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.
At the very least, we took it fairly easy on them with our orders. We all ordered two tacos a piece, with Maureen and Brandon each ordering a chicken and a veggie, while me and James stuck to the veggie option with added avocado cream. The veggie taco was a delicious mix of corn, potatoes, peppers, and black beans, portioned out to maximize flavor while delivering a mouth-pleasing texture to each bite. While underlying notes of smoke may be more subtle in this taco than the ones featuring meat, it was still distinct in the mix of flavors, distinguishing the taco from its bland and mediocre counterparts from the likes of fast-casual Mexican chains. It’s nice to see a veg option that is as well thought out as the meaty choices, and as well prepared. This is a worthwhile taco for herbivores and omnivores alike.
Of course, it wouldn’t be proper if there wasn’t someone to try a meat option. Maureen and Brandon both selected the chicken taco. The chicken was cooked to perfection, smokey and tender, working beautifully with the bite of the pickled onions, the heat from the sauce, and the cool-down flavors of the avocado cream. I was especially impressed with how light the combination still proved to be, delivering a great taste but not the heaviness typically associated with something so dense with flavor.
Three of us chose to fill out our meals with side options. I was curious how the element of smoke would come into play in dishes like the jalapeno apple slaw. The minor dose of heat from the tiny jalapeno slices helped to tie the cool slaw into the grander flavor themes of our tacos, but with established notes all its own, including a mild sweetness from the apples, as well as a tang from the vinegar in the dressing. Very refreshing and a nice complement to the heat in the chicken taco.
More of the quintessential smoke flavor could be found in the potato salad, with each creamy bite of potato infused by the flecks of crispy bacon sprinkled on top and mixed throughout. The potatoes could have been just a little more tender, but there was little to complain about flavor-wise. It was an ideal mix of creamy and slightly sour with salty and savory.
One wouldn’t typically think of smoke as a palatable flavor in mac’n’cheese, but the Smoke variation delivered its distinguishing taste while sacrificing none of the traditional gooey, cheesy delight of this favorite dish. I can’t be sure of what cheese they use in the dish, but its an absolute perfect fit, a little smokey, a little biting, but with a smooth, creamy finish. It’s not sludge-like or too heavy, but it’s not slight, especially not on flavor. I was ready to order another container to go.
We were blown away by our visit. The attentiveness to the thematic flavor of smoke was subtle, but unmistakable, producing food that was both comfortingly familiar in its roots and distinctive in its quality. I might not have my 24-hour greasy spoon Mexican joint yet, but Smoke is keeping my hopes up for what the future brings to the culinary landscape of our city.