Tag Archives: dining

Smoke Barbecue Taqueria


There are a lot of reasons a Pittsburgher like me might envy Chicago. The flat landscape makes biking the entire city a cinch. They’ve got a public transportation system that, in my limited opinion, rivals that of any other city. There are beaches. There is a vibrant music scene punctuated by visits from notable bands from all over the world. There are more veg-friendly establishments in one or two neighborhoods than in the entirety of Pittsburgh (although this is rapidly becoming less true).

But the real point of jealousy, for me, is the Mexican food. The glorious, glorious array of offerings all over the city, from the high-end cuisine of Rick Bayless to the lowest of the lowly late-night burrito joints. In this regard, it’s not just the level of quality, but the sheer quantity available. Every neighborhood, every business area, seemingly every street, many open 24 hours, seven days a week. That’s an absurd amount of riches for one city and I, for one, am sick of Pittsburgh getting the short shrift on Mexican dining.

I guess I’m not alone, because in the last year or so, half a dozen openings have given local fans of Mexican, Latin American, and similarly minded cuisine a reason to stop envying our Midwest cousin city and start sampling the scattered options around town. If this gives locals a good reason to visit Brookline Boulevard or the area of Homestead that is not the Waterfront, then so be it.

While the taco stand at Las Palmas in Brookline still holds my affection as “Best Sign That Pittsburgh is Finally Getting Some Decent Mexican Food” as well as “Best Damn Lunch You Can Get for $5,” a recent contender has approached and made a powerful first strike in the war for my love: Smoke Barbecue Taqueria. A blend of traditional Mexican food and American barbecue, this little restaurant gives people like me a lot to get excited about.

Located just around the corner from the Waterfront on Eighth Avenue, Smoke is about as tiny as you can get without being a strictly takeout joint. The name of the game is house-made, from the tortillas to the beverages. The menu is an efficient affair of a few breakfast items, the small but mighty list of tacos, and some classic side options to complement the main course. The food can be ordered to-go or eaten inside the small and funky dining area that is comprised of three sets of mismatched tables and chairs and a little counter seating area.

I wouldn’t suggest going to Smoke on an empty stomach. When me and my dining companions made our first visit, we were surprised by a sign on the door that read “Ran out. Temporarily closed until 7:00 pm.” Luckily for us, it was about quarter till. We were invited in and waited at one of the tables until they were ready to start serving again. And by “they” I mean the skeleton staff of two, maybe three people preparing and serving the food and handling transactions. Because of this, the service was slow, but amicable. As the restaurant started to fill up with patrons, we couldn’t really blame the staff for the long wait for our food. They were beyond busy.

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Summertime, Sweet Summertime: Custard Crossing and Mercurio’s

It was a hellish July, but that gave way to a remarkably lovely August, filled with 80 degree days and 68 degree nights. Still, it’s the Dog Days, and like any good summertime citizen, I’ve been spending the warm weather months enjoying some of the various iced sweet treats available in our fair burgh.

I now live a mere five-minute walk to Oh Yeah! Ice Cream and Coffee Co., and while it’s a little pricey for my day-to-day sweet tooth, it’s an incredible little place that has lived up to every bit of praise thrown its way. The selection of ice cream base flavors is limited, but well-chosen and includes several vegan options. Then there’s the mix-ins, which number somewhere beyond fifty and include fruits, spices, chocolates, candies, meats, and intangibles, like “magic.” In addition, there are waffles, coffee, milkshakes, cookies, sodas, penny candy, and, my favorite extra sweetness, wireless internet. It’s the kind of place that one dreams of owning and operating.

When I haven’t been actively resisting the urge to run down South Highland into the gooey, lovely arms of Oh Yeah!, I’ve been gradually sampling other kinds of local iced offerings. And I have to sing their praises:


On a hazy midweek afternoon, I made a visit to the Waterfront Barnes and Noble, where I rewarded myself for errands achieved by making a stop at Custard Crossing, a frozen custard stand across the way from Panera Bread. City Paper featured a nice little blurb about the shop, notice that it deserved not just because of the deliciousness offered up there, but also due to its intriguing backstory (without spoiling the article, owner Tom Crankovic might have the most admirably one-track mind that ever opened a custard stand).

