Tag Archives: taco

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.

Smoke Barbecue and Taqueria on Urbanspoon

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Jose & Tony’s


I spent a lot of time in Chicago wistfully searching for the right dirty little Mexican restaurant in which to get my dirty little Mexican food fix. I wasn’t looking for gourmet, I wasn’t looking for upscale. I didn’t want to try Rick Bayless’s latest venture (well, okay, yes I did, but that’s not my point). I wanted street corner, hole-in-the-wall, greasy, gooey food that might be as delicious as it is potentially deadly.

One of my friends, knowing my proclivity for down and dirty Mexican grub couldn’t believe I hadn’t been to Jose & Tony’s, a combination dive bar and dive restaurant in the area. I had passed by it, certainly, but had never ventured in. Seeing as it was amidst the happiest of hours and we were both in need of a cheap drink and an even cheaper taco, he took me over there to try the place out.


This is a trying time for dives. Used to be that dives received special consideration from visitors and subsequent critics. Now that everyone gets to be a critic, slamming a place is as easy as going on Urbanspoon and writing about how terrible the food was, how cheesy the decor, how rundown and slightly unkempt a place is. In the cluttered world of online reviewing, dives are no longer held apart for their unique charms.

It’s an especially trying time for dives because they are still considered, and will probably always be considered, cool, at least in some respects. Young hipsters like dives because they bring them face to face with the common man. They also like them because they tend to be really cheap, allow smoking, and half empty.

But people are starting to ask more of dive bars and restaurants then just being half empty, smokey, and cheap. The normal, discriminating, non-hip diner got wind of the whole dive appeal and sought to understand it for his or her self. And that’s when the secret was blown: A chock full of charm as they are, many of these places serve food that is just this side of mediocre.

The dim lighting and the dingy surroundings might be okay for the place’s base clientele, but here these people had made a special trip in to try a place and all they were getting was mediocre food and stares from the regulars. A show like Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives may make every place seem like a big family, but most dives have their own inherent, unstated rules for their regular customers.

A show like DDD also shows a place in the best possible light, which means that obvious attractions of a dive, like smoking, would be removed for the purposes of filming. You can’t have Guy Fieri marching into a smoke-filled bar to declare its meatballs and roast beef unbelievable. The clean-cut nature of the Food Network would simply not allow it.

Anyway, I’ve gotten off the subject. But yes, for dives, these are hard times. Only in a theoretical sense. Most of these places have owners who couldn’t give a damn about what some one-time customer has to say about their restaurant’s draft list and hamburgers. These places build a reputation on the people who come in time and time again. They don’t really need to be courting outsiders.


As for me? Well, I felt right at home. Wes ordered a Deluxe California Burrito, which came before us a gooey, gloppy mess of delicious. The sheer amount of sour cream would have grossed out my vegan partner, but I had to say, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a restaurant over use a condiment to such a delightful extreme. I noticed from a quick bite that the enchilada sauce had a little heat to it, which worked especially well with all that cool sour cream.


I ordered a bean taco in a flour tortilla and a chicken taco in a corn tortilla. There were some decent ingredients underneath the fearsome layer of shredded iceberg. The beans were maybe a tad over cooked, a little sludgy and heavy, but the chicken was surprisingly tender and flavorful. For two bucks, they weren’t going to be the freshest, best tacos, but they were certainly superior to their fast food counterpart. I got what I expected, no more, no less.

Restaurant standards are a personal issue. I personally don’t like going to most Italian restaurants, because no matter the quality, I always feel kind of ripped off (of course there are exceptions). Many people would probably not want to go to Jose & Tony’s because they would be looking for a standard of service, atmosphere, and food quality that is simply not in line with this kind of operation. If it helps to think of it as a bar with tacos, then think of it that way.

I got my greasy taco fix, I got to share a pitcher of margaritas for an insanely low price, and I got to catch up on the Women’s World Cup (blaring from a large TV in the corner). You could do a whole heck of a lot worse for a Monday evening.


Jose & Tony's on Urbanspoon

Take Out Tacos from Cocina Mendoza


It’s Lenten time once again! I don’t know what this time of year is like in other cities, but in Pittsburgh, even if you’re not remotely religious, you’re bound to notice when Lent comes around. All of a sudden fish is available in every size and preparation, from church-held Friday night fish fries to fish and mac’n’cheese specials at  nearly every bar and restaurant in the area.

One of my most frequented Mexican restaurants, Cocina Mendoza, is serving up my favorite of the Friday fish specials: Fish tacos. I didn’t have the chance to try the tacos last Spring, but struck by a need to get in on the fish fun this past Friday, the first Friday of Lent, I wandered over to the restaurant on my lunch break and grabbed a lunch special to-go.

Cocina Mendoza is tucked away inconspicuously in the Mt. Lebanon Shops. It’s not my favorite place to grab a taco – that would be Las Palmas in Brookline – but it’s still pretty terrific: fresh, authentic Mexican cuisine at decent prices for good portions. I’ve mostly taken advantage of the lunch specials, which for five or six dollars a piece resemble a full dinner portion more than a light lunch option. As I have trying in the last few months to a) save money and b) eat healthier and lighter options for lunch and dinner, I’ve not walked down to the restaurant nearly as much.

I’m glad I did this past Friday. The tacos were delicious. They were two flour tortillas wrapped around several thick slices of fish that were dressed by a fresh salsa. The whitefish was lightly floured and seasoned and fried, a thin, crisp skin giving it prominence even as it was buried under a mound of Pico de Gallo. The bite of the tomato and onion against the mildness of the fish was refreshing, as was the lack of heavier additions, such as cheese or jalapeno or beans. A completely satisfying meal, but far lighter than any of the other lunch options at Cocina Mendoza.

Like many fish specials, it was the sort of thing I wished was around all year. Then again, I suppose I’d take it for granted eventually, when the novelty and anticipation wore off completely. Better to have it contained to just this time of year, when I can look forward to that special every Friday, making this March and April trudge toward a reluctant Spring a little more joyful.

Cocina Mendoza on Urbanspoon

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mex

big Burrito Group gets quite a lot of love in Pittsburgh, but none of the six bBG restaurants are quite the success that Mad Mex is. While the other restaurants are exclusive single location stops, Mad Mex has six locations in this region alone (and more in Columbus, Happy Valley, ).

It’s not really hard to understand why. Mad Mex offers a decent menu based off a blend of Mexican, Spanish, and Southeastern Asian cuisines, a blend that yields a few surprises to what can be the exhausted standards of most Mexican restaurants. It is also the most economical of the bBG restaurants, with most entrees coming in under twelve dollars (many of them coming in under ten) and Happy Hour specials that offer a good bargain on cocktails and appetizers, especially appealing for the twenty- and thirty-something urban professionals that serve as the eatery’s prime demographic.

I had only ever been to the Mad Mex in Oakland and Wes had never been to any of the locations, but he pointed out that there is one located right over in Scott Towne Center. I had a pair of coupons to receive $5 off an entree, so we thought we might as well give it a try.

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