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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Cheap eats, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Strip District

Pittsburgh Marshmallow Factory.

Willy Wonka may have said it best. The snozzberries taste like snozzberries.

Get a lemon marshmallow from Chris Momberger at his place in the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District and it tastes like actual lemons. The ones he makes with Big Hop IPA from East End Brewing taste like the beer tastes. Root beer marshmallows taste like root beer. Pistachio like pistachio. Maple bacon like syrup and cured pork belly.

And then there are these. If you’re brave enough.

Which is all sort of funny for a dude who is an economist by trade.

He learned this particular confection in India, just the right combination of sugar and gelatin and whatever the hell else works. The structure is his, but the flavoring genius belongs largely to his girlfriend, Deborah Steinberg.

They’d made the marshmallows for parties and the like, but hadn’t developed any kind of business plan.

Then Deborah was looking to drum up some extra cash.

“I told her as long as we could gross $250 for a weekend, I was in,” Chris said.

They do much better than that. The Post-Gazette took note, as did American Airlines’ magazine.

He’s been busy enough that he’s been asking friends to work the stand so he has enough time to make more marshmallows and, like, sleep.

My first of his marshmallows was whiskey.

There it is in some hot chocolate. Then came a beer one. Then ginger. Then cherry. Root beer and pistachio after that.

And then this happened.

It has little nibs of cooked bacon in it. Yes, really. And the maple-syrup flavor is kind of a perfect bridge between the marshmallow and the little piggy parts.

That I went back again and again should tell you something. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.

The marshmallows themselves are light, ethereal little notions. They weigh less than the idea of them. Sweet but not cloying. These are not the dusty, dense, cakey marshmallows most of us are used to out of a plastic bag on a supermarket shelf. And they’re a buck each at the Public Market, most of them.

Not just a different kind of thing — a different thing entirely.

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Beer, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Recipes, Seasonal, Strip District

Crested Duck Charcuterie.

Usually I wouldn’t advise you to seek out specialty meats from a software engineer.

With Adam Costa, it’s a little different. He’s one of the two brothers behind Crested Duck Charcuterie at the Pittsburgh Public Market.

The other brother, Kevin, is a trained chef. Worked in Cincinnati before moving back to Pittsburgh.

“We talked about opening a restaurant at first,” Adam said. “But I know he didn’t want to work every night for the rest of his life.”

The opening of the Pittsburgh Public Market gave them another option: to focus on food Kevin wanted to make in the quantities he thought most appropriate so he wouldn’t have to compromise quality. Much better deal, they thought, than cranking out 200 dinners on demand every single day.

They rent kitchen space and hope to have a space of their own soon enough.

“I got an electrician coming Monday,” Adam said.

Now, I said “specialty meats.” That can mean a lot of things. In this case, it’s guanciale — exquisite cured pork cheeks — for $16 a pound. Elk rillettes for $7. Rendered pork lard, $8 a pint, or basically a pound, Mexican-style chorizo at $10 a pound.

Some of that elk rillette on a toasted baguette with some seriously good beer — a delightful light December lunch if ever I heard of one.

They also make elk stock and sell elk soup bones as well as what they call “gin and juice” salami — it’s got juniper berries and a little orange zest in it. The juniper berries I could taste. The orange zest is there mostly so they can say it has orange zest in it. The “juice” part, if you will.

How does their stuff taste? Sort of like this:

I was excited, OK?

They also have salt. Many different kinds of salt.

This is important.

Some salt is for cooking. Some for finishing — whether a garnish or color or a sharper, bolder flavor. The distinctions can be subtle, but significant.

I picked up some of the Hawaiian red Alaea salt on one of my earlier trips in there. One of my favorite uses for it so far is on meat I sear and then braise. Last week I tried it on a well-marbled chuck roast I braised with fennel, onion and carrots in Troeg’s Doublebock beer. Seems to add a little smokiness, a little deeper flavor than the coarse Kosher salt I use most of the time.

At some point when I’m in the mood I want to try out some of the smoked salt as a finisher on seared scallops. But that’s for later. Like when it’s not freezing outside.

Maybe Adam won’t have to be a software engineer forever. He’s got a pretty good idea what he’s gotten himself into.

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Ambience, Coffee, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Service, Strip District, Techniques and tools

More than coffee.

It looks like coffee. I get it.

