Pittsburghers have a weird relationship with our industrial past, an equal split of looking backward and forward. We want to move into the future eschewing all that limited us in the past, but our lives and the overall life of our city is irrevocably tied to those very same limitations. We make shopping centers out of smokestacks, but we’re still learning how to address the past concern while retaining a contemporary focus.
This tension is evident in all matter of city-living, including dining out of both high and low end varieties. Truth be told, the more casual, low-key establishments have the edge. However intriguingly the local past is interpreted by the latest four-star restaurant, our industrial roots are far more linked into the culture of the watering hole, the post-work drinking spot, the refuge of idle for those with far too much weight to carry.
It’s very possible to envision the direct ancestors of Blue Dust as the type of safe haven for the sullen, sullied masses, even as the present-day variation features accommodations unknown to that history. Its placement – just over the railroad tracks from the Waterfront in Homestead – is indicative of the type of establishment it means to be, the type of establishment far more linked with the Homestead of yore than the glossy, consumer-paradise of today.
Pittsburgh’s industrial past is represented not just in placement but in decor. Dusky impressions of mills and factories adorn the far wall and the lighting is spare but golden, hanging from metal rods and fixtures that give the restaurant a factory-floor feel echoed by the earthy color of the tiles and woodwork.
As a simple, stylish homage to Pittsburgh’s roots, Blue Dust’s decor and atmosphere succeeds. But what of its menu? Does it hearken back to the old days of simple, nourishing foods? Or does it play it safe by sticking to contemporary bar/restaurant casual dining staples?
Well, at least in the realm of appetizers, the answer is neither. Instead, the restaurant does a sharp left turn and instead of wings, fried zucchini, and nachos, the diner gets options like “Spicy China Doll with pita” and artichoke dip with crostini. Me and my dining companion opted for the red bean dip with tortilla chips. The dip was flavorful, but mild, with big chunks red bean punctuating the dense, creamy texture. Because it turned sludgy as it cooled, it could have been slightly thinner, but overall we were surprised and satisfied by the selection.
I can’t remember if it’s posted on the menu and we just didn’t notice, but we may have made a different starter selection if we knew that tortilla chips were also the side to our sandwiches. Or maybe not, as there proved to be far more dip than chips in our appetizer serving and our side accompaniment of tortillas filled in nicely.
Adam went with the teriyaki chicken wrap. While it’s not an entirely unexpected sandwich to appear on a bar-restaurant menu, the quality was surprisingly above average. Thick chunks of grilled white meat dressed in a honey-teriyaki glaze and engulfed by fresh greens and carrots. It had an undercurrent of sweetness that was tempered by the earthy crunch of the vegetables and the neutral flour tortilla, a medium well suited to soaking up the excess marinade.
Where his dish soared above its expectations, mine flat-lined right alongside of them. A grill-pressed three-cheese sandwich was disappointingly bland, with provolone and mild cheddar overwhelming whatever promised notes of goat cheese there were.
There were two elevating factors that kept the sandwich from being a total disappointment. For one, the bread, a crispy, herby Italian, was grilled to perfection and gave the sandwich a much-needed boost of flavor. The other exception was the house-made salsa, a smokey, tangy mix of fresh tomatoes, peppers and onions that worked on both the tortilla chips and the sandwich itself.
While Blue Dust isn’t an immersion experience in the city’s past, the decor, menu, and general atmosphere is right at home with the tension of old and modern. The price point could be lower, especially on the sandwiches, and the service was slightly lacking (although, to be totally fair, it seemed like they only had one bartender and waitress to serve the whole restaurant – at four this was manageable, but by five it seemed to be too much to handle), but the attention paid to the quality of ingredients coupled with a few moderate surprises make this a worthy watering hole when you want to get away from the Waterfront… but not too far away.