Ambience, Hill District, Neighborhoods

On Fifth.

There is this little hole in the wall joint on Fifth near the corporately sponsored building where the Pens play. Great jukebox. Real neighborhood vibe. People getting frisked at the door. Y’know. The usual.

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Ambience, Beer, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Recipes, South Side, Strip District, Techniques and tools

Oven ribs with chocolate rosemary sauce.

Unexpected inspiration is often a good thing. A chocolate party is a perfect example.

My friends Gwen and Derrick have a chocolate party every year at their place on the South Side. Chocolate beer, chocolate chili, chocolate cookies, chocolate ice cream — everything. And I always look at it as a challenge: How to make something a little different and maybe by combining ingredients that are a little out of my comfort zone.

I don’t don’t work a lot with chocolate. Not much of a sweet tooth. And I think it’s fun and the best kind of surprising to play with people’s expectations — in a good way. Chocolate need not equal powerfully sweet.

This popped up the first time when my wife wanted a chocolate party for her birthday a few years ago.

Another friend whose wife’s birthday was the same day also likes to cook. He tried a pasta with cocoa powder in the dough that didn’t turn out and a chocolate chipotle salsa that did.

My offerings: grilled chicken wings with cocoa powder in the dry rub, crostini with goat cheese, caramelized onions and a chocolate vinaigrette and roasted pork tenderloins in a chocolate and sherry glaze with shallots.

All of those turned out nicely, though the tenderloins were a needed lesson in anticipating presentation. If you’ve seen pork tenderloins and can imagine a dark brown sauce — well, there you go. They each looked irretrievably like a giant poo. I sliced them up before serving for obvious reasons.

Last year for Gwen and Derrick’s party I made those crostini again, mainly because I couldn’t remember how I made the vinaigrette and wanted to force myself to recreate it.

This year I started from scratch.

It would have to be savory — that was a must. And it would have to be a little nontraditional.

I settled rather quickly on pork because the easy richness of the meat holds up to the chocolate. The chocolate can overwhelm it but it isn’t too fine a line.

But what kind of pork? I became the Bubba Blue of pig parts. Pulled pork, roast pork, pork sandwiches. Belly, shoulder, shank.

And then. Oh yes. Ribs.

I got two gorgeous racks of babybacks at Strip District Meats. Made a rub, grinding up ancho and New Mexico chiles, pink peppercorns, cumin and fennel seeds and Chinese five spice and mixing it with a fresh-made garlic paste. Added that into a bowl of brown sugar and gray salt — maybe a 7-to-1 sugar-to-salt ratio.

Rubbed that all over the ribs, top and bottom, and wrapped each rack separately in two casings of tented foil with one end left open. Poured into that open end: a little malty beer.

Heated the oven to 250, sealed up the ribs entirely and let them cook about two and a half hours. Longer would have been better, but by then I was running late for the party.

While the ribs cooked, I made the sauce. Some stock and ruby port whisked together and reduced in a pan to a little looser than I wanted it, then I killed the heat and added a pinch of salt, chopped fresh rosemary and chopped dark chocolate, roughly 80 percent cacao.

Sauce done and set aside, it was time for the ribs to come out. I took them out of the foil and put them on baking racks on top of a rimmed baking sheet. Cranked the heat in the oven to 500 degrees — tossing them under the broiler would also work — and hard-roasted them to finish the outside. This part can be a little tricky with all the sugar and even the garlic in the rub because if it burns, you have to start over. No saving it then.

Ribs done and rested for at least five or 10 minutes, it was time to slice and pour over the sauce.

My friend Burgh Gourmand took this shot of them at the party:

Success.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Downtown, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Oakland, Presentation, Seasonal, South Side, Traditional

The Franktuary truck.

Sure, it’s a hotdog. That’s its heart, its essence. Even hyphenated it remains simple. Call it all-beef or all-beef and grass-fed and remains a humble thing. A Pittsburgh thing, even. As much as wings and fries-and-slaw are stereotypes around this town, I have not seen so many hotdog shops anywhere else I’ve lived.

Then there’s the truck, the mobile arm of the downtown joint Franktuary. Order said hotdog in Oakland, downtown, on the South Side from an actual moving vehicle, a rarity and a worthwhile summer indulgence in this city.

I’ve been most often when it’s parked behind a church at 27th and Jane. I won’t pretend it’s a religious experience or anything, but it’s a fantastic excuse to get out of an office or off a couch. Sitting outside, maybe under the church awning or a parade tent, on plastic chairs trying not to dribble on myself is a successful afternoon.

