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, 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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Ambience, Beer, Cheap eats, Neighborhoods, Service, South Side, Whiskey

Piper’s Pub.

If a place can be described as pan-UK, this is it. As many people describe the feel and aesthetic as English as do Scottish or Irish — and not just because there’s often a soccer match on one of the two TVs and a proper curry on the menu.

Also: There’s a gargoyle climbing up a wall behind the bar. Which is cool.

How their Scotch eggs — hard-cooked, wrapped in sausage, then battered and deep-fried — are not an officially recognized City Food of Pittsburgh is a mystery. Center stage food-wise is often the latest boxty – a giant folded potato pancake stuffed with generous amounts of savory ingredients like lamb and gravy, smoked salmon, or bangers, ham and cheese.

Not to mention they take their beer and whiskey deeply seriously. Order a Miller Lite and the threat of assault from behind the bar is unspoken but present.

Don’t know much about either? Ask. They’re happy to educate. Hart Johnson, one of the bartenders, makes exceptional beer at home and knows inside out the processes for brewing, storing and serving good beer. He wants you to drink better and smarter than you do. He’ll take the time to help that happen.

Sure it’s on the South Side. And sure that can mean idiocy at the wrong time on the wrong night. But if you’re looking for a cheap bucket of Natty Lights or dudebros fist-bumping in all their popped-collared glory, this ain’t your place. If you’ve ever non-jokingly used the term “slampiece,” there are other places along Carson Street I’m sure you’d fit right in.

But stay out of Piper’s so I can better enjoy it.

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Ambience, Beer, Ingredients, Presentation, Recipes, Service, Techniques and tools

Homebrew.

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If you see one of these bad boys, pick it up. Read it. Check out the advertisers.

Sure, I have a piece in it on the TRASH homebrew competition and what goes into entering these things and the long slog of a day spent judging beer. (There were Schwarzenegger impressions at one point. Also something about rose hips. I don’t even know.)

But support the magazine because it’s worth supporting. The guy behind it is Tim Russell, a dude who just wants to educate folks about good local beer.

He hasn’t gotten this edition up online yet, which is why I haven’t posted my story here. But seek it out — a Sharp Edge, East End Brewing’s growler shop in the Strip, maybe Bocktown and Fat Head’s and Piper’s and a bunch of other places by now, too — and give it a thorough read.

Chances are it will be worth the effort.

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Beer, Ingredients, Nontraditional, Techniques and tools

Tim.

It seems a lot of things that strike me as interesting come from people trying something new, often on their own.

That’s true with Salt of the Earth, Crested Duck Charcuterie, Azul, 21st Street Coffee, etc.

It’s also true with this:

This is the product of one Tim Russell. He’s 28 and works as a project manager for a defense contractor. It’s free, it’s a small-batch magazine and it’s new. Less new now than when I originally meant to post this, but still. Worth checking out.

Tim seems to be good people. And not just because I keep running in to him places. Fat Head’s on the South Side, Bocktown in the Ikea Kingdom off the Parkway West, Blue Dust in Homestead. Dude’s everywhere.

He was kind enough a while back to answer a few questions about what he’s doing. His answers are as he typed them.

Our little Q&A:

Eatsburgh: How did you first get interested in beer? How did the more you learned about it change how you tasted things?

Tim Russell: It all started on a business trip to England about 5 or 6 years ago. Some of the people that I was working with took my co-workers and I out for dinner and some beers afterwards. They got me to try some euro lagers with more flavor than what I was used to, like Peroni and Grolsch. Meanwhile, I had a case of Natty Light in the fridge at home. But I liked these a lot more. The “aha” moment probably came when I had a Boddington’s on nitro draft. I bought a case from a local distributor as soon as I got home and I was hooked. I was able to get some co-workers to split a case every payday just to be able to taste as many different styles and brands as I could. Like a lot of other people, what made the beer styles different was always of interest. So, reading about the ingredients and how different flavors were achieved led me into homebrewing, which obviously not only gave me even more insight into the brewing process, but more freedom to try some styles that I could only read about at the time.

Eatsburgh: How did you begin — just begin — to educate yourself?

TR: Most of my information came from what I could read online on sites like ratebeer.com, beeradvocate.com, and of course wikipedia. I had also gotten some pretty good books on brewing.

Eatsburgh: At what point did you become more of an evangelist? Was it first a desire to share information about good beer — or good local beer?

TR: I’ve always been the beer geek among my friends. I took pride in being able to educate and introduce people to things they didn’t know they were going to like so much.

Eatsburgh: Describe Craft Pittsburgh, both what it is and what you’d like it to become.

TR: It’s a free-circulation publication that will be placed at a lot of the good craft beer spots in and around Pittsburgh. It’s being issued on a quarterly basis. It’s pretty much something you can pick up and read over a beer at the bar or take home after grabbing a six pack for takeout.

The idea came after I was reading Brewing News, another free pub, but circulated at a regional level. I’d always pick it up when I could, but started getting frustrated with the lack of coverage in the Pittsburgh area. It seemed like every other area in the Great Lakes region was getting more attention. I knew there was so much more going on, but Pittsburgh wasn’t getting the coverage in this form of media that it deserved. Besides that, there was information was out there, mostly online, but it was scattered. I found myself checking at least five or six different websites just to get an idea if anything was coming up. So a comprehensive calendar of beer events was something else that I was happy to introduce.

I also thought that going into print was a medium that could grab a more casual demographic; again, the guy having a beer alone at the bar or taking a sixer home. Not everyone is online, or at least checking up on every good beer and food blog the area has to offer.

The content is going to be comprised of beer news, events coverage, reviews, homebrewing, etc., but I want it all to have a local spin. Events will be local. Beer reviews will be for those that are locally available. Someone asked me if we’d write something about growing hops, but only because he didn’t know what hops would actually fare well in the local soil and climate.

After doing some coverage for these events so far, I feel like a lot of people don’t appreciate why they’re there. Most of these events are charitable with great causes, but people overlook that a lot of times. So we’re making an effort to raise more awareness for the causes, not just the beer.

I want it to become resource for the Pittsburgh beer community. Something I take pride in is the sense of community the area has, but not just geographically. All the subcultures and interest groups have their own sense of community as well. We have a great craft beer community here already, but I want to do my part to help it grow.

Eatsburgh: When you decided to start a magazine, how did you start? What were the challenges? How did you find the designers, artists, printers, etc., you would need?

TR: Since it’s going to be distributed for free, the hardest part is getting funding from advertising. I work as a project manager and have some background in pricing and contracts, so figuring my expenses wasn’t difficult. I put a few quotes out and was happy with the examples of some design work the printer that I chose had to offer. Once I had that out of the way, I spent a lot of time just meeting with potential advertisers to gauge interest and try to raise some support. The interest was definitely there, but we still needed to show a product. I had all the ideas for the content for a pilot issue. We just needed to write it. I had an idea of some writers I wanted to get on board. Some weren’t realistic. Some were, but either fell through or hadn’t materialized. At that point I had already taken to twitter and came across a few great writers by coincidence. That’s quite ironic, since I used to be pretty anti-social media. But things have been falling in place in an uncanny way.

Eatsburgh: Who do you hope the audience for this is?

TR: I assume they’d be local, but it doesn’t have to be anyone in particular, as long as they enjoy craft beer or at least have an interest in learning about good beer and local events.

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