Tag Archives: Restaurant

Selma’s Texas Barbecue


My mother was looking for a drive and some dinner on Sunday night, and I knew, I just knew that barbecue was what she was looking for. So I tooled around on Urbanspoon, sampling the random wonders of their slot machine, trying to find something that would give her a worthwhile cause for mileage. It turns out this city is certainly not lacking in quality barbecue.

I settled on Selma’s Texas Barbecue for many reasons, but mostly because it looked charmingly small-scale and had a cheerful, friendly website that even touts a back story for the restaurant. As anyone who has read my Waffle House article will know, I’m a bit of sucker for tiny little cheap food joints with storied histories as well as tasty food.

Selma’s history is focused on Selma herself, a native of Texas and Arkansas for whom the restaurant models its wholesomely unhealthy Southern cuisine. The food is inexpensive but prepared to very particular specifications. The catfish is farm-raised, the meat slow cooked all day, the sauces mixed in-house. Even the baked goods are homemade, ensuring that patrons can get a fix of Coca-Cola cake and banana pudding alongside their ribs and cornbread.

Western Pennsylvania may not have the barbecue pedigree of the South, but it’s got a hankering for the cuisine all the same. Our neighbors in West Virginia know what they’re doing around a grill pit, and many of them have been kind of enough to spread the wealth into this region. Besides, the slow cooking ways of the Pennsylvania Dutch are not unlike the slow cooking ways of the Deep South. We share an affinity for pork and starches and meals that stretch from late afternoons to nightfall. What we share, like many food cultures, is a desire to sit around all night and converse over full plates of delicious home cooked foods.

Selma’s is very, very low key. You walk in, order your food, grab your cup and fill it up yourself, and take a seat. Someone will eventually bring your food, but while you’re waiting, feel free to educate yourself on the fine sauces offered on every tabletop in the small restaurant.

Selma’s even gives you a handy guide to the sauces, including a basic description of flavor and recommendations on what to use each sauce on. Kind of them, certainly, but I had no intention of only trying certain sauces on certain things. If there wasn’t a palate of sauces left on my plate at meal’s end, I had failed some kind of test.

Selma's Texas Barbecue on Urbanspoon

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D’s Six Pax & Dogz



Sometimes, you run into the limits of reviewing. Some places just seem to resist a direct assessment. For example, it seems kind of silly to “review” D’s Six Pax & Dogs. What is there really to say?


There’s a beer cave. A giant hall of beers, each one available to you, the customer, at a reasonable charge. Where some restaurants offer a one-page list of drafts, followed by a one-page list of bottled beverages, D’s offers you the world of beer. You can stick with the two-page draft list, including such highlights as the Southern Tier Gemini, the Great Lakes Blackout Stout, and even the non-alcoholic 1919 Draft Root Beer. Or you can wander about in the beer cave, running your hands up and down boxes, bottles, your life infinitely more complicated than it needed to be, but it’s beer and you’re here and what the hell, you’ve got the choice make!


D’s also generously offers a great deal to go with your beer. It’s bar food, but reliably tasty. The kind of food that is regrettable for caloric intake alone, but enjoyable for any number of reasons. Affordable enough to pile it on, big enough to share, if you’re drinking and not eating at D’s, there’s obviously something wrong.

The nachos pictured above were shared by four people, which it more than accommodated. We demolished it, wiping up remnants of gooey nacho cheese with scraps of tortilla chips. The taste was akin to snack bar nachos but with better cheese and fresh chips, a taste anyone who grew up going to their neighborhood pool and roller skate rink can get behind.

Then there were the hot dogs:


The top two are veggie dogs, the bottom two are all-beef hot dogs. They’re served on simple but fresh sesame buns and topped within an inch of your life. Hot dogs aren’t much for sharing, so I can really only discuss my veggie Chihuahua dog, with its sharp cheddar, salsa, and piles of jalapeno. The real delight here, and something I honestly never would have thought to put on a dog, was gooey, creamy avocado. It soothed out the greater heat of the hot dog without detracting from any of the flavors. The veggie dog itself was a little crunchy, a little chewy, a good meaty non-meaty hot dog.


We shared nachos. We each ate a mountainous hot dog. Then we shared a pizza.

Again, like the nachos, the pizza is like a really good generic snack bar pie, the biggest difference being the quality of the crust. The crisp crust was denser than it appeared to be and sustained the weight of sauce, cheese, and the significant amount of pepperoni and mushrooms. The sauce is decent (a little sweet, mostly inconspicuous), but cheese is applied in just the right amount, and the toppings, while generous in number, do not crowd out the basic factors of the pie. It’s salty and greasy, but it’s pizza, and it’s a perfect counterpart to its hot dog and nacho brethren.

It’s hard to review a place like D’s because everything works so well within its own environment. It’s not gourmet, and it’s not supposed to be. You don’t go to D’s to eat a life changing meal, unless your plan to change your life includes a triple bypass. You go to D’s because you want to drink some beer and eat the right kind of food to go with that beer. True, there are many places like that in this ‘Burgh. But D’s is undeniably one of the best.

D's Six Pax & Dogz on Urbanspoon

Salt of the Earth


Some restaurants are like rock stars. Everyone talks about them. They’re in every magazine, every newspaper, on every blog. First people can’t wait to be the one who discovered them, and then people can’t wait to be the first to dismiss them as nothing special. They have their devotees, their die-hard fans on one end of the spectrum and on the other end, a whole host of critics with complaints justified and unjustified.

But the point is, everyone knows about them. Rock stars, movie stars, and restaurants. Or maybe it just seems that way because I talk to a lot of people about food. But you know a restaurant has hit the big buzz when your mom brings it up:

“Salt? One of the women from work went there. They make you sit at long tables with other diners.”

