By Amy Eddings
Expect the unexpected when you walk into Lima’s Fat Cat Diner. Like fake plastic spiders and cockroaches scattered along the white table tops. (It was part of the restaurant’s cheeky Halloween decor). Like chicken fingers tucked inside a flour tortilla wrap, or sandwiches of cream cheese and bacon on cinnamon bread toast.
Chef/owner Alisa McPheron is full of unexpected surprises, too. At 49, she’s owned and managed three restaurants, while others in her industry that age have just started to strike out on their own.
She’s a diminutive woman with a big personality and over-sized smile. She loves baking cheesecakes, even sells online a special pan called The Perfect Cheesecake Solution, but she doesn’t like desserts. She’s a chef who loves to cook for others but rarely cooks for herself.
“I went shopping yesterday. It was the first time in two and a half weeks,” she said of her home kitchen. She laughed. “That’s horrible, right? I eat out a lot.”
The most popular dishes on her fall/winter menu are the pork tenderloin sandwiches and Reubens of hand-pulled brisket, but, here again, expect the unexpected with McPheron. She herself hasn’t eaten beef or pork in 20 years.
“I have salmon, tilapia and halibut in my freezer,” she said. “I should be living on the beach.”
In fact, this Lima native had her sights set on Miami when she graduated from the culinary program at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I.; but then her parents told her about a restaurant in Findlay that had just closed and, in 1993, she found herself, at age 25, running her first restaurant, Bistro On Main.
“I wouldn’t have done it, but my dad was like, ‘It’s a challenge!’” she said. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
She knew enough, it seemed, to make a good go of it. Findlay, a city with plenty of chain restaurants, had a genuine hit, an independent place with a thoughtful menu and wine list, and an impressive array of homemade desserts, which most restaurants at that time didn’t offer.
“Everything you could buy at that time was horrible. It was the early 1990s,” she said. “If you bought from a purveyor, it was pretty much crap. So (I) had to figure out how to make something that wasn’t the same thing that they were serving at the (chain restaurant) down the road.”
She said, “I brought something to the table to that town that it didn’t have.”.
She decided, again with her parents’ help, to branch out to Lima. They sold Bistro on Main in Findlay and opened Main Street Bistro in an old, three-story brick building just south of Town Square, where Old City Prime steakhouse now resides.
Several years into that effort, with plans to expand into the building next door, there was a dispute with their landlord, a lockout, a move into the adjoining space, and a fire in 2010.
McPheron said she was not aware of the extent of the fire’s destruction at first.
“My dad called me up that morning and he said, ‘We’re going to have to do something about this,’ and I said, “We’ll get things cleaned up. It’ll be fine, Dad, we’ll figure it out.’ Because that’s what we always said to each other, ‘We’ll figure it out,’” remembered McPheron. “And he’s, like, ‘No, Alisa, I don’t think you understand. The roof has caved in two stories.’”
They figured it out. Fat Cat Diner opened three years ago and business, McPheron said, is good. So are the social media reviews on Yelp! “One of my favorite spots,” said one. “Prices and food were great,” read another.
In another unexpected twist, no one’s more surprised at her sustained success and excellence than McPheron herself.
“I mean, seriously, I should not be doing what I’m doing,” she said, amazed at the plot twists in her life’s story. “I have a lot of stick-to-it. I don’t give up for anything. I just keep at it, keep at it, keep at it.”
And Lima benefits from this persistence.
Fat Cat Diner
Where: 312 N. Main St., Lima
When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.
Try: Pork tenderloin sandwich, meatloaf wrapped in bacon on brioche bun, pumpkin cheesecake. The full menu is available on the website.
Alisa McPheron’s Brie en Croute
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed for 15-20 minutes
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 Granny Smith apple, cored, peeled and cut into small dices
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon brandy
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1 8-ounce wheel Brie cheese
1 egg, beaten
In a small sauté pan, melt the butter. Add the apple and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the brandy, brown sugar and cinnamon. Cook the mixture until thickened and cool to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the sheet of thawed puff pastry in half. Place one half on the parchment paper. Set the Brie wheel onto the puff pastry. Do not remove the rind. Top the Brie wheel with compote and then with the chopped walnuts. Place the other half of the puff pastry sheet over the Brie. Press the sheets together to seal them, first the corners and then the sides. Brush with the beaten egg and bake in the preheated over for 20 minutes until the pastry is golden brown. Serve with table water crackers or toasted baguette slices.
Alternate wrapping tip: Some Brie en Croute recipes suggest rolling out a single layer of thawed puff pastry to increase its size by an inch or two in each direction, instead of cutting it in half. Center the wheel of Brie on top of the pastry sheet. Bring all four corners of the sheet up over the Brie and twist slightly to form a bundle of dough.