A taste of South Philly – in the middle of nowhere
FORKSVILLE, Pa. — Darkness falls quickly here, sliding down Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains to fill up everything between the campfires and soupy stars.
Loyalsock Creek sounds like a lullaby, rushing over and around smooth, mossy rocks, then beneath the historic covered bridge and past the 166-year-old Forksville General Store & Restaurant.
On a recent Saturday night, a rarer sound accompanied the creek’s white noise at bedtime. It wasn’t the elusive saw-whet owl up in the sugar maples. It came from inside that quaint, clapboard general store.
It sounded like Bruno Mars.
“Prepare yourself for tonight’s main event,” an announcer told a rowdy crowd of two dozen people who clapped under disco lights. “The one, the only, Sax Daddy.”
“Sax Daddy” is Mike Stasiunas, 63, originally from 21st and Mifflin in South Philly. He brings the funk to Forksville on Saturday nights, and you’d better have reservations.
By day, Stasiunas goes by another nickname — “Big Mike.” He makes oversized claims about something near and dear to Philadelphians: sandwiches.
“Big Mike’s Steaks & Hoagies. The best DAMN sandwich this side of South Phillly,” boasts a shirt on the general store’s wall.
Cheesesteaks are the top sellers here, Stasiunas said, and signs in the store note that Big Mike’s steaks were near the top of a USA Today poll about the best cheesesteaks in Pennsylvania, along with being rated No. 1 on Yelp and TripAdvisor.
“I have to be honest: I never expected to find a great cheesesteak at the end of the world,” one reviewer wrote on Yelp in 2016.
Big Mike’s cheesesteak is a half-pound of ribeye on an Amoroso roll, onions optional. Building a Philly-worthy sandwich in the woods wasn’t easy.
“I got a middle guy for the rolls,” Stasiunas said. “We had this meat guy, and he’d been servicing the store for years and I called him up and said ‘I need some gabagool and goodageen,’ He had no idea what I was saying. I had to spell it out.”
Stasiunas first came to Forksville — 169 northwest of South Philly — to get away, but he might not have had he known where he was going.
“I was in Northeast Philly one day. And they come up to me and say, ‘Hey Mike, wanna go to the mountains?’ and I say ‘Yeah, I ain’t doin nuttin.’ I’m thinking Poconos. There’s two places you go on vacation from South Philly, the Poconos and down the Shore. Am I right or wrong?
“So we’re driving and driving and driving and I’m like, ‘Yo, are we lost,’ and they pulled up here, right up the road. I fell in love with it.”
That was in 1969, and Stasiunas, who’d worked in the boiler room in Girard College while playing sax on weekends in Philly, kept coming up to Sullivan County on vacations. In 1999, when he heard the general store was for sale, he packed up the family and headed for good to the burg that got its name for being at the forks of two creeks.
“I talked it over with my wife over some wine,” he said. “It might have been a case.”Provided
The store, which dates to 1851, once sold everything folks from Forksville needed, such items as nails, powdered milk, a variety of saws, and perhaps some lard. Today it’s full of tourists buying ice, firewood, and throwback candy. Besides the swimming hole at Worlds End State Park up the road, it’s the most bustling place around.
Stasiunas has a wall of shirts for sale, too. One says: “Where the hell is Forksville, Pa?”
Some would say Forksville is too far a hike for a cheesesteak, but, coupled with Sax Daddy’s dinner show, it’s all too wild and delicious to miss. Stasiunas credits his wife, MaryAnn, for coming up with that idea too.
“I thought people up here only like two kinds of music: country and western,” Stasiunas said. “I figured it would go over like Led Zeppelin at a Lawrence Welk concert.”
The two dozen or so customers who packed into Sax Daddy’s for the Saturday night show had made reservations months in advance. They got a meal, typical country fare such as chicken parm or baked lasagna in a rustic dining room dressed up in red velvet curtains and satin flowers, like a Nana’s basement on Wolf Street.
The lights dimmed around 8 p.m. Stasiunas burst onto the small stage and ripped out an “Uptown Funk” saxophone solo. The crowd went crazy. Stasiunas was dressed in black and after his Bruno Mars riff, he wiped sweat from his brow and eased into a 20-minute comedy sketch, rated PG-13.
His voice sounded like a bear’s low grumble.
“My high school was so tough,” he said of his Bishop Neumann days, “our school newspaper had an obituary section.”
Stasiunas tore through a medley of songs, whole decades at 30 seconds a clip, and his booming rendition of “The Sound of Silence” could probably be heard over the mountains in Eagles Mere. When Stasiunas sang “All the Way,” couples held hands, and he slipped in the night’s biggest laugh.
“This reminds me of the first time I ever had sex. I was so scared,” he said, the music still playing. “Because I was all by myself.”
The whole room rose for Sax Daddy’s closer, “America the Beautiful.” Everyone, even grown men used to handling timber and driveshafts, held hands while singing and swaying together.Jason Nark
Michele Stasiunas, Mike’s daughter, ended a 12-hour shift at the store on the keyboard, singing Adele and Amy Winehouse. Her talent felt far too big for Forksville.
“I put a record out, but I don’t know how many people heard it,” she said, cleaning tables after the show.
Sax Daddy sat on a stool up on the stage, sipping water and trying to be humble with customers who praised the show.
“Ah, come on,” he said.
Patrons laughed their way into the dark parking lot. When their trucks and motorcycles rumbled away through the valleys and up into the hills, the only sound in Forksville was the creek running through it.
Published at Sun, 23 Jul 2017 22:53:19 +0000