AJ Buehrer and his mother Luann read cookbooks like novels, cover to cover, ingesting every word, visualizing every ingredient, tasting combinations in the minds, and the resulting outcome. They are the real chefs, the ones in love with food, the best kind to operate a restaurant. Hence, coming to Quakertown’s Karlton Café on the downtown strip is a truly memorable and highly enjoyable experience.
The cozy, personal restaurant is housed in the previous historic 1930 Karlton Theatre, sharing the building with two other Quakertown establishments. AJ recently closed the restaurant in July to get married and renovate the back dining room to accommodate a dinner crowd. With it’s re-opening, dinners are now offered Thursday-Saturday. But in the front room, across from the chef’s open prep station is where you want to sit- watching AJ perform his food magic and where you can chat and laugh and get to know this warm welcoming chef. While he masterly flips sizzling hand-grated potato strips in a frying pan of European butter, he tells me his story.
AJ comes from a long line of ancestral history connected to food. His father, a food transporter, was responsible for introducing eastern US to micro greens like Spring Mix, which is now a part of our food shopping vocabulary as well as our diet. For ten years before becoming a chef, AJ raised cattle and pigs, (100 head of Black Angus) as well as vegetables so he came to know the difference between flavor-filled veggies and hunks of smoked bacon and ones infused with water and lacking flavor.
He came into the restaurant business through the back door- learning to raise and create delicious healthful ingredients that must be a key component in creating delicious food.
Once AJ decided to become a chef, he apprenticed with a French chef in New York City who worked seven of the top restaurants in the world. He would not allow him to actually cook himself for 1 ½ years. ..ONLY observe. Then, he was only permitted to cook two items, risotto and the historic German potato pancake with fresh apple sauce which the Karlton Café is so famous for. “If I did not cut my potatoes exactly perfect, he threw them out and made me start over.”
While waiting for AJ to prepare your food, you can examine the beautifully restored tin ceiling or the twenty bronze sculptures of assorted pizza pies hanging on the wall, by famous sculptor, Steve Tobin. “They once hung in the Spago’s in Beverly Hills,” he teases, “until they were ungraded to the Karlton Café.”
Above the coffee bar over the glass restaurant front sits three impressive fish sculptures made of glass and silver table spoons (fish scales) by artist Oaksan. Art is showcased at the Karlton Café but most obvious is the creating going on at the chef’s counter.
AJ only uses European Pluga butter in his creations which contains 82% milk fat as opposed to US grade 36% milk fat. AJ purchases the butter at $100 a case as opposed to $40 a case, but it goes twice as far for US butter evaporates like water.
“Skimping on cheap ingredients never creates superior food,” he admits. A co-worker kneads slivers of the European butter into the large bowl of flour, prepping for tomorrow’s pancake crowd. Breakfast and Sunday brunch are what put the Karlton Café on the map nine years ago when it first opened. The butter in the pancakes allows the discs to cook to an ambrosia golden brown and taste heavenly.
“Who taught you that?” I inquire.
“I figured it out,” he smiles. “Butter added to quick breads and muffins enhances the flavor so why not pancakes?” “I love to eat,” he continues. “Mom made Thanksgiving dinner every night. She taught me to eat, then I learned how to make food taste better.”
We ask AJ’s suggestions on his personal favorite selections for lunch- Jalapeño Potato Cheese Soup, Guinness Onion Soup, Blackened Steak Quesadillas a dark red tomato quinoa salad laced with homemade pesto. For beverages, Jersey peach smoothies and hand-pressed fresh lemonade with raspberry flavoring.
By the time we devour AJ’s delicious entries, his mother, Luann, master dessert chef, stops in with her daily creations: fresh strawberry cake with whipped cream and chocolate mousse. “I messed with the recipe,” she casually admits. “I combined two recipes and made it better.” Karlton Café also serves locally roasted Homestead Coffee. This can be purchased as well as homemade jams, jellies and apple butter that Luann puts up every week.
AJ’s famous homemade soups (99% of them are gluten free) are also available for sale in three sizes. Six delicious varieties are offered every day of the week. Since it summer when we visit, and quite warm outside, I ask AJ if the weather or the season affects soup sales.
“We don’t talk like that around here,” he affectionately chides me. “Soup is the best food, any time of the year.” AJ pulls down a massive braising 28 quart pan which he explains is the starting point for all his soup creations. “I don’t just boil ingredients but gently sauté everything first to coax the flavors out.”
“When he was a little boy,” Luann adds, “all he wanted to eat was soup.”
“It doesn’t matter if it is soup or an eggroll or a crepe. I cook from my heart.”
In the years that the Karlton Cafe has been blessing Quakertown’s inhabitants and visitors with its gastric creations, brunches have been the drawing the biggest crowds. Famous for their many varieties of Eggs Benedict as well French Toast, AJ’s smoked bacon is thick sliced and locally raised, by his cousin, no less. “My customers consume about twenty-two pigs a year- two a month,” he boasts.
With the Karlton Café’s new dinner experience (Thursday- Saturday) brunch has some competition. All the more reason to overnight in this charming town so you can experience multiple meals at the Karlton, hear more of AJ’s stories and get to know this delightful foodie family who knows the best way into your heart.
(A version of this appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine http://www.pa-mag.com)
Photography by Bryce Gladfelter