It’s an informal setting for an informal food, even when the little tubes of meat get dressed up. A Bankok dog with rich, peanutty Thai satay sauce, the Memphis with a bourbon barbecue sauce and slaw, the carbohydrate-bomb Brasil with – oh yes – mashed potatoes and crisp, skinny fries, bacon, and a tomato-corn relish.

There’s also a vegetarian dog, but I, uh, I wouldn’t know anything about that.

All this is without mentioning the vegetarian poutine. Which I have tried a few times. Arsenal cheese curds and a veggie gravy over thick, hot fries. They buy the fries already cut — it’s a truck; they can’t do everything themselves — but make their own gravy. It’s not the silky animal-fat variety because it can’t be. But while it may not get all the way to unctuous, it is rich, thick and rather tasty, especially once that cheese begins to melt all over everything. Warm, gooey, a little sticky. In a good way.

Even without those descriptions, it would still be food porn.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Family, Homestead, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Service

Smoke Barbecue Taqueria.

Looks like I have tacos on my mind lately. Couldn’t resist another trip to Homestead this week.

Why — now that’s easy.

Ridiculous, right? Even in a photo taken in a hurry on my semi-crappy phone camera, that pork is tender and juicy but not dripping wet, the tortilla fresh, the sauce and accoutrements well-proportioned. That one there is pork with an apricot habanero sauce and caramelized onions.

Finding it the first time can be a minor pain, peeking out from a storefront on Eighth just east of the Homestead Grays Bridge, the A-frame sign on the sidewalk the best giveaway that they’re there and open. And it is cash-only, which in this iPad-and-a-Square world, I don’t quite understand.

I know I’ve said before that some of the street-style tacos around are overpriced for what they actually give you. But at $3.50 that sucker is a bargain. I liked the chicken one as well — pickled onions, Fresno hot sauce and just a lick of avocado cream. The standout on the short, sweet regular menu for me has been the taco with meat from pork ribs. Barbecue sauce made with porter beer and pickles and onions. Simple but not easy and worth savoring. You’ll want to rip through it in three bits or less, but I beg you: chew your food. Live a little.

I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to order the vegetarian taco. I just like the others too much. And the breakfast taco — I haven’t been there early enough yet. I usually stay pretty local in the mornings. It’ll happen at some point.

Jeff Petruso and Nelda Carranco run the place. He’s from Meadville. She’s not. They met in Austin — the fun one in Texas — and talked about opening a barbecue-style taqueria there. Two things that simply belong together.

Rents here were right and no one was doing anything like this. They put a lot of themselves into the place. It’s small but not cramped. Comfortable. Service was a bit slow at first because it was just the two of them. Hours were a little inconsistent. They’ve hired a couple folks and that’s pretty much a thing of the past.

They make everything themselves. Tortillas — if they run out, that’s it for the day — agua fresca, all the sauces and the meats.

And they make their own horchata. This is one of my favorite things on this planet. Not that I’ve been to others, I’m just saying. Horchata’s a sweet-spiced rice milk with cinnamon, some nutmeg. A little dust of lime zest on the top when it’s served over ice. Light. Smoothly refreshing.

I went in once on an abominably hot day. Fans blowing, dehumidifier running. There was no air-conditioning. And if you’ve been paying attention, I’m a large mammal. Heat, um, impacts me. That horchata was bliss. It’s plenty delicious other times. But that day there was nothing more perfect.

If I ever feel the need to spend money on food anywhere near that sprawling Waterfront development, I’ll make this my first choice.

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Ambience, Garfield, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Seasonal, Service

Salt of the Earth, Part II.

Pork baguette. Doesn’t sound like much, maybe just menu filler or something to get along a fancy takeout pizza someplace, a pimped-out hoagie.

But no.

This take on Vietnamese bahn mi the best thing I’ve put in my mouth at Salt of the Earth, which is saying something. The bread has to be good. That’s a given. Crusty on the outside, light and soft on the inside, but still dense enough that it doesn’t get soggy. Never soggy. A thin smear of pate made from chicken livers sourced nearby. Pork. Glorious pork. A lumberjack’s fistful of it cooked once then roasted under the salamander just long enough. Pickled carrot, pickled daikon, jalapeno – briny, tart, crunchy, a whisper of heat. And then cilantro, leafy and clean. Each ingredient works separately, but these simple soloists join in harmony to become something greater.

Of course, I think it’s off the menu now.

In a year, the place no one ever calls by its whole name — unless you’re being proper and writing it out on first reference — has gotten itself a reputation as the best restaurant in Pittsburgh. Yeah, yeah, right? You know that. Ain’t no thang.

