Category Archives: Lunchtime!

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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Good Morning, Vegan Southwest Quiche!

Are you a quiche eater?

A 1982 bestselling book, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, firmly defined the egg, cream and cheese savory pastry as feminine and therefore beneath the standards of masculinity for any man who didn’t want to been seen as some namby-pamby New Age sort. The book goes on to describe this man as the sort who refers to his significant other as “life partner,” and who likely make the quiche, serve it to his partner, and wash up afterward. Needless to say, this man is not to be aped but to be despised and dismissed.

Due to the book’s 55 weeks on the bestsellers chart, “quiche eater” became briefly synonymous with a person too fancy to get his hands dirty. Having made more than a few quiche crusts, I find the insult to be a little ironic, considering how quickly the hands get floured, crummy, and sticky while forming the dough. But maybe the idea is that the quiche eater doesn’t make the crust.

Actually, going even further on this line of thought, the book admits that it’s perfectly masculine for a man to eat an egg and bacon pie that his spouse might offer him, but to make it himself would be deemed less than masculine. So it’s somehow less dainty to be waited on? Bruce Feirstein, you’ve got me thoroughly confused.

Anyhoo, there are many good vegan quiche recipes among my collected cookbooks, but for Sunday morning’s pie, I used what I had on hand and made a sort of Tex-Mex, Southwest pie with red onion, red bell pepper, mushrooms, and some of the field garlic we received in our CSA this week. Filling in for the egg and cream, I mashed in a pound of extra firm tofu. You can take or leave the turmeric in the recipe, but I think it gives the overall look a nice, rich color.

Word to the wise on tofu-based quiches: I don’t mind mine being a little loose and crumbly, but if you want a tighter, more gelled pie, use a food processor to blend the tofu smooth before adding it to the sautéed veggies.

Southwestern Quiche

Ingredients
– 1 9″ vegan pie crust
– 1 medium red onion, chopped
– 1 small red bell pepper, diced
– 5 or 6 fresh mushrooms, chopped
– 1 stalk field garlic, finely chopped (optional – but tasty)
– 1 pound extra firm tofu
– 2 tsp chili powder
– 1 tsp garlic pepper seasoning
– 1 1/2 tsp cumin
– 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
– Turmeric (optional)

– Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

– Saute the onions in oil until translucent. Add the bell pepper and continue cooking for three minutes. Add mushrooms and seasonings and saute until everything is tender.

– Crumble in tofu and turmeric, then stir briskly with a fork until everything is well combined and fairly smooth, adding a tablespoon or two of water if needed. Pour into pie crust.

– Bake the quiche for 40 minutes in the oven, until the edges are browned. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes before eating.

Penn Avenue Fish Company Downtown

Talk about a smart business plan. Penn Avenue Fish Company in the Strip does a brisk business serving delicious undersea lunchtime specialties and sushi to crowds of customers from the immediate surrounding businesses as well as Downtown employees and folks working up Penn and Liberty Avenues into Lawrenceville and Bloomfield. So when the restaurant expanded their territory, they made the right decision to put their new location in the middle of Downtown, securing the hearts and appetites of many of their already loyal Downtown-based customers, as well as ensuring a whole horde of new followers.

Favorites of the Strip location, such as the sushi and the fish tacos, made the trip into Downtown as well. In addition, they added a dinner menu for Wednesday through Saturday service. The inventive and tantalizing lunch options easily transformed into upscale (but not uppity) dinnertime offerings.

The interior of Penn Avenue Fish Company Downtown feels like a combination sushi bar and cafe. It’s long and narrow, but the design keeps it from feeling cramped, with brightly colored walls and flooring. Warm overhead lights supplement the natural light coming in from the entrance, and a few well-chosen items of aquatic-themed wall decor give the place an appropriate dose of seafood restaurant without falling into the realm of the cheesy.
Penn Avenue Fish Company  on Urbanspoon

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Burgatory Bar


One day we look back at the Burger Bar Wars of 2010-2011 and think, “Really, why did we get so excited?” Granted, I have only been to two of the combatants in this fight, but they’re arguably the champions thus far: Brgr and, now, Burgatory Bar. In regards to a comparison between the two restaurants and the burger trend in general, I have two things to admit:

1) Honestly, I’d love to come down on one side or the other, but Brgr and Burgatory are about even when it comes to overall experience. Both have definite advantages on their competition, but when you tally up the highs and lows… it’s a draw.

