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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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, Cheap eats, Family, Ingredients, Presentation, Recipes, Service, Traditional

Golden Pig.

Yes, Korean food. In li’l ol’ Cecil on Route 50.

The whole restaurant has just 10 seats and is subtle enough to drive by twice before pulling in. Even shares a building with a used-car dealership. Like you do.

This is it. All of it. Seriously.

I only found out about it because a friend knew someone who thought highly of it, enough so that it sounded like it was worth a little drive. It was.

Owner Yong Kwon might just be hand-rubbing a vinegary spice slurry on cabbages to ferment her own kimchee or pickling mu radishes when you walk in. A native of Korea, she chose the out-of-the-way spot because she wanted to live close to her grandson — her “golden piggie,” hence the restaurant’s name.

Among her favorites is a classic beef bulgogi, marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, wine, garlic, black pepper and sugar and flash-cooked to keep it tender.

Don’t go in expecting a wide array of banchan, the traditional Korean side dishes. There are a few and she keeps them simple and on the vinegary side. But paired with the bulgogi or a Korean pancake appetizer big enough for two made with sweet potatoes and onion, their sharp pungency accents and elevates what’s on the plate.

Not everything is homemade. The ramen — broth and noodles — are of the instant variety, which she explains by saying no one in Korea eats anything else. Spending a day making the broth and noodles isn’t worth it, she said, when doing it this way is almost as good.

She seems to know everyone who walks through the door, and well enough to give them endless crap if she’s in a fun mood. The better she knows folks, the more merciless she is.

“You finally brought your wife,” she told one dude who came in with his equally trucker-capped buddy. “Hurry up and eat and get out.”

All in good fun.

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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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