Tag Archives: pittsburgh

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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Pusadee’s Garden


Right now, we’re experiencing some of the most beautiful weather one could ask for, so I ask you all this: Where have you been dining outdoors this season? At home? By the waterside? On the top of a mountain? At an upper Lawrenceville Thai restaurant dominated by its pastoral picture book of a garden?

If you answered the last option, than you have most likely made a recent visit to Pusadee’s Garden, a family owned Thai restaurant boasting an outdoor seating area as beautiful as its food is delicious. Time and time again, talk of Pusadee’s comes back to the garden – how lovely it is, how big, how lush – and it’s true that the restaurant’s major asset lies in its backyard (or, rather, side-yard). That’s not to say it’s not exceptional in other ways, however, especially considering how well it fares against its competition just up the hill in Bloomfield…

But oh, that garden. That garden!


There’s a special feeling when eating amidst such verdant beauty. You’re outside, but you feel tucked away in your own private garden. There are diners all around, yet somehow it feels sublimely intimate. All around you there is distraction – a cluster of interesting flowers, an imposing thrust of green leaves as thick as the napkins on the table, a scattering of herbs all around, and of course, the frame and trellis providing a modest barrier with only the barest of woodwork. It’s rustic, elegant, sophisticated gardening gone just wild enough on the edges to make one feel like you could get lost without the tables to guide your way.

To put it another way, although you’re seconds away from Butler Street, you feel as if you could be dining in a garden in the middle of nowhere. It’s a pastoral entrancement that translates into the meal itself.

More than uplifting the normal dining experience, the garden setting somehow accentuates the flavors of the meal. The psychic effect of so much fresh-grown flora is a heightened concentration on the fresh flavors of the food. When not distracted by the scenery, me and my dining companion, Jackie, focused in on the menu, a straightforward mix of Thai classics, including soups, curries, noodle and rice dishes, and “garden” specialties.

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Summertime, Sweet Summertime: Custard Crossing and Mercurio’s

It was a hellish July, but that gave way to a remarkably lovely August, filled with 80 degree days and 68 degree nights. Still, it’s the Dog Days, and like any good summertime citizen, I’ve been spending the warm weather months enjoying some of the various iced sweet treats available in our fair burgh.

I now live a mere five-minute walk to Oh Yeah! Ice Cream and Coffee Co., and while it’s a little pricey for my day-to-day sweet tooth, it’s an incredible little place that has lived up to every bit of praise thrown its way. The selection of ice cream base flavors is limited, but well-chosen and includes several vegan options. Then there’s the mix-ins, which number somewhere beyond fifty and include fruits, spices, chocolates, candies, meats, and intangibles, like “magic.” In addition, there are waffles, coffee, milkshakes, cookies, sodas, penny candy, and, my favorite extra sweetness, wireless internet. It’s the kind of place that one dreams of owning and operating.

When I haven’t been actively resisting the urge to run down South Highland into the gooey, lovely arms of Oh Yeah!, I’ve been gradually sampling other kinds of local iced offerings. And I have to sing their praises:


On a hazy midweek afternoon, I made a visit to the Waterfront Barnes and Noble, where I rewarded myself for errands achieved by making a stop at Custard Crossing, a frozen custard stand across the way from Panera Bread. City Paper featured a nice little blurb about the shop, notice that it deserved not just because of the deliciousness offered up there, but also due to its intriguing backstory (without spoiling the article, owner Tom Crankovic might have the most admirably one-track mind that ever opened a custard stand).

Custard Crossing also serves Italian ice, smoothies, hot dogs, etc., but the draw here is the sweet, dense custard. Egg-based and whipped with less air than conventional ice cream, the custard is smooth, silky but heavy and absolutely packed with flavor. On my visit to the counter, I bounced between tempting basics like vanilla and chocolate and conventional favorite mint chocolate chip, but settled on maple walnut. It was fantastic, deliciously rich to an absurdity. Every tiny taste boasted a ton of flavor, with the maple and walnut playing well against each other and the innate flavor of the custard. I could have done with slightly more walnut pieces in the mix, but my complaints vanish every time I think about the smooth finish of maple flavor.

I want a scoop of it on a stack of pancakes. Because you can get pints to go, that might just be what I have to do.

Custard Crossing on Urbanspoon


From the Waterfront back to Shadyside. Like Oh Yeah!, Mercurio’s is in the neighborhood, about a ten minute walk over to the main business district on Walnut Street. Their specialty is gelato and Neopolitan pizza, a kind of perfect pairing if you think about it. First the salty, savory pie, then enjoy a little extra indulgence with the gelato.

Like custard, gelato is a low-fat ice cream alternative. It’s lighter than custard, heavier than standard ice cream, and silkier than both, with a lovely, velvety finish to each taste. Mercurio’s boasts thirty standard flavors and a smaller menu of special daily flavors. The organization at the shop was not top-notch (almost none of the display cases were marked correctly and some of the flavors labeled to be available were not in stock), but there’s no denying that the variety gives a customer a lot to play around with.


My companion on this visit, Kate, went for a match-up of dark chocolate gelato and mint chocolate chip. The result was heavy on the chocolate, light on the mint, and perfectly divine. I especially liked the dark chocolate which when slightly melted, had a texture and flavor like that of an uncooked, fudgey brownie.