Custard Crossing also serves Italian ice, smoothies, hot dogs, etc., but the draw here is the sweet, dense custard. Egg-based and whipped with less air than conventional ice cream, the custard is smooth, silky but heavy and absolutely packed with flavor. On my visit to the counter, I bounced between tempting basics like vanilla and chocolate and conventional favorite mint chocolate chip, but settled on maple walnut. It was fantastic, deliciously rich to an absurdity. Every tiny taste boasted a ton of flavor, with the maple and walnut playing well against each other and the innate flavor of the custard. I could have done with slightly more walnut pieces in the mix, but my complaints vanish every time I think about the smooth finish of maple flavor.

I want a scoop of it on a stack of pancakes. Because you can get pints to go, that might just be what I have to do.

Custard Crossing on Urbanspoon


From the Waterfront back to Shadyside. Like Oh Yeah!, Mercurio’s is in the neighborhood, about a ten minute walk over to the main business district on Walnut Street. Their specialty is gelato and Neopolitan pizza, a kind of perfect pairing if you think about it. First the salty, savory pie, then enjoy a little extra indulgence with the gelato.

Like custard, gelato is a low-fat ice cream alternative. It’s lighter than custard, heavier than standard ice cream, and silkier than both, with a lovely, velvety finish to each taste. Mercurio’s boasts thirty standard flavors and a smaller menu of special daily flavors. The organization at the shop was not top-notch (almost none of the display cases were marked correctly and some of the flavors labeled to be available were not in stock), but there’s no denying that the variety gives a customer a lot to play around with.


My companion on this visit, Kate, went for a match-up of dark chocolate gelato and mint chocolate chip. The result was heavy on the chocolate, light on the mint, and perfectly divine. I especially liked the dark chocolate which when slightly melted, had a texture and flavor like that of an uncooked, fudgey brownie.


After some ordering confusion, I got a blend of hazelnut and vanilla caramel cashew. The hazelnut was perfect with the decadent caramel, but it was short on the expected cashew crunch. Didn’t stop me from scooping up every bit I could with the little shovel-like plastic spoons.

Mercurio's on Urbanspoon

I’m still working through my summer iced treat to-do list, but I’m curious as to your suggestions. Any summertime sweet treats that I have to try?

Alchemy N’ Ale


It was a pal’s birthday on Friday and she wanted to go out to dinner, so I asked her where she wanted us to take her. And I got the question:

“What are some good places you know?”

Oh, the question. In any conversation, an enthusiast silently and secretly waits for the question to be asked. It’s the question that once asked will unlock the bounty of knowledge that is at constant unrest inside the brain of the enthusiast. The question that will unleash a torrent of thoughts, opinions and pontifications. When presented to some people, the question will cause a four-hour marathon one-sided conversation that will consist of more exclamations and excited hand gestures then an average person experiences in a month’s time.

Anyone who has a sincere passion for something anticipates the question being asked. In my case, its anticipation coupled with nervousness, because I’m not entirely confident in the amount of my knowledge on my given topic of interest. I’m interested, invested, but how schooled am I?

It should be simple enough to answer a basic question like “What are some good places you know?” but asked at the wrong time and my mind goes completely blank. It can lead to pretty mediocre suggestions.

“Good… good places? Uh… well, there’s… um…. you know…. that new place… remember that one place that closed down last year…. well…. You know, everyone likes Primanti’s!”

(Note: Please advise that this is an example and not a statement of true feelings on the behalf of the writer on the topic of Pittsburgh’s beloved chain of behemoth sandwich mongers.)

