My mother was looking for a drive and some dinner on Sunday night, and I knew, I just knew that barbecue was what she was looking for. So I tooled around on Urbanspoon, sampling the random wonders of their slot machine, trying to find something that would give her a worthwhile cause for mileage. It turns out this city is certainly not lacking in quality barbecue.
I settled on Selma’s Texas Barbecue for many reasons, but mostly because it looked charmingly small-scale and had a cheerful, friendly website that even touts a back story for the restaurant. As anyone who has read my Waffle House article will know, I’m a bit of sucker for tiny little cheap food joints with storied histories as well as tasty food.
Selma’s history is focused on Selma herself, a native of Texas and Arkansas for whom the restaurant models its wholesomely unhealthy Southern cuisine. The food is inexpensive but prepared to very particular specifications. The catfish is farm-raised, the meat slow cooked all day, the sauces mixed in-house. Even the baked goods are homemade, ensuring that patrons can get a fix of Coca-Cola cake and banana pudding alongside their ribs and cornbread.
Western Pennsylvania may not have the barbecue pedigree of the South, but it’s got a hankering for the cuisine all the same. Our neighbors in West Virginia know what they’re doing around a grill pit, and many of them have been kind of enough to spread the wealth into this region. Besides, the slow cooking ways of the Pennsylvania Dutch are not unlike the slow cooking ways of the Deep South. We share an affinity for pork and starches and meals that stretch from late afternoons to nightfall. What we share, like many food cultures, is a desire to sit around all night and converse over full plates of delicious home cooked foods.
Selma’s is very, very low key. You walk in, order your food, grab your cup and fill it up yourself, and take a seat. Someone will eventually bring your food, but while you’re waiting, feel free to educate yourself on the fine sauces offered on every tabletop in the small restaurant.
Selma’s even gives you a handy guide to the sauces, including a basic description of flavor and recommendations on what to use each sauce on. Kind of them, certainly, but I had no intention of only trying certain sauces on certain things. If there wasn’t a palate of sauces left on my plate at meal’s end, I had failed some kind of test.
My mother had ordered the pulled pork dinner plate, which came with her choice of two sides, those choices being potato salad and baked beans. The pork is dry rubbed with seasonings while it cooks. The subsequent flavor is present, but accommodating to the many sauces it might accompany. My mother sampled a few, settling on the “Original Memphis Style” as her favorite. I couldn’t argue with that – its tangy sweetness was a good match for the dry, yet salty pork. Yet, I was dissatisfied by the few bites of pork I tried. The strings of pork started strongly flavorful, but the taste dwindled by the middle of the heap. With the additional sauce it was more than serviceable, but slightly bland without.
If the pork had been just a bit more tender, it might have lived up to its side dishes, both of which are borderline incredible. I have long said that if I ever found a restaurant that makes potato salad like my mom’s, I’d visit on a weekly basis. Well, being that the restaurant is in Moon Township, I don’t know that I’ll be getting there weekly, but I know I’ll be making another trip soon. Instead of the pickles my mother uses, they use celery, which is pretty typical of Southern potato salad. It had the right notes of sour and sweet, as did the baked beans, which in addition packed just a touch of heat.
My mom scoffed that I had ordered the catfish sandwich, but I pointed to just below the logo, where the words “Farm-Raised Catfish” share equal billing with “Slow Smoked Meats.” I’m all about soul food catfish, cornmeal-breaded and seasoned with salt, pepper, and a bit of cayenne. This lacked the heat of other fried catfish I’ve tried, but its breading gave a good crunch, yet yielded to some of the most tender, flaky fish that I’ve enjoyed inside a bun. The homemade tartar sauce was almost superior, chunky and bursting with flavors both sweet and sharp.
My sides, macaroni and cheese and green beans with bacon, had quite the course to follow up but they did so with admirable quality. The mac’n'cheese was especially good, creamy and mild and lacking the atomic yellow of lesser restaurants’ variations (ever notice how orange Boston Market’s mac and cheese is?). The greens were good if a little too soft. I like mine with a bit more crunch, but these were supposed to be stewed to a droopy tenderness. The little bits of bacon weren’t overwhelming but the flavor carried throughout the dish.
We were hungry for some good quality barbecue and we got exactly what we wanted. The price was right – just over twenty for two large meals and drinks – and the environment was clean, casual, and relaxing. Visiting Selma’s made me wistful for all the roadside restaurant shacks I have visited over the years, most of which could not boast the same quality and standards of Selma’s, but remain some of my favorite memories of being on the road all the same.