Published November 08. 2012 4:00AM
On most days, a diner is a haven on the modern landscape, where certain luxuries are guaranteed: hot coffee, breakfast all day, chummy tableside service. Place that haven in a region thoroughly thwacked by a natural disaster and add electricity, and you've got a little slice of heaven.
In Deep River, that place is called Hally Jo's Corner Café, literally on the corner of Main Street in a town that oftentimes resembles Mayberry. Hally Jo's is the same restaurant space that used to be called Kristen's, but the mission remains the same: quick and simple breakfast all day with a smattering of lunch options. The addition of outdoor seating on that cute little corner is a nice new touch.
Now, Hally Jo's is no "vegetarian enclave" super-diner you'll find all along Interstate 95, so don't expect pot roast, tofu pups or a mimosa menu here. Think basics like omelets, deli sandwiches, home fries and a host of daily specials, among them most recently, a chili and cheddar omelet ($8.95), which sounds odd but tastes great. Envision a carefully folded omelet filled with truly spicy chili, threaded throughout with cheddar. It'll make you sweat, it's very tasty and will likely fill the belly for the better part of a day, particularly thanks to the side of hash browns and toast. The hash browns are done nicely, too: red potatoes and onion on the lighter side of fried.
If chili for breakfast seems too decadent, other omelet options have traditionalists covered. The veggie omelet is a nice choice for a heartier start without the sweats of chili. Peppers, tomato and mushrooms ($7.50, available with cheese; I selected American) make for a huge, satisfying plate. My request for no 'shrooms was happily accommodated, and the order came up within five minutes; my (decent) coffee had barely cooled.
The omelets are so sizable, it was a tad silly to order a side of corned beef hash ($4.25), but hash is just one of those things one has to get for diner-breakfast. Hally's hash had a pickle-y flavor to it, and we wondered if perhaps sauerkraut or some slaw like it is part of the mix. While I've had greater hashes in my time, Hally Jo's hash had a nice clean flavor, and it wasn't super salty like some hashes can be. Plus, the portion size was perfect.
What Hally Jo's does have nailed is the sweeter side of the menu, starting with the fresh baked muffins ($1.95 apiece). Two out of two muffins we sampled were fabulous. The coffee cake muffin had a huge top of brown sugary crumbles and delicious, moist cake beneath. Get it grilled, and the sugars and cinnamon really sings. Note to the allergied: the coffee cake muffins contain walnuts.
Muffin number two was a corn muffin, and it passed muster for both me and my corn-muffin-snob husband. Where some corn muffins can be bland, cereal-tasting hunks of dryness, Hally Jo's has managed a more moist confection that's not too toothy, with a nice touch of sweetness. Once again, we've got a huge top of crispy corn-cake. Warm it all up and slather on some butter and you've got country-style comfort food with all the right tweaks.
Subtle sweetness and great texture also apply to the house pancakes. Available daily with blueberries (three for $5.95), chocolate chips or plain - with daily special options like banana nut and sweet potato - the pancakes are giant, moist and strike a nice balance between sweet and starch. I regretted not ordering plain pancakes, as the berries in my stack of blueberry pancakes were fairly tasteless and got in the way of the wonderful cake surrounding them. Luckily, the berries were concentrated toward the center, leaving enough of the good stuff accessible.
Besides, when there's an option like Hally Jo's French fries in the world, one needn't worry about a few soggy berries. These fries are spectacular: super crispy outside, flavorful (read: no ketchup required) and soft within. Imagine a stretched out tator tot; that's what we're dealing with here.
The companion BLT I ordered with the fries on a lunchtime visit suffered from the fries' greatness, in that I could only eat half of the very zesty, well-baconed sandwich. Good tomatoes place it on the Order Again list.
In the end, a sense of neighborliness fills Hally Jo's, among regulars and newcomers alike, fueled by the waitstaff who made this new customer feel right at home and most welcome. I'll forgive any minor missteps for creature comforts and community any day.