Anyway, for people like me who have trouble thinking on their feet (and in their stomachs), Urbanspoon – apologies if it seems like I’m mentioning this site a lot, I just seem to have endless uses for it – allows its members to save desired restaurant finds on a wishlist. Mine started off small enough – a few highly lauded locations – but quickly ballooned. At first, I tried to stick to stuff that was seemingly doable, places in my average price range or easily accessible to my location, but now, I just add anything recommended to me or that sounds desirable in any way. What’s more, I’ve become a bit of a new restaurant hunter and have started to watch the listings of new places recently opened or soon to be opened, and now I add those listings onto my wishlist.

My humble wishlist has grown to more than thirty places, which seems a little like overkill. I’ll be lucky if I get to an eighth of these places by the end of the year. But what it lacks in realistic expectations it compensates for in its new use as the answer to the question. For instance, in this situation with my friend’s birthday, I advised her to do the reasonable thing:

“Oh, check my wishlist on Urbanspoon. I’ve got all kinds of places on there.”

Question answered.

That long and rambling tangent was how we ended up at Alchemy N’ Ale, a new restaurant on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, taking over the spot left vacant by the departed Mama Rosa. The co-owner and head chef of A’N’A served as executive chef at Tribeca Grill in New York, known for its star-studded clientele and star-driven ownership (Robert De Niro is a co-owner), and he’s brought a similar culinary sensibility to this gastropub, only at a slightly more affordable price range for the average Pittsburgh diners.

So, how did the wishlist gamble pay off?

Alchemy N' Ale on Urbanspoon

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Selma’s Texas Barbecue


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.

Selma's Texas Barbecue on Urbanspoon

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D’s Six Pax & Dogz



Sometimes, you run into the limits of reviewing. Some places just seem to resist a direct assessment. For example, it seems kind of silly to “review” D’s Six Pax & Dogs. What is there really to say?


There’s a beer cave. A giant hall of beers, each one available to you, the customer, at a reasonable charge. Where some restaurants offer a one-page list of drafts, followed by a one-page list of bottled beverages, D’s offers you the world of beer. You can stick with the two-page draft list, including such highlights as the Southern Tier Gemini, the Great Lakes Blackout Stout, and even the non-alcoholic 1919 Draft Root Beer. Or you can wander about in the beer cave, running your hands up and down boxes, bottles, your life infinitely more complicated than it needed to be, but it’s beer and you’re here and what the hell, you’ve got the choice make!


D’s also generously offers a great deal to go with your beer. It’s bar food, but reliably tasty. The kind of food that is regrettable for caloric intake alone, but enjoyable for any number of reasons. Affordable enough to pile it on, big enough to share, if you’re drinking and not eating at D’s, there’s obviously something wrong.

The nachos pictured above were shared by four people, which it more than accommodated. We demolished it, wiping up remnants of gooey nacho cheese with scraps of tortilla chips. The taste was akin to snack bar nachos but with better cheese and fresh chips, a taste anyone who grew up going to their neighborhood pool and roller skate rink can get behind.

Then there were the hot dogs:


The top two are veggie dogs, the bottom two are all-beef hot dogs. They’re served on simple but fresh sesame buns and topped within an inch of your life. Hot dogs aren’t much for sharing, so I can really only discuss my veggie Chihuahua dog, with its sharp cheddar, salsa, and piles of jalapeno. The real delight here, and something I honestly never would have thought to put on a dog, was gooey, creamy avocado. It soothed out the greater heat of the hot dog without detracting from any of the flavors. The veggie dog itself was a little crunchy, a little chewy, a good meaty non-meaty hot dog.


We shared nachos. We each ate a mountainous hot dog. Then we shared a pizza.

Again, like the nachos, the pizza is like a really good generic snack bar pie, the biggest difference being the quality of the crust. The crisp crust was denser than it appeared to be and sustained the weight of sauce, cheese, and the significant amount of pepperoni and mushrooms. The sauce is decent (a little sweet, mostly inconspicuous), but cheese is applied in just the right amount, and the toppings, while generous in number, do not crowd out the basic factors of the pie. It’s salty and greasy, but it’s pizza, and it’s a perfect counterpart to its hot dog and nacho brethren.