After some ordering confusion, I got a blend of hazelnut and vanilla caramel cashew. The hazelnut was perfect with the decadent caramel, but it was short on the expected cashew crunch. Didn’t stop me from scooping up every bit I could with the little shovel-like plastic spoons.

Mercurio's on Urbanspoon

I’m still working through my summer iced treat to-do list, but I’m curious as to your suggestions. Any summertime sweet treats that I have to try?

Brookline Pub


Bar-and-restaurants are not created equal. For every notable, really decent place to grab a brew and some food, there are at least a dozen that are notable only in their place-less, generic nature. These sub-par establishments usually serve the same blend of tasteless, mediocre (and below) food at junk prices to complement whatever beer special is attracting the local population. This isn’t meant as an insult to these places. A perfectly fine watering hole does not guarantee a decent place to eat, but that does not negate the positives of visiting. You just have to keep your expectations in line with where you are.

The problem with setting expectations, however, is that it’s often difficult to discern the good from the bad upon initial glance. Some sparkly, polished, pre-fab pubs offer dismal food offerings, while some of the dingiest, grimiest hole-in-the-walls conceal culinary treasures worthy of frequent visits with or without drinking.

Situated in the middle of the business district on Brookline Boulevard, Brookline Pub certainly has its location going for it. Also to its favor: The multi-room set-up, including a sheltered patio area and an enclosed dedicated non-smoking room. The main area is taken up by a smattering of tables and chairs, with the bar dead center.

As far as general environment, this is the type of place to go drinking, not eating. The main area is large, loud, and smokey, and the non-smoking section is small and rundown. Also, because it is tucked away off to the side, the non-smoking section is seemingly forgettable from a service standpoint. (Although, I will admit, this is more of a service matter than an issue with the layout, which I will get to eventually.)

Given its size, location, and agreeable price-point, it excels as a place to grab a cold one, but as a spot to get some grub, it proved less desirable.

Anyone who has watched a considerable amount of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares can tell you that one of the main problems found in most mid-level restaurants is that the menu is too large. While a laminated double-sided menu doesn’t seem like it would be huge, Brookline Pub manages to pack a lot of stuff onto both ends, including a list of wing flavors numbering somewhere around twenty. Quantity and variety seem like positives, but so many options give the kitchen little time to specialize and strengthen specific meals. Everything ends up mediocre, and because there is so much of it, that’s a whole lot of mediocre.

Worse still, the mediocre offerings were on classic bar menu items, proving that even something as simple as a chicken wing or pierogi can be undone by lackluster preparation.

Brookline Pub on Urbanspoon

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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?

Blue Dust on Urbanspoon

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Conversatin’ Fridays: Mama, I’m Movin’ Out

After a quick three-day jaunt out of town, I am back in Pittsburgh to finish what I really started last week: Moving out of my lovely apartment in the loveliest lil’ borough of Dormont. I packed up the books (Eighteen boxes! Not counting the cookbooks!), then the movies, then the records, which  meant, of course, that I’d have to eventually get around to packing up my kitchen.

Which I’m still in the process of doing. I spent nearly all day in and out of the kitchen, wrapping up glasses and plates in newspaper, stuffing boxes full of random utensils, stripping off the worn and dingy shelf paper, finding the right box to hold all of my spices and baking accessories. In one little kitchen there seems to be so much that needs to be done. You have to wonder how it only took two years to pack this much intricacies into a room. It feels like there’s something in every corner.

Tomorrow movers come in to transport my beloved yellow kitchen table (known as “Goldie”) and chairs to its new home in Shadyside, where the affluent and intellectual will surely sense that I do not match the delicate inner workings of the neighborhood and reject me, sending me right back into the arms of the South Hills.

It’s not that I’m not looking forward to trying out Shadyside. I sort of lived in that area while in my undergraduate years at Chatham, but I always stuck to the Squirrel Hill side of the campus. I know of good places to go, but mostly specialty spots, places that I wouldn’t necessarily visit on a regular basis. I need the rundown on the staples.

While I attack the rest of my apartment, I ask you affluent, intellectual types out there: What is there to do in Shadyside? Best coffee shop? Best restaurant? Best place to grab a cheap lunch? Any suggestions?

La Casa

Pittsburghers are often criticized for their so-called lack of sophistication when it comes to dining, but as a recent comment in the Pittsburgh City Paper pointed out, the attention and following of food trends has significantly increased in the last couple of years. We might not be New York City or San Francisco or Chicago or even (thank goodness) Seattle, but we’re not slacking in developing a contemporary culinary landscape.

Well, not slacking as much. We’ve gone from being several years behind the times in trends to several months behind, and that’s progress that I’m happy with, especially when you consider how much other cities have had to sacrifice to make both physical and consumer room for hot new eateries. It’s all well and good that you can try great culinary feats of unbelievable invention and quality, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to miss those greasy spoon, all-night diners when they’re all but an indigestion-causing memory.

We still have space enough for both the upscale and lowbrow, and as a result, there is plenty to be found in both directions. But if one we’re looking to sample a stretch of businesses that are strictly in the realm of the posh, Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside is a good street to try, and La Casa is the right place to start.


Nestled in the far corner of Ellsworth, La Casa’s back patio feels miles away from its neighbors, and yet, just peeking over the fences, there is the neighborhood. It’s the magic of Moroccan and Spanish tapas combined with killer sangria, the romance of little golden lights and big, artfully shabby umbrellas. As a spot for pre-dinner drinks and snacks and conversation it works splendidly.

La Casa on Urbanspoon

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