upon the Susquehanna’s rocky shores. Won’t you join me?