Big Surprises at the Back Door Cafe

Big Surprises at the Back Door Cafe

Big Surprises at the Back Door Cafe
by Cheri Cicard

Don't you just love restaurants that surprise you? I had a fabulous surprise dining experience recently when we ventured into the Back Door Café in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. From the outside the unassuming little restaurant looked like any number of local East Coast taverns/grilles, but looks can be deceiving.

Judging from the crowded dining room at the Back Door Café, the good citizens of Johnstown have already discovered this culinary treasure hiding in their own back yard. Travelers, however, are likely to pass the place by, oblivious to the extraordinary dining experience waiting within those humble walls.

Husband and wife team Denise Thompson and Thomas Chulick have created a warm restaurant - the kind where everybody might know your name - which serves 4 star gourmet cuisine that rivals the finest of the latest trendy eateries in more cosmopolitan locations around the country. But this is Johnstown, so instead of tablespoon-sized portions, artfully arranged on a 14-inch plate, you get exquisite cuisine in down-home, East Coast portions.

The couple ran a catering business before opening their restaurant in June of 2000. It was the urging of their regular customers that caused them to take the leap of turning their dream of owning a restaurant into a reality.

Thomas runs the kitchen, creating new recipes and menus constantly. In fact the Back Door Café has no printed menus, as it changes so often. Diners can check out a large blackboard or consult their waiters to find out what inspired creations Thomas has come up with on that day. The dishes are flavored with lots of fresh herbs and made with homegrown ingredients from Thomas and Denise’s own gardens.

Denise Thompson is as beautiful and charming as the interior design of the restaurant, which she created – simultaneously elegant and accessible. In addition to making all of the restaurant’s desserts, Denise is there to meet and greet guests. Thomas can also be frequently seen leaving his post in the kitchen to wander the dining room, having friendly chats with customers. This is a friendly place. The outstanding food combined with the owners’ vibrant personalities makes The Back Door Café a place where everyone feels warm, welcome and wonderful.

Denise and Thomas were kind enough to share some favorite recipes with us. If you can’t get to Johnstown, these will let you have a little bit of the Back Door Café at home. If, on the other hand, you are anywhere remotely near Western Pennsylvania, this restaurant really merits going out of your way for.

Lamb Provencal with Gnocci

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 scallions, thinly sliced
3/4 lb. lamb shoulder, cut into 1/2" cubes
salt and pepper to taste
2 oz. red wine
2 oz. bourbon whiskey
4 oz. lamb stock
1 teaspoon herbs de Provence
1/2 C coarsely chopped tomatoes
4 oz. heavy cream
1/2 lb. pre-cooked potato gnocci (follow link for recipe)

For Garnish

chopped fresh tomatoes
diced kalamata olives
Parmesan cheese

Serves 4 as a first course

Heat olive oil in a large skillet and saute garlic, scallions and lamb until lamb becomes browned. Season with salt and pepper. Deglaze pan with red wine and by half, deglaze pan again with bourbon and reduce liquid again. Add lamb stock tomatoes and herbs and simmer until somewhat thickened. Add heavy cream and reduce to sauce consistency. Toss with gnocci to heat through. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve in large bowls, garnished to taste.

Wild Rice Soup

2 C diced onions
2 C diced celery
6 large garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 gallon chicken stock
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
1 tablespoon chopped basil
1 tablespoon chopped marjoram
2 C flour
2 C butter
2 quarts light cream
2 C seeded, diced tomatoes
8 C cooked wild rice

Yields About 1 1/2 Gallons

Saute onions, celery and garlic in oil until translucent. Add stock and herbs. Bring to a boil then immediately reduce to a simmer. Add cream, tomatoes and wild rice and simmer for about 4 minutes - do not allow to boil. Meanwhile, make a roux with the flour and butter. Add several cups of soup to the roux, whisking constantly until blended. Add this mixture back into the soup, whisking until soup is slightly thickened. Serve immediately.

Watermelon Mojito Granita

4 lbs. piece seedless watermelon
1/2 C caster sugar
1/4 C lime juice
2 tablespoons Bacardi Limon rum
1/2 C chopped fresh mint

Remove rind from melon and cut into 1 1/2" chunks. Freeze watermelon pieces on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet for about 4-5 hours. Place frozen melon chunks, a few at a time, into a running food processor, blending until smooth. Depending on the size of your machine, this may have to be done in batches. Add remaining ingredients and process until the mixture is smooth, scraping down the sides of the processor as necessary. Freeze mixture in an airtight container. Stir from time to time if you see the mixture beginning to separate as it freezes.

Summer Berry Sponge Cake

4 eggs
2 C sugar
2 C flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 C scalded milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 C fresh blackberries, raspberries or blueberries

Serves 12

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour an 8 x 8 x 3 inch pan. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in the scaled milk.

Beat eggs and sugar until lemon yellow in color. Add flour, vanilla and scaled milk/butter mixture. Mix well (batter will be thin). Add fresh berries and pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until center springs back when touched. Serve warm or cold with whipped cream and fresh strawberries.

Denise Thompson’s Chocolate Truffles

This truffle recipe is so easy and so good. At the restaurant, Denise keeps a quart container of truffle mixture in the refrigerator and makes dessert plates to order.

2 pounds of Belgian chocolate
one quart of heavy cream
1/4 lb. unsalted butter
1/3 C liqueur of choice

Serves 4 (just kidding...., this makes over 2lbs. of truffles, but they are incredibly addictive)

Melt chocolate and cream over a double boiler. Whisk in butter and liqueur. Continue to whisk as the mixture cools and thickens. Pour into quart containers and refrigerate. To serve, scoop out with melon baller, roll in powdered cocoa.

Cheri Sicard is the editor of, an editorial travel site specializing in budget travel, practical travel tips and advice, and fascinating and often unusual trips and destinations the world over. Sign up for their free travel newsletters. Fabulous Travel…because he who dies with the most experiences wins!

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