2) How to put this… I don’t get the burger trend. I get having burgers. I get having places that specialize in burgers. I understand the appeal of having a focus that takes a very specific, beloved food item and experiments with it or classes it up. But why are people going so apeshit about these places? A good burger is not hard to find in any place whose culinary landscape is at least defined enough to have two or three quality diners (and that category basically includes every inhabited area of the USA). An inventive, classy burger isn’t even that difficult to find. But because these places are putting the burger out front, in the spotlight, and making a grand display of how creative they can be with this institution, suddenly we’re all about burgers.

Eateries specializing in a very specific food item are often right ahead or right in line with trends. Think cupcake bakeries, or donuts, or crepes. Maybe the burger thing confuses me because there have always been places that specialize in burgers – namely, most establishments that have mainstream American/diner food – and this trend is just attempting to create a classy culture around something that at its best is classless.


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Chicago: Day Two

The sky was blue, the sun was out, so we headed for the lake...

Saturday was so beautiful, the drinking I had done at Gallery Cabaret the night before could not keep me in bed. I wanted to walk in the sunshine, see a bit of the neighborhood, get a cup of coffee, and maybe grab a dose of greasy Mexican diner food.

Sadly, the only Mexican restaurant that fit the bill didn’t seem to be open at the time. A stroll down a few blocks back toward my hostel brought me another quick breakfast option.

Austrian Bakery and Deli on Urbanspoon

I have been in other businesses, mostly bakeries, that have a specific cultural cuisine focus, but they’re usually spare, family owned places with white walls and floors, spare shelves, and a strange sense of permanent temporariness. Austrian Bakery was warm and welcoming, filled with what seemed to be a good mix of locals and both stateside and international travelers. The small seating area was completely cramped with people, with just a little open seating at the counter in the window. My walk, however, had gone on a little too long and I wanted to get back to the hostel to rouse my partner from his slumber, so I ordered a coffee and cheese pocket pastry to go.


My mouth is watering just for the thought of it. The sweet pastry gave way to a surprisingly mild cheese filling that perfectly coated the inside layers. It was present in every bite, but not overwhelming and not too sweet. The only minor detractor was the abundant powdered sugar, which didn’t add anything necessary to the pastry and made it messier than it could have been.

But, like I said, that was a minor complaint. I gobbled the pastry down minutes after bringing it back to the hostel. For as leisurely as our trip was, I probably should have taken more time to savor its deliciousness.

Because Friday’s weather had been so crappy, we had stayed fairly close to Lincoln Park. Saturday’s gorgeous weather afforded us the conditions to stray a bit farther into the city. We took advantage of our three-day CTA passes and hopped on a train to Chinatown.


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It’s Springtime: Time for Hot Dogs!

We have a lot of treasures here in Dormont, some of them barely known (Mekong), some of them highly celebrated (Dor-Stop), but many of them rankable among the city’s best dining choices. In a contest among the city’s hot dog joints, Dormont Dogs would be tough competition.

Part of the appeal is the simplicity of the establishment. Located just off of Potomac Avenue on Glenmore Avenue, the restaurant is about the size of an efficiency apartment. It’s long enough, but skinny, and visitors are almost immediately greeted by a tall counter and board of hot dog options. Seating is fairly limited – a few tables squeezed inside, plus a larger picnic bench outside for – so it’s not the ideal place for a large group to dine in. But while the cramped design may emphasize basic function over comfort and accommodation, the menu is a perfect example of maximizing the options within a limited realm of cuisine.

