Tag Archives: sandwich

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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Silky’s Crow’s Nest


A while back, I worked as a front desk clerk for a hotel and restaurant in the area. Because we had no formal concierge, the front desk was expected to manage visitor requests and questions, among the most popular being, “Where should we go to get dinner?” Many times, this question would be coupled with additional criteria: “Where should we go to get dinner on the riverfront?”

To that question, there isn’t an easy answer. While we have many restaurants on the river, so where can you go is not an issue. Where should you go… well, that’s an entirely different story.

Like any waterfront real estate, properties by the riverside are highly sought after. The ability to dine while overlooking a body of water will never go out of favor – just ask the fine folks of some of the most mediocre restaurants lining our East Coast beaches. It really doesn’t seem to matter to most waterfront restaurants whether their food is of decent quality, their staff well trained, efficient, and friendly, or even their interior atmosphere welcoming. The whole sell is that they’re on the water, which puts their diners that much closer to the water, and that setting in of itself is enough to get people through the door.

There are exceptions, of course. And then there are places like Silky’s Crow’s Nest, which is neither the exception nor the rule waterfront dining, but instead inhabits a limbo between above-par dining and sub-par riverside stride. But, as with many places of its type, the bar and restaurant requires the diner to set their expectations realistically. When reaching for a menu item just a bit above ordinary, the chances of their kitchen turning out something splendid is fairly slim.

Silky's Crows Nest on Urbanspoon

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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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Anatomy of a Sandwich: Tomato and Balsamic Tofu


A simple idea can often be undone by its own simplicity. You figure, it seems so obvious, why isn’t it just assumed that this already works? And then you think, well, duh, cause of course it doesn’t work, and everyone already knows that.

When I was at the terrific Osteria 2350, I enjoyed a sandwich fairly common to Italian cafes and delis alike: The tomato and mozzarella with roasted red peppers and balsamic vinegar. This sandwich knows no one cuisine, because although its roots are clearly in Italian staples, its appeal is widespread and its basic form – a warm and possibly grilled cheese sandwich with added ingredients – is a well worn food item among any number of cultural heritages.

Osteria’s version was very delicious, so delicious that I had to lament the fact that, for my vegan partner, there is no accessible way for him to enjoy this sandwich. The tomato, red pepper, and vinegar portions, yes. The cheese? No. Vegan cheese can be tasty, but it has its limits, and there is not a vegan cheese on the planet that can imitate faux mozzarella.

Except that, as I considered the giant pillows of fresh mozzarella stuffed into the sandwich, I found that it bore a striking similarity to something most, if not all, vegans heartily enjoy: Tofu. Specifically extra-firm, uncooked tofu. Both are white and soft. Both have neutral, almost watery-fresh flavors. Tofu can’t melt like mozzarella, but in this sandwich, the mozzarella stayed perfectly solid, so melting wasn’t an issue.

So, I’ve had this dish in mind for a while. After a short stop into Lotus Foods on Saturday, I decided it was high time that I tried out my theory.

Success? Well, you be the judge. But would I write about it if it were a total failure?

A few tips for this very easy recipe:
– A pound of tofu should yield four sandwiches worth, unless you really want to get heavy on each sandwich.
– Soak the tofu in balsamic vinegar for extra flavor
– Press your tofu, but don’t get rid of all the moisture. A little dampness inside helps to mimic the mozzarella.
– Use good crusty bread for this. Jackie, my friend and most fantastic cooking partner, brought over some homemade sandwich bread that worked fantastic. Make sure to use thick slices and toast for extra support.
– We slightly cooked our tomato slices, but if you want to leave them firm and crispy, go right ahead.

Tomato and Balsamic Tofu Sandwich

Ingredients
– 1 pound of firm tofu, sliced widthwise into four big slabs
– 2 small tomatoes, sliced
– 1 red bell pepper, sliced into small strips
– Salt and pepper (to taste)
– Balsamic vinegar – we weren’t precise on the measurements, so use your judgment. About a 1/4 cup overall should be fine.
– Eight slices of thick, crusty bread, toasted
– 3 tbs olive oil or grapeseed oil (use more as needed)
– Fresh spinach (as desired)
– Vegan mayo (optional)

– Heat the oil in a pan, then add the red pepper slices. Saute until soft, adding salt and pepper as desired. Add the tomatoes, cooking for about a minute. Remove from the peppers and tomatoes from heat, but keep the pan hot.

