Tag Archives: cheese

Gran Agave


Oh, what’s a diner to do when a meal leaves you feeling lackluster?

At this point, I’ve made a few visits to Gran Agave in the Homestead Waterfront, and while I have never had anything outright bad at the restaurant, there’s been very little to take away from each meal. The service has been okay. The food was okay. The price is okay. Everything is just okay, and in a city with a growing Mexican population, the last thing that will get a Mexican restaurant noticed is its achievements in the average.

I don’t relish occasional necessities to complain, especially when a place is clearly attempting to offer a standard of ingredients and preparation that far surpass the mindset behind the cuisine at their corporate brethren. But forgive me when I say that attitude is one very important factor, but aptitude cannot be underestimated. So while I admire the attempts to marry the now-standard suburban Mexican chain restaurant menu with a menu more varied and traditionally minded, I cannot help but think they’ve dropped the ball a little on the one factor that counts more than anything else: Taste.


Some things are hard to get wrong, however. The high point of my latest meal at Gran Agave were the chips (in-house made at some point, but they didn’t seem homemade to me this time) and cheese dip, a velvety, if a little thin, gooey white cheese that was flavorful but not overwhelmingly salty. The salsa is also fairly good, better than the chunky canned complimentary offerings of chain Mexican, but not quite as standout as what is served table-side at places like Cocina Mendoza (this may be a preference on my part, as I prefer salsa with less liquid and more fresh chunks of veggies, but as it was, the salsa could stand to lose a little of the sauce).


The real problem comes in with the entrees. My mother ordered a chicken enchilada and a cheese enchilada, served with refried beans and rice. To me, enchilada sauce has always come off a bit like mole’s less showy sibling. Without the chocolate and the smokiness of mole, it has to have a tangy zip and slight pop of heat for it to really stand on its own. The sauce here was bland. No heat, no smokey, heavy qualities to the flavor. The plentiful interior elements of the enchilada, the cheese, the chicken, were of good quality and preparation, but they were undermined by the enchilada sauce.


More of the sauce on my dish. It’s got to tell you something that I can’t even remember what dish I ordered. Somewhere underneath that thick layer of bland sauce is an enchilada or burrito or something. I will use my memory to instead reflect upon the dishes of equal blandness to the sauce: The refried beans.

I’m not suggesting that every dish of refried beans needs to be heart-stoppingly salty. But there’s fresh and then there’s no taste, and these had no taste. Plus, the beans are pureed to the point of gruel, thin gruel, and without even the sodium to pick up the slack, after one or two spoonfuls, the texture starts to wear the palate down. There’s just not much to distinguish what it feels like from what it tastes like.

And yet, I don’t dislike Gran Agave. I just wish they would pay a little more attention to flavorful elements of their dishes. I appreciate the menu items that showcase an attention paid to traditional meals, and I understand where that might lead to the kitchen putting more time in on the less standard items, but even a plate of refried beans should have flavor, even if it’s just from a pinch or two of salt.

The restaurant itself is pleasant enough, with a decor pleasingly free of South-of-the-Border kitsch, yet designed and laid out in an almost pseudo Southwestern, mission style. In the land of the Waterfront, where generic decor of one bar and grill becomes the generic decor of another bar and grill, the amount of attention paid to fashioning a unique interior is appreciated.

I just hope that when I make my next visit, the choice I make for my meal will be as appetite attracting.

Gran Agave on Urbanspoon

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Bocktown Beer and Grill

You get spoiled living in the city. Everywhere you turn there is another decent-to-great restaurant to try, each its own singular culinary voice in a crowded eater’s paradise. Consider each city neighborhood and their busiest streets. How many good restaurants, for example, are on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill? And not all of Murray Avenue, just the stretch between Forbes Avenue and where Murray hits Forward Avenue.

I suppose it depends on personal preference, but in my mind, the answer is somewhere around ten. Ten. In the span of a few blocks. And yes, that’s a Pittsburgh perspective. Someone coming out of a city like New York would laugh at that number.

“Ten decent restaurants in a few blocks?” they’d repeat. “My block alone has nearly a dozen places to eat, and that’s not counting the street vendors! That seems downright… suburban!” They would go on, but I have either tuned them out or punched them in the face, cause while they may be right that urban Pittsburgh doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) pack in the businesses like urban New York, they seem to have forgotten what being out in the suburbs is like, especially for diners.

That’s not to disparage suburban eating. Dormont is quasi-suburban, and I go on and on about how terrific it is for diners. I’m not thinking suburban neighborhoods so much as those areas that are, for lack of a better term, vacant of “charm” and abundant with “commercial.” I’m thinking of places like Robinson.