Its opening coincided roughly with my arrival in town. In some ways, it’s been the joint to compare other restaurants to since I started eating my way around this city trying to learn it from the streets up. First time I went was New Year’s, when they tossed out their whole menu and served only pork and sauerkraut.

Been a handful of times since. Always been good. Often been far better than that.

Not always the most amazingest thing ever, but I can’t see ever turning down a trip there. It can be a weird place. The green gazpacho and short ribs leap immediately to mind as things that were delicious but didn’t blow me away. Which is not a criticism, just a tiny explanation. I mean weird in the sense that it’s built to give you the best meal of your life every night. And that’s an impossibly high bar.

Not just good. Not only wonderful. The best, most creative food possible that masses of people in this town will trade money for. I’m in awe of ambition like that. I don’t know Kevin Sousa in the least but I find it fascinating that someone with what clearly are his standards cannot allow himself to meet them, except perhaps fleetingly.

At the same time, one of my first impressions of the place was a lack of pretension. Sitting on stools watching the line cooks is the best spot in the place. When it slows down toward the end of the night, they’ll happily answer questions directly or make time to chat a little as they get ready for prep for the next night.

And that extends to the bar, too. There as much care put into every drink as there is to each plate. A rare and delightful thing, that. But have a question about a specific ingredient, an obscure kind of alcohol or technique, and they’re accessible.

This is a place to not just consume but to appreciate and to learn. Which might be why they could charge a lot more for what they do and yet don’t. Price shouldn’t be the main barrier to getting you in the door. Ain’t cheap, but it hasn’t yet meant I can’t make rent.

And you can find a good chunk of the staff on Twitter where they’ll often engage in conversation outside the physical restaurant — something else that makes Salt approachable even when they serve weeds that perplex my wife because they grow wild in our garden. (Purslane, I’m looking at you.) Go find @Chad687 or @BaconBra or any of the others. Good folks.

All of which is to say its reputation is earned. Keep churning, keep improvising, keep surprising. Keep working. I’m grateful for it.

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Ambience, Beer, Ingredients, Lawrenceville, Neighborhoods, Presentation, Service

Round Corner Cantina.

Hipster prices on street food. Runny tacos. Consistently inattentive, even combative, service.

Guacamole and tamales ain’t half bad. And some of the drinks – when you can actually order and successfully receive one.

Clearly I’m not a huge fan of Round Corner Cantina in Lawrenceville.

I wanted to like it. Each of the five or so times I’ve been there, I hoped my experience would be different. I have friends who like it. And I’ll still go in a group, but it’s not a place I’d choose to go on my own.

When it comes to the food, I have high standards for this kind of thing because I grew up with amazing versions of it, plentiful and cheap. Mediocre or good-for-around-here doesn’t cut it with me. The service – well, I do expect to be treated like a human who plans to spend a little money, which I don’t think is too much to ask.

Seven or eight bucks for generally slapped-together tacos that arrive in a puddle and continue dripping on the plate? After I had to shoot flares to get a server’s attention? No thanks.

The setting is nice. The large paved patio out back, some of which is covered, is a delightful urban refuge with room for a group of a dozen folks hanging out together. Self-service water stations are a fantastic idea to free up servers to, like, serve. Still don’t get the video surveillance cameras mounted near the sign out front, but whatever.

And the menu takes a shot at being something special. Huitlacoche tacos are why I went in the first place. They call it “corn truffle,” but it’s really a funky, mushroomy, earthy-tasting fungus more commonly called “corn smut,” which I agree is probably not a name appetizing to most people, unless you’re really into veggie porn in ways I don’t want to know about. Pennsylvania is one of two states the US Department of Agriculture allows to cultivate it, and I’ve seen it canned, but it rarely makes it on to many menus. If I remember right, Salt of the Earth used it as a component in one dish on its ever-changing blackboard menu.

It’s good. Which helps. Because it’s an ugly damn thing. The sort of thing anyone who demolishes abandoned, water-damaged houses might find familiar. Handled properly, it’s kind of wonderful, like an underappreciated, and therefore surprisingly good, wine you got for cheap.

But at Round Corner, they add more regular corn, cilantro and an avocado salsa that overwhelm the star ingredient and bury it under layers of bright, sweet fattiness. Makes it taste more like black beans or something more familiar. The potato in the huitlacoche tacos takes away from both the texture and flavor of the corn smut, which is the whole reason I ordered the thing. Add in a mediocre tortilla and it was, at the least, disappointing.

I give them points for the micheladas on the list. In Mexico – actual Mexico, not resort Mexico — they’re simple beer cocktails you can order cheap and huge and there’s no set recipe. Beer and lime juice over ice in a glass or even a Styrofoam cup with a salted rim is the most basic way. Some recipes add heat from chiles or glugs of Clamato or tomato juice or, or, or – sort of a Puttanesca at that point, in a weird way.

