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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Cheap eats, Ingredients, Meta, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Regent Square

The deed.

Not too long after I moved to Pittsburgh, I started going to D’s Six Pax & Dogz in Regent Square. Good beer, something new on tap with tremendous consistency, solid, flavorful hotdogs and exceptional fries. I’m probably there more often than I should be.

But there was always a line I wouldn’t cross. They have a macaroni and cheese dog.

This is a problem. I love macaroni and cheese. I also like hotdogs. Together, they create a weird double-starch problem in my head. Conceptual. Like a spaghetti sandwich or something. It also isn’t a place I would have guessed made a sublime and sinful macaroni and cheese, which I’d think would be mandatory to pull something like that off.

A deep-fried crispy hotdog with brown mustard and cole slaw — absolutely, yes. But not this.

Then the heckling began. People I know and like, saying such kind and supportive things like (and I paraphrase for comic effect, though not by as much as you might think):

Eat it, bitch.

What are you, some kind of dilettante nancyboy?

Wuss on a stick.

Put that meat in your mouth. Now.

Punk jackalope.

It was a public shaming.

Maybe half the people I heard from told me how deeply awesome it is. The other half questioned my sanity at even considering putting such a thing in my mouth.

I’m not without my guilty pleasures. And I haven’t come across anything I wouldn’t at least try if someone told me is was good. I’m not adventurous for the sake of it, necessarily, but this involved a dare. And apparently my manhood.

So you see my dilemma. Or maybe you don’t. Which is also fine. But I knew I was going to eat the damn thing.

I also knew I couldn’t do it alone.

The main instigators and a couple other friends — along with my shaking-her-head wife — decided to join me in my moment of whatever it was my moment of. Triumph? Humiliation? Ignominy? Centered inner peace? Hell, maybe they were just there for the beer.

Thanks for preserving this moment, Gwen. I look so ... thrilled, don't I?

The thing arrived. Not quite what I was expecting. Someone told me D’s made its own macaroni and cheese, which perhaps it does — of a sort gooey, Velveeta-ish, viscous. Less than my thing.

I took a huge, absurd Guy Fieri bite, enough of one that I’m not sure I tasted much. Another bite — and yeah. Less than my thing.

So. I can say I ate it. And I can say happily that I’ll be back soon — for something else.

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Ambience, Ingredients, Meta, Recipes

Generosity.

Food is for sharing.

One of the hardest things about moving to Pittsburgh in stages has been my inability to entertain. Cooking for myself is fine — I do like food — but it’s so much more gratifying to do it for other people. My kitchen right now has only a few of my toys in it. I barely have furniture; it arrives with my wife AmyJo in less than a week.

Finally. On all counts. Especially the wife part. We actually like each other. It’s a little sick.

The process of cooking is almost soothing for me. The sweat, the knife nicks on my hands, the performance stress make a strange sheath for an activity in which I find a measure of serenity. It may be the most organized I get. What prep to do in what order, when to hit the heat or take something out of the fridge to get to room temperature, where to put everything in the meantime.

Driving through town on the way somewhere? Stop for a night. I’ll cook. I’ll take any excuse I can most of the time.

And I haven’t gotten to do it.

Mostly.

See, I have a friend. Say hello to Beth. I got to talking on Twitter a few weeks ago about how much I missed this. She offered up her kitchen.

We haven’t known each other since childhood or anything. I’ve only lived here three months and known her for one of them. And that’s now, not when she first opened her house to me.

And this is the crazy thing: Hers wasn’t the only offer I got of a kitchen, just the one that worked out. Pittsburgh’s like that.

Beth’s offer was gracious. And kind. I mean, I suppose she thought something like, “Hey, food.” But she didn’t even know for sure I could cook — just that I talked about it.

That night, she invited over a few friends and I made a tray of ziti with a homemade tomato sauce and a little dip/spread thing that was basically a puree of olive oil and roasted garlic, eggplant, fennel, red peppers and onion with a little fennel pollen at the end to bring out the sweetness a little more. Nothing fancy.

Damn, it felt good.

So last night we did it again. Little more elaborate this time. Tilapia enchiladas in a spinach and roasted poblano cream sauce preceded by mussels in beer with red peppers, shallots, garlic, saffron, ancho chile powder, red pepper flakes — and I think that’s it. I burned off some of the hair on my knuckles roasting the peppers — I didn’t have tongs — and the pan for searing the fish shot me with hot oil a couple times, but I have done far worse to myself.

Another new friend, Emily, made a sinful chocolate cream pie for dessert. Sinful. Impure thoughts. Honestly.

The enchilada recipe is a ripoff of a Rick Bayless recipe that uses chicken and corn tortillas instead of the flour ones I use in this. A few other differences, too, but it’s not like I can claim it as my own.

Mine kind of look like this:

I’m rather incapable of following precise recipes. It’s why I don’t bake. I combine flavors in my head the way I do with words. Organize the ingredients sort of the same way. I taste in advance with my brain. That’s how I know how to explain it.

Food was good. (And if you like: recipes for the enchiladas and the mussels.) All seven of us laughed. Hard. A lot. At the Internet or, like, furniture. Or each other or Eddie Izzard. Didn’t matter.

But it was something that wouldn’t have happened without the donated kitchen. Beth shared. So I got to share, too.

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