Tag Archives: homestead

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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Blue Dust


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?

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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.

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