Well, yes, Mom, they do. Sort of.

Since opening in last fall, Salt of the Earth  has steadfastly proven itself the new diva of the local dining scene, which is kind of funny, considering how aptly named it turned out to be. While the restaurant has high-end trappings – at least for this city – the general feel, pace, and atmosphere of the restaurant is casual. Let me put it this way: I was wearing an old dress, my dining companion was wearing cords. We saw people in business type dress, we saw people in jeans. Nobody flinched. Nobody stared. It didn’t seem to matter in the slightest.

The main dining area of the restaurant is bordered by two opposing focal points: The large blackboard with the daily menu (the entire menu, including drinks, starters, entrees, and desserts, etc) on one side, the wide open kitchen on the other. The bar lines the far wall. There’s a smaller, more intimate setting upstairs and a few high-seater tables in the windows near the entrance, but the majority of the seating is exactly what my mother presumed, long tables lined by little benches. Oh, and of course, the counter seating that lines the open kitchen, which is exactly where me and my dining companion, Meghan, found ourselves when we visited this past Monday evening.

Salt of the Earth on Urbanspoon

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Speers Street Grill


When you’re not a hired food critic, you aren’t hampered in by silly notions of professionalism. A lot of people – not bloggers, usually, but people leaving comments and blurb restaurant reviews on sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon – take this as permission to be at their most short-sighted and dismissive.  They’ll write off a place after one visit and go on and on about how it was the “worst service EVER” or the “worst burger EVER,” etc. And this sort of reviewer doesn’t even publicly admit when he or she was wrong about a place or has new opinions after a revisit. Those reviews stick far longer than the opinions themselves, and few people offer noted retractions.

While I tend to view that practice with the utmost contempt, I am not above being unprofessional in my practices. I just tend to go the other direction – When my guard is down, I tend to be overly positive about a place. And how does my guard go down? Easily.

Maybe it’s nice weather or the company of someone I haven’t gotten to see recently. Maybe it’s a good glass of wine or a nice, crisp gin & tonic. Maybe the service is particularly friendly or the food is comforting and tasty. Maybe it’s conversation, maybe it’s a Friday night and we’re all so relieved to have two free and open days in front of us.

Or maybe it’s a boat on fire.


That’s right. On the Sunday evening that I dined at the Speers Street Grill with my mother, we braved the mugginess on the outdoor patio seating and were rewarded with a generous helping of action and intrigue. Well, not really. Apparently, a boat had caught fire up the river. The back porch of the restaurant overlooks a common place to put boats in the river, so we got to watch a lot of slow-moving action centered around an emergency vehicle and the emergency rescue boat sent to retrieve those in peril.

But, needless to say, our attention was not purely focused on the food in front of us. But if lack of professionalism leads to a positive review, so be it. We had a perfectly pleasant evening in Lower Speers, and I can only assume that were the food less tasty, was the service less friendly, was the overall atmosphere of the restaurant less relaxing, the meal would have been far less enjoyable.

Speers St. Grill on Urbanspoon
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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.

Gran Agave on Urbanspoon

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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Food Bloggers Meetup at Paris 66

Though I have dabbled in numerous forms of writing, I have really fallen in love with blogging. Some of this is the nature of the form – I’m an instant gratification junkie, so the quick efficiency of writing and posting blog entries holds great appeal – but what has really gotten me falling head over heels is the blogging community. Among a terrain not exactly known for its restrained, distinguished discourse, specific blogging communities remain calm, welcoming places of exchange ideas and opinions, experiences and photographs.

I have been accused of being a bit of a social curmudgeon because I’m not on sites like Facebook or Twitter. While I admit to some moderate prejudice against social networking sites, the real reason I’m not on any of them at the moment is that my time online is already maxed out. On a daily basis I’ve got a few dozen links to check on, and were I to sacrifice some of the time I dedicate to those sites for say, “poking” friends-of-friends or harvesting wheat in my virtual farm, I would be losing a significant percentage of time that I use to keep up my preferred social networking: Reading other people’s blogs.

Until recently, reading and commenting on other blogs was about as far as I had gotten into actual socialization with food bloggers. I learned how much of a shame this truly was when I finally made it to a Food Bloggers Meetup, this time at Paris 66 in East Liberty.

When you write about food, you want to talk about food. You want to talk about it a lot. And while I am lucky to have friends that are more than willing to humor my seemingly endless interest in the topic, there’s something very reassuring about being among members of the same tribe. When the food is served and my camera was only one of many pulled out, I got a warm and fuzzy feeling in my stomach – and not just because I had drunk half of my very potent French martini.

In attendance:
– Mike of Foodburgh
– Luke (organizer and former Paris 66 employee)
– Lauren of Burghilicious
– Erin (and Kevin) of Community Cucina
– Clara of Food Collage
– Roddy of Rodzilla Reviews
– Janelle of VegOut Pittsburgh
– Nicole (and her lovely spouse) of Yum Yum
– Laurie of Tuesdays with Dorie
– Me and the lovely Kait Wittig, friend and eating partner-in-crime


In addition to meeting these bloggers in person for the first time, I was also making my first visit to Paris 66. I’m a bit of a sucker for romantic little enclaves of atmosphere and expensive dining, and Paris 66 has all the best traps: Softly lit, furnished in polished wood and tables complete with laminated-antique postcard covers,  back patio seating, and, of course, a small, concise menu of French specialties, including crepes, steak frites, duck, and some very foreign- and tempting- sounding hors d’œuvres. Billed as “everyday French cuisine” the menu still finds plenty of room for the mildly exotic.

Paris 66 on Urbanspoon
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