As far as the actual hot dogs go, there are at least fifteen different variations on the menu. Dogs are available in meat or vegetarian form. The buns are fresh from Potomac Bakery just around the corner. In addition to the dogs, there are chips, homemade sides like potato salad and coleslaw, and even a thrifty Po’ Bo, this one a handy snack of tomato sauce and mozzarella piled on a crunchy baked hot dog bun. Candy and pop are also available. So yes, lots and lots of options. But obviously, the hot dogs are the stars here.

And take the spotlight they do. You can opt for a Plain Jane or a classic Chili Dog, but you can also take a walk around town via the many street-named hot dog choices. Pictured above is my choice from my last visit: A Louisiana Avenue veggie dog, complete with hot sauce and Cajun coleslaw. The veggie dogs that Dormont Dogs use are far better than your average tofu dog. While many veggie dogs can be mushy and unsubstantial, these have a casing that allow for an extra crunch and even mimic the folds of a meat hot dog. Coupled with the spicy, crunchy slaw and added heat from the hot sauce, the dog still maintained a definite flavor. The bun was crispy on the outside, soft inside, and soaked up the extra juice from the coleslaw. As a device for wiping up extras, it served its role perfectly.

My dining companions both opted for the Texas Avenue Dog, heavily adorned with chili sauce, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and Fritos for an extra salty crunch. The chili was laid a bit thinner than on a normal chili dog and for good reason. This was not a dog that needed a whole heaping of each topping, but rather compromised amounts of each. The sour cream was maybe a bit heavier than I would have personally preferred, but I bet it was absolutely delicious when taken in with the sharp cheese.

You might already have your hot dog joint of choice, but if you’re looking to try something new, you should take a visit to Dormont and try out the neighborhood in hot dog form, or you can forgo the local theme and opt instead for a Dog Father – pepperoni, salami, mozzarella, romaine, banana peppers, and Italian vinaigrette – or try out a classy Bruschetta Dog, with olive oil- marinated tomatoes, creamy pesto, and Parmesan. Whether meat-eating or veg-loving, you’re bound to get a good dog for your buck.

Dormont Dogs on Urbanspoon

Take Out Tacos from Cocina Mendoza


It’s Lenten time once again! I don’t know what this time of year is like in other cities, but in Pittsburgh, even if you’re not remotely religious, you’re bound to notice when Lent comes around. All of a sudden fish is available in every size and preparation, from church-held Friday night fish fries to fish and mac’n’cheese specials at  nearly every bar and restaurant in the area.

One of my most frequented Mexican restaurants, Cocina Mendoza, is serving up my favorite of the Friday fish specials: Fish tacos. I didn’t have the chance to try the tacos last Spring, but struck by a need to get in on the fish fun this past Friday, the first Friday of Lent, I wandered over to the restaurant on my lunch break and grabbed a lunch special to-go.

Cocina Mendoza is tucked away inconspicuously in the Mt. Lebanon Shops. It’s not my favorite place to grab a taco – that would be Las Palmas in Brookline – but it’s still pretty terrific: fresh, authentic Mexican cuisine at decent prices for good portions. I’ve mostly taken advantage of the lunch specials, which for five or six dollars a piece resemble a full dinner portion more than a light lunch option. As I have trying in the last few months to a) save money and b) eat healthier and lighter options for lunch and dinner, I’ve not walked down to the restaurant nearly as much.

I’m glad I did this past Friday. The tacos were delicious. They were two flour tortillas wrapped around several thick slices of fish that were dressed by a fresh salsa. The whitefish was lightly floured and seasoned and fried, a thin, crisp skin giving it prominence even as it was buried under a mound of Pico de Gallo. The bite of the tomato and onion against the mildness of the fish was refreshing, as was the lack of heavier additions, such as cheese or jalapeno or beans. A completely satisfying meal, but far lighter than any of the other lunch options at Cocina Mendoza.

Like many fish specials, it was the sort of thing I wished was around all year. Then again, I suppose I’d take it for granted eventually, when the novelty and anticipation wore off completely. Better to have it contained to just this time of year, when I can look forward to that special every Friday, making this March and April trudge toward a reluctant Spring a little more joyful.

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