– Put a slab of tofu in the pan. Add balsamic vinegar, cook for a minute, then flip, adding more vinegar. Once slab has soaked up some of the flavor – a touch-and-taste test works – remove from heat. Repeat with each slab.

– Assemble your sandwich. Toast the bread, then layer tofu, tomato, red peppers, and spinach. Add vegan mayo if using. Enjoy!

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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Anatomy of a Sandwich: TLT


The majority of the restaurant reviews you read on this site come from dining out mid-week, and there’s a good reason for that. I’m often not very energetic when it comes to my weeknight cooking. With most people, the inverse is true: the bulk of their kitchen time is during the week and they use their weekends to go out and have fun and dine around town. Not me. I like to have good quality weekend time with my kitchen.

But not on weeknights. On weeknights, I want to be either 1) napping, 2) getting up from a nap, 3) writing, 4) accomplishing the various post-work tasks I normally have to see to, 5) going to the gym (that’s right, pumping iron, alright!), 6)….. you get the picture. I don’t really want to cook. I eat leftovers. I eat cereal. Sometimes I eat peanut butter and honey on toast and call it a meal. Sad, but true.

My laziness gives way to a decent recipe about every six months. Tuesday was one such night, when, needing to use up the leftover tofu from the weekend’s Southern feast, I decided to make a sandwich.

If you’re not a huge fan of tofu, let me advise two strategies to help you get over your concerns:
1) Extra Firm, Extra Pressed: Buy extra firm tofu, drain it, then press it until most of the excess moisture is out. You can gently press on it with your hands (like a sponge), or you can set up some kind of contraption to do the work for you. I balance a cutting board so that a side drains into the sink, then put the tofu on there. I cover it in paper towels, put a plate on top, and then add a few cans or bags of beans. Thirty minutes and the tofu has gone from wet and crumbly to… well, drier and crumbly. But the results really show in the cooking.

2) Don’t just fry it, coat it and fry it: Frying tofu can be awesome without any extra ingredients aside from oil and a few seasonings. But if you’re squeamish about the possible squish, coat tofu slices like you would chicken fillets. It takes to a breading really, really well, and it can often times smooth the transition into eating it.

Lazy Loafing, Ever Loving TomatoLettuceTofu Sandwich

Ingredients
– Three slices of extra firm tofu, about 1/3 inch thick. (Can vary depending on taste.)
– 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour
– 1/2 tsp of baking powder
– 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
– 1/2 tsp poultry seasoning
– 1 tbsp nutritional yeast
– Salt and pepper (to taste)
– Oil
– Two slices of tomato
– A couple of lettuce slices
– Vegan mayo (c’mon, you gotta have mayo or a mayo-like substance on a sandwich like this)
– Two pieces of bread, toasted
– Oil to fry tofu

– Mix the flour, baking powder, and seasonings in a large shallow bowl. Coat each piece of tofu in the mixture. Fry the slices until golden on both sides.

– Assemble your sandwich. Apply vegan mayo to one or both sides of toast, layer with tofu, lettuce, and tomato.

Anatomy of a Sandwich

Being lazy can actually be a terrific gateway to quick, delicious recipes. While I’d love to make stews and casseroles and pastas and pastries for every day of the week, many nights the thought of putting any more than ten minutes into a meal is oppressive. Not that I’m necessarily advocating 30-minute, Rachel Ray – type cooking. So much of those ingredients are processed foodstuffs, not fit for man nor beast (well, maybe beast), or at least, not the kind of thing you want to habitually reach for when you need a quick dinner.
 
Hence, the sandwich. The wonderful, multi-faceted sandwich. Perfect for carnivores, omnivores, and herbivores alike. Sandwiches are fantastic ways to get rid of remnants of produce, use that last slice of cheese, or try a flavor combination not yet sampled. Add heat, add condiments, add herbs, or see how much taste mileage you get out of only two or three ingredients. Be it sweet or savory, appetite-teasing or hugely satisfying, there is very little a sandwich can’t do.