I make them a bunch at home and as much as I like craft beer, this is best with something cheap and Mexican. Not just cheap. Red Stripe, Heineken, Busch – not the same. I like Victoria if I can find it, which I never can, or Bohemia. Other Mexican beers work just fine.

They make one with a house bloody Mary mix and a spear of de-seeded, de-ribbed jalapeno that I like, especially when it’s hot out. They call it the Espana. Good way to lose six bucks.

So. Service. I just can’t get over the feeling that they hire people who don’t like people. Of the handful of times I’ve been there, I had one server who seemed to care at all. Worked her ass off for our table, even when the bar got backed up on orders.

She’s the exception. I wish I knew her name to credit her publicly. The others forget orders and don’t seem to care – “Oh, right. Well do you still want it or what?” is a favorite line I got one day — don’t come back by even a packed table dripping with money to spend often enough for new orders, toss plates on tables and generally seem like they’d rather be anywhere else. And getting a check can age you noticeably.

On one trip the mole sauce was burnt. Burnt. So we tried to send it back. The waitress went away, then came back and argued with us. Said the kitchen told her it’s supposed to be smoky, to taste a little charred. That’s all well and good. Those are even some of my favorite flavors. But this was B-U-R-N-T. So she argued some more and at first wouldn’t even take it off the table until I insisted. The hell is that?

I’m not a sultan. Not an emperor. I don’t need to be waited on hand and foot to feel taken care of. Just be attentive. Realize that I’m there. Try not to forget about me. If you’re backed up, tell me. If the kitchen got orders for a table of 13 people right before I ordered my thing of chips and salsa, let me know it’ll be a while. I’ll understand.

But don’t dismiss me. Don’t argue. Feel free to investigate a situation or a complaint and explain what you found out, but don’t pick a fight.

Or, rather, do. Then don’t be surprised when I tell the internet.

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Ambience, Beer, Family, Neighborhoods, North Side, Service, Traditional

Caruso Beer Distributor.

Sam Caruso started out as a teacher. Grew up on the North Side in Mexican War Streets, where his Sicilian father opened a beer store in 1933, right after the end of Prohibition. Maybe the first one in Pittsburgh after repeal. He’d worked in the store since 1944, when he was 4 years old. But he was something else with an accordion.

That's him on the left.

So he went to Duquesne. Bachelor’s, then master’s. All in music. Taught first in Sharpsburg then up in Clarion County.

“I had one class that was girls’ chorus,” he said. “Finally I figured out that if I didn’t want the girls to talk all the time I had to get my accompaniest to go straight from one song into another without a break. I had those girls singing more than 40 minutes in a row, but no chattering.”

He didn’t make much money teaching — $6,000 a year at first — and he still worked for his dad in the summers delivering beer for a couple hundred bucks a week under the table. Time came in 1968 to open a new place a couple blocks from the one on Resaca where it had been since 1940.

“My dad asked me if I’d like to come in and work selling beer full-time,” Caruso, 71, said. “So there I was and here I am.”

The younger Sam Caruso, 1986.

The place has been around. Inside, it looks almost untouched, let along unchanged, since 1968. Back then, he used to sell almost 10 times as much Iron City as anything else, with Fort Pitt in the top five. Sometimes people offer him more money for his old beer signs than they spend on actual beer.

Seems like a lot of those old, family-owned beer distributors around Pittsburgh don’t change much. They still bank on Busch, Yuengling, High Life, Bud Light, Duquesne — often in cans — to keep their old regulars coming in but have no interest in the newer stuff.

This is where Sam’s a bit different. He carries those, but also gets in cases from Rogue, Great Lakes, Smuttynose, Troegs and others. In his office he keeps bottles from distributors’ samples he’s gotten to remind him what he’s had and liked. If a customer wants something he doesn’t carry, he’ll order it and call them when it comes in. He keeps a handwritten list of certain customers’ names, phone numbers and beer preferences by the cash register.

“Things change,” he said. “Tastes change. Some of those newer microbrews are really good beers. I’ll sell whatever people want, but beer’s come a long way.”

So has his family’s place. He’s not sure whether one of his children will take it over.

“They say they want to, but there’s no action on it,” he said. “I’m not going to be here forever.”

Even if it seems the business has been around that long. He collects old photos of his family and the beer distributorship — 19,000 in all, all of which he scanned in to keep digital copies.

Their first storefront:

A delivery truck:

He moved out of the neighborhood long ago, but he’d like to see the business remain.

“I hope it can,” he said. “I’ve always felt we had a real connection to this place.”

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