Still looks like coffee. Yeah. I — I know.

But this is why there are such things as $11,000 Clover coffee machines. And baristas who describe coffee like Jancis Robinson talks about wine, all “earthy” and “notes of citrus and leather” and “whisper of cherries.”

This is 21st Street Coffee in the Strip District. And there aren’t exactly rules, but there might as well be.

1. If you don’t drink your coffee black, don’t spend $4.20 on a 16-ounce cup. Just go to Starbucks. Everyone is aghast behind your back and it’s just not worth it. It’s like making spritzers out of a 1982 Margaux.

2. Sip. This is not mainline-three-shots-of-espresso-STAT coffee. Nor is it 3 a.m. drunk-in-a-diner coffee. This is Mad Elf coffee. Vertical Epic coffee. Petrus 1947 coffee. Butter-poached lobster coffee.

3. Appreciate what you’re drinking. The caffeine will make it into your system, surely, but just pause a minute and taste it. Enjoy it. See if you can’t find those notes of citrus. Turn on a different part of your brain.

All that can seem unnecessary. It’s just coffee. But it doesn’t have to be.

Either by training or personal inclination, the baristas there care about what you’re drinking. Don’t know what you want? Talk about what you like. Heavy, rich, light, smooth. You don’t have to know their terminology. They seem thrilled — at their own askance and hipsterish remove — that you care enough to ask.

This place is about investigating pleasure, getting more out of something because you know or are learning more about it.

It’s an easy adventure in a paper cup. Just put down that milk and take what they give you.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Strip District

Reyna’s.

I was born amid Mexican food. Maybe that sounds weird.

Irish and Italian on one side of the family, Russian and Ukranian on the other. Maybe that makes the Mexican food thing sound weirder.

I get that.

But it was the dominant not-made-at-home food of my childhood. We ate it a lot. It’s something I seek out in every city I live in. (The worst I’ve ever had: this joint in Philadelphia which was cruel enough to compensate with absurdly good mango margaritas. Yet I swear they made refried beans from a powder. Go figure.)

Not long after I hit the ground here in Pittsburgh, I heard about Reyna’s in the Strip District. Tortilleria in back, taco stand out front on Penn Ave. I chose a gently raining day to stop by. Forgivable, but not my only mistake.

The special when I go by is a crab empanada for $3. I adore empanadas. They’re almost like little calzones, though not the big-as-your-fat-eighth-grader variety: a shell of fried dough filled with almost anything. Beef and potatoes, say, or raisins and lamb. Almost any kind of leftovers could wind up making a truly inspirational empanada. The dough is important, too. It should be crisp and firm. Mush is nobody’s friend.

So I should have seen the microwave. I noticed the electric griddles for heating up whatever people ordered to put in their tacos and was a little nervous already. Those things don’t normally get hot enough to brown meat.

I order the empanada. Dude pops a premade one in the microwave. Oy. How old was it already? Hours? Weeks? And with crab in it, that’s a whole ‘nother problem.

Then, yeah. Mush. Hot mush.

I see the sign that says house-made tortillas. Tacos can’t be a bad idea. I’m a little on edge because of the empanada. And the tacos are $2.50 each. For taco-stand tacos, this is a little high. Most places, $1.25 or $1.50 is a good ballpark.

What I order then is almost like a test. One of my favorite things in a taco is lengua. Beef tongue. Done right, it’s rich, meltingly soft and like nine kinds of incredible.

Lengua has a very strong beef flavor which isn’t for everyone. It’s become kind of a staple of mine, in part because I like it and in part because it’s a good way to get a measure of a place. Get lengua right and lots of other things are bound to be right — or wrong in all the best ways. That’s fine, too.

Dude takes some precut little cubes of lengua and tosses them on the grill. They look a little gray, but nothing I can’t handle.

“You want everything on it?” Dude asks me.

“Cilantro y cebolla,” I said. Chopped cilantro and raw onions.

“Traditional Mexican,” Dude says. “I like that.”

He hits the tacos with a little fresh lime juice and we’re good to go.

It’s started to rain a little more, so I hunch under an awning next to the taco cart to eat. The corn tortillas are good. They taste fresh and complement the rest of the taco well. And the lengua: a little chewy but nothing to worry about. Flavorful. Solid. Not spectacular.

Still: better than I expected. But I don’t have to move nearby or anything.

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