It’s hard to review a place like D’s because everything works so well within its own environment. It’s not gourmet, and it’s not supposed to be. You don’t go to D’s to eat a life changing meal, unless your plan to change your life includes a triple bypass. You go to D’s because you want to drink some beer and eat the right kind of food to go with that beer. True, there are many places like that in this ‘Burgh. But D’s is undeniably one of the best.

D's Six Pax & Dogz on Urbanspoon

Salt of the Earth


Some restaurants are like rock stars. Everyone talks about them. They’re in every magazine, every newspaper, on every blog. First people can’t wait to be the one who discovered them, and then people can’t wait to be the first to dismiss them as nothing special. They have their devotees, their die-hard fans on one end of the spectrum and on the other end, a whole host of critics with complaints justified and unjustified.

But the point is, everyone knows about them. Rock stars, movie stars, and restaurants. Or maybe it just seems that way because I talk to a lot of people about food. But you know a restaurant has hit the big buzz when your mom brings it up:

“Salt? One of the women from work went there. They make you sit at long tables with other diners.”

Well, yes, Mom, they do. Sort of.

Since opening in last fall, Salt of the Earth  has steadfastly proven itself the new diva of the local dining scene, which is kind of funny, considering how aptly named it turned out to be. While the restaurant has high-end trappings – at least for this city – the general feel, pace, and atmosphere of the restaurant is casual. Let me put it this way: I was wearing an old dress, my dining companion was wearing cords. We saw people in business type dress, we saw people in jeans. Nobody flinched. Nobody stared. It didn’t seem to matter in the slightest.

The main dining area of the restaurant is bordered by two opposing focal points: The large blackboard with the daily menu (the entire menu, including drinks, starters, entrees, and desserts, etc) on one side, the wide open kitchen on the other. The bar lines the far wall. There’s a smaller, more intimate setting upstairs and a few high-seater tables in the windows near the entrance, but the majority of the seating is exactly what my mother presumed, long tables lined by little benches. Oh, and of course, the counter seating that lines the open kitchen, which is exactly where me and my dining companion, Meghan, found ourselves when we visited this past Monday evening.

Salt of the Earth on Urbanspoon

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Speers Street Grill


When you’re not a hired food critic, you aren’t hampered in by silly notions of professionalism. A lot of people – not bloggers, usually, but people leaving comments and blurb restaurant reviews on sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon – take this as permission to be at their most short-sighted and dismissive.  They’ll write off a place after one visit and go on and on about how it was the “worst service EVER” or the “worst burger EVER,” etc. And this sort of reviewer doesn’t even publicly admit when he or she was wrong about a place or has new opinions after a revisit. Those reviews stick far longer than the opinions themselves, and few people offer noted retractions.

While I tend to view that practice with the utmost contempt, I am not above being unprofessional in my practices. I just tend to go the other direction – When my guard is down, I tend to be overly positive about a place. And how does my guard go down? Easily.

Maybe it’s nice weather or the company of someone I haven’t gotten to see recently. Maybe it’s a good glass of wine or a nice, crisp gin & tonic. Maybe the service is particularly friendly or the food is comforting and tasty. Maybe it’s conversation, maybe it’s a Friday night and we’re all so relieved to have two free and open days in front of us.

Or maybe it’s a boat on fire.


That’s right. On the Sunday evening that I dined at the Speers Street Grill with my mother, we braved the mugginess on the outdoor patio seating and were rewarded with a generous helping of action and intrigue. Well, not really. Apparently, a boat had caught fire up the river. The back porch of the restaurant overlooks a common place to put boats in the river, so we got to watch a lot of slow-moving action centered around an emergency vehicle and the emergency rescue boat sent to retrieve those in peril.

But, needless to say, our attention was not purely focused on the food in front of us. But if lack of professionalism leads to a positive review, so be it. We had a perfectly pleasant evening in Lower Speers, and I can only assume that were the food less tasty, was the service less friendly, was the overall atmosphere of the restaurant less relaxing, the meal would have been far less enjoyable.

Speers St. Grill on Urbanspoon
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