Out of a possible five
You’ve got to love a place that lists the pies first on the menu.
Clay’s Family Restaurant along Lake George in Fremont, just a stone’s throw away from the outlet mall, promises “Good Home Cooking” and nothing tastes more like home than a delicious slice of pie.
Clay’s has every kind – baked fruit, raw fruit, creams and pecan – and usually has 10 to 12 varieties on weekdays and can have up to 20 on weekends.
With that many, of course they had one I had never heard of – rhappleberry.
This mix of rhubarb, apples, strawberries and blackberries was perfection. The mix of sour rhubarb with the sweet berries and the added crispness of apples made every bite different.
The crust, like it was on all the pies I tried, was light and flaky.
The best pie was the blueberry “signature” fruit pie. The menu stated the “signature” fruit pies are available only when the fruits – strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and peaches – are in season. Blueberries are not in season, so what gives?
“We do it whenever we can get good fruit, but always in the summer,” said Jack Baker, who has owned Clay’s since buying the 60-plus-year-old restaurant from the Clay family in 1975.
The crust for these fresh pies was smeared with a thin layer of sweetened cream cheese and chopped pecans. The raw fruit is just touched with sweetened gel and placed inside the lined crust raw. The result was a pie full of sweet, plump, juicy blueberries that popped with each bite. The cream cheese added a nice creamy element, and it was one of the freshest tasting pies I ever have had at a restaurant.
All of the pies were great. The deep golden brown butterscotch cream was very rich and actually looked more like a sweet potato pie there was so much butterscotch in it. The “Oops!” pie – a traditional pecan pie with chocolate chips – also won favor. It was kind of like a big, dense chocolate chip cookie laid in a crust.
And, if you love pie like I love pie, you may want to mark June 24 on your calendar for Clay’s eighth annual Pie Day featuring an all-you-can-eat pie buffet. It is a popular event, so tickets must be ordered and paid for ahead of time and times are allotted.
“We have some food on the (regular) buffet, too, for those folks who don’t just want to eat pie,” said Chass Baker, Jack’s daughter-in-law who oversees the making of pies – up to 120 each week during the busy summer months.
Believe it or not, it wasn’t the pie that drew me to Clay’s. When some Twitter followers suggested I check it out, I asked some friends who live up that way what they knew about the eatery.
“I hear they have a good pot roast special on Friday nights.”
That was all it took to get me up there.
The pot roast was, indeed, special and it gets special treatment. It is slow cooked overnight to ensure it is tender and is seasoned simply, but deliciously. I did reach for my salt shaker with the pot roast, and that practice had to be repeated often at Clay’s. Pretty much everything, including side vegetables, lacked seasoning. The roast turkey dinner was almost inedible without added salt.
Prime rib is offered on the weekends and it, too, needed salt. The 7-ounce cut was the right size for lunch and it was perfectly cooked, but it, and the rather oily side cup of au jus, lacked flavor from salt or any other herbs and spices. With salt added, it was OK.
One dish that didn’t need any help was the pan-fried fish of the day, which, Baker said, is almost always bluegill. These fillets were lightly dredged in a flour breading and fried until brown and crisp. The fish was sweet and flaky, the kind you want to get all you can eat.
Clay’s Kickin’ Onion Rings are the perfect thing to pair with the fish. Big rings were coated in a chewy, slightly sweet batter that was crunchy without a spot of oil. My server said Clay’s Famous Fish Fry of Alaskan pollock is coated in the same batter as the rings, so it is on my list to try next time I visit.
Another breaded treat was the pork tenderloin. It was big, but not crazy big, had a crispy, gritty breading that was seasoned properly and the pork inside was nice. Beware, however, that if you order it as a dinner entrée, it comes on a plate alone with no bun, so if you want a sandwich, ask for one.
Although the salad part of Clay’s salad and soup bar was lackluster – just iceberg with few vegetables, which did not include the staple cucumbers or carrots – the soups were tasty. Chicken noodle and chili are always on it, and the third soup is a rotation of four other varieties.
The chicken noodle was the best of the bunch with a flavorful broth and big, plump, dumpling-style noodles. The vegetable beef (available Tuesday and Sunday) was also worth having with carrot, potato and green beans and some of that leftover pot roast. The beef pepper pot soup (Wednesday and Saturday) was my least favorite. It was made with ground beef, chunks of tomato and rice, but the rice was way overdone from sitting in the warmer and it needed more of its name vegetable.
Clay’s is an old-school kind of place with no-frills design. The furnishings are outdated and it has sort of stale country home decorations. It was not exactly flashy, but, in a way, it is what I would expect from a place that just serves solid no-nonsense food and pies like Grandma made.
The service was also hit or miss. One Saturday afternoon, only two servers were working and they struggled to keep up even though it was not overly busy. And on a busy weeknight, my server also seemed too busy to keep drinks filled and to promptly tend to basic needs.
But the pies saved the day. They alone made Clay’s a place to check out and a place I will check out again.
Restaurant: Clay’s Family Restaurant
Address: 7815 N. Old 27, Fremont
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Smoking status: Non-smoking
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Pie ($2.99; $3.59 for specialty), onion rings ($3.99), bluegill ($10.99), breaded tenderloin ($7.99), pot roast ($7.29), prime rib ($10.99)
Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).