Robinson, with its myriad of big chain stores, its endless strip-mall-esque sections of businesses, it’s gigantic and labyrinth-like parking lots. When I think of Robinson the visual that pops out most readily in my mind is IKEA, emerging from the highway like a monolith tribute to shopping. Its vibrant blue and yellow call the eye’s attention like a shopping siren bringing cars into its parking harbor.

It may say something about my own particular Robinson experiences that the only place I recall eating in the area is the cafeteria at IKEA. (Oh, I could totally go for some Lingonberry soda right about now. I’ll pass on the Swedish meatballs, however.) Most of the nearby restaurants don’t really offer much competition. For most people in and out of Robinson, food is a secondary notion, to be eaten immediately before or immediately following the grander purpose of shopping. Why do malls have food courts and only a few full-restaurant options? Because most shoppers are in a retail-heavy area to shop.

Fortunately, someone was bound to challenge the status quo of the eateries in Robinson. Before the newly formed Settlers Ridge started bringing in restaurants that would be unique to the immediate area, Bocktown Beer and Grill was the first strike against the mediocre and mundane that comprised most of the Robinson dining options.

Bocktown’s Robinson location is in a strip mall segment across a vast lot from the Target. Its long, narrow interior is brightly lit and lined on one side by a bar area and the other side by booth and table seating, eventually leading back to an outside beer garden area. The inside is a surprise – warmly painted and lit, tasteful decor, and comfortable seating – compared to its mostly staid exterior, although the hand-drawn chalkboards advertising specials, events, and the various online locations for Bocktown was a nice touch, livening up a dimly lit concrete sidewalk.

The staff is dressed supremely casual, but move with quickness and efficiency. We were assured of a short wait, then quickly sat in a corner near the front,  slightly isolated from the rest of the dining area. A few moments to peruse the beer list, then our server, James, introduced himself and took our drink and appetizer order.

Bocktown Beer and Grill on Urbanspoon

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Sad Morning, Super Easy Cheesy Chili Nachos

My Monday morning posts are almost always written the Sunday night prior, so, as you might expect, I’m a little sad while recapping this recipe. Much as we enjoyed this snack (and boy, did we enjoy this snack), it did not really help us recover from the disappointing Steelers loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV. As me and my roommate made our way back from our friend’s apartment on West Liberty Avenue, we noticed an eerie quiet to our surroundings, which can only be the hushing whim of sorrow weighing down heavy upon our Steel City souls.

Enough with the sobbing! The following dish is not vegan, as my usual Meatless Monday contributions are, but seeing as the Super Bowl is a time to gather around a TV screen with friends and rejoice in football and fatty foods, I felt it was no time to be stingy with the dairy. This dish is, however, very very easy to make, crowd-pleasing, and flatulence-inducing. Proceed with caution!

Super Bowl Super Easy Cheesy Chili Nachos

Ingredients
– 1 1/4 cup of shredded Mexican-blend cheese
– 1 can of chili beans
– 1/4 cup salsa verde
– 1/4 cup fresh salsa
– Tortilla chips
– Jalapenos (optional)

– Throw a bunch of tortilla chips on a large platter and sprinkle 1/4 cup of cheese over top.

– Over medium heat cook the beans in a sauce pan until just bubbling. Turn heat down and add 1 cup of cheese and the salsa, then stir until melted and mixed.

– Pour bean mixture over chips. Add fresh salsa on top. Add jalapenos if desired.

– Scarf down during the halftime break to watch the “Puppy Bowl” on Animal Planet.

Christmas Time is a Hungry Time

Deck the halls with a ton of food!

My mother has a bad habit of letting me know about family events way too late, so I miss out on a fair amount of family gatherings. Due to short notice, I was regretfully absent from the extended family’s Christmas gathering/cousin’s baby shower the weekend before Christmas. But because my mother was recuperating from surgery through this past weekend, I got a bunch of time in with my immediate family (including my aunt, who is like a second parent to me).

What did we do for three days straight? Chatted, played some games, watched some TV. But mostly we ate. We ate and ate and ate. We munched on snacks through games, we had sandwiches, we had dinner, we had leftovers, we had dessert. We ate till we were full, then as soon as we were a little less full, we ate something else. No wonder people gain weight over the holidays. What are you doing other than sitting around and putting stuff into your body?

Maybe it was the overwhelming amount of eating done on Saturday, but I stayed away from the Christmas pictures until later this week, when I was of clear enough in mind and appetite to handle the food porn. But seriously, next year? Let’s just stick to vegetables.

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