Reviews: Restaurant

Restaurant Review: 1947 Tavern

Sunday, January 1, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

By Noah Gup

Despite his devotion to a healthy lifestyle (and vegetarianism), my father occasionally craves a Burger King Whopper.  I have been known to go to ridiculous lengths for an order of fries from the O, only to collapse into hibernation post-fries.  Tavern 1947 takes these unhealthy cravings and compiles them into one menu: short ribs, pulled pork, macaroni with bacon.  It reads like a doctor’s list of “Foods to Avoid.” 

Tavern frites are a perfect example of this level of indulgence: thick-cut potato wedges are covered in melted pimento cheese and shredded pork.  Of course it’s salty, but the thick slices of fries are surprisingly soft in the center, and would be just as good more simply arranged.  An appetizer of minis is a slightly less heavy appetizer options.   The “minis” are a sampling of three different sandwich options, all in cute little buns, each with a different meat.  All are tasty snacks, if not distinctive in-of-themselves.

Unfortunately, lighter options do not hold up.  A salad with roast vegetables is just sad-looking lettuce with roasted mushrooms, peppers and squash.  With a clever twist, four options of homemade salad dressing are served in a cardboard beer four-pack.  They range from a simple Balsamic to a creamy Horseradish Lemon, though somehow they all manage to be bland.

The star of the menu is the Mac’n’Cheese.  1947 Tavern offers four varieties of this entrée, ranging from the unadorned to one topped with spare ribs.  The Mac’n’Veggies , while rich, is not particularly flavorful, mostly due to its hollow béchamel sauce.  The roasted veggies of the salad reappear in the pasta, but their flavor was mostly lost in the thick cream sauce.  The pasta itself, however, is wonderfully al dente, adding a solid texture to noodles.  A sinful Mac and Bacon uses a smoky, spicier pimento cheese sauce instead of the béchamel, yielding significantly better results.  Of course it is rich to the point that after two bites it’s difficult to continue.  But the peppery pimento coupled with crisp bacon makes it equally difficult to stop eating.

Tavern 1947 also offers more reserved sandwiches and this simplicity seems to pay off.  1947 Tavern’s take on the classic French Dip is simple but satisfying.  Piles of roast beef and a slice of cheese are piled onto a fantastically crisp baguette from Allegro Hearth Bakery.  A bowl of its juices, enhanced with rosemary, is served on the side.  Dipping the sandwich in the juices softens up the crusty bread and adds a salty, savory flavor.  Sandwiches also come with a choice of fries, Asian slaw, or a side salad.  The Asian slaw is strangely flavorless, with a sprinkling of sunflower seeds adding only textual variation.  But with the Tavern’s sizeable sandwiches, the sides are more of an afterthought.

During all of this caloric overloading, the atmosphere is comfortable and casual.  Dim lighting from elegant square lamps reveals a tidy (and TV-less) bar.  Booths are comfy, and a chalkboard in the back displays specialties and the twenty-five varieties of bourbon. 

After leaving Tavern 1947, it’s difficult not to feel heavier and slightly disappointed.  The generous portions of Mac’n’Cheese can no doubt satisfy any hungry visitor, but the dishes themselves hardly seem worth the added heft they carry.  But as the name suggests, it is above all else, a neighborhood bar.  With its welcoming and subdued ambiance, 1947 Tavern is a lovely place to spend an evening.   It just may not be the best place for a meal.

(1947 Tavern is located at 5744 Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside.  Prices range from $9-$14.)

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Restaurant Review: Pusadee’s Garden

Wednesday, November 9, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Noah Gup 

            With smartphones virtually universal, it is difficult to find any time in the day free from the ring of incoming emails or text messages.  More than just offering a night out from cooking, restaurants offer refuge from the stress of everyday responsibilities.  Pusadee’s Garden in Lawrenceville, away from most other shops on Butler Street, is distinctly independent from most other restaurants.  It seems to be its own little world, which is totally fine because there are few better places to spend an evening.

Pusadee’s Garden serves Thai fare that can be found at many similar restaurants, but with an attention to detail that is nearly unprecedented.  Pork dumplings are spiced and chewy, without gumming up the mouth.  Curry puffs are filled with a warm and rich medley of squash and sweet potatoes, offering a sweet and spicy appetizer that keeps the winter out.  The fresh rolls are possible the most impressive.  The rice paper is soft, and the taste of basil is strong.  Combined with crisp lettuce and bean sprouts, this ubiquitous appetizer is transformed into an ode to freshness.  Even better, each appetizer comes with its own unique dipping sauce.  Pork dumplings are served with spicy soy, the curry puffs with cucumber-vinegar chutney, and the fresh rolls with a delicious chili-honey sauce.  Each is unique and thought-out, complementing their dish and tasty enough to sample on the tip of a fork.

Many of the usual suspects of Thai restaurants appear on the menu, but with several interesting, more authentic choices.  Khao soi, a fantastic noodle dish, resembles a curry.  Served in a soup bowl brimming with yellow curry this dish presents an all-cure; enough spice to clear sinuses, enough smooth egg noodles to settle a troubled stomach, enough cauliflower and broccoli to rejuvenate the body, and enough fried glass noodles on to add a fun crunch.  It is a dish rich in texture and flavor. 

Crispy Tilapia is another astonishing creation.  A thin fried layer surrounds the tender fish, and it is topped with a burning garlic sauce, which resembles a homemade Siracha.  With bountiful amounts of chili and red pepper flakes, it is intense (when ordered medium, the dish came out pretty hot).   A bed of vegetables and a side of rice dim the heat, but it’s the sharp bite of the “3 flavor sauce” that gives the dish its power.

In keeping with the season, Pusadee’s pumpkin curry is another tasty surprise.  Sweeter than the curry served in the khao soi, chunks of pumpkin and sweet squash mix with slices of pepper and carrots mingle with silky tofu.  While the curry is spicy, chunks of squash sooth the sizzle.   These entrees, just like most everything at Pusadee’s Garden, showcase a depth and variety unmatched in many Thai restaurants.

There are also a few dessert options, and it would be a crime to skip the heavenly coconut ice cream.  Draped with strips of mango, the ice cream has chunks of coconut within.  Tasting like actual coconut, and not too sweet either, this is a dessert good enough to eat in any season.

The restaurant itself has a welcoming and intimate atmosphere.  It is one skinny room, but with lovely white embossed walls and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling.  There is a large outdoor garden with tables, but inside the restaurant is small and cozy, perfect for an escape from the cold.  Service is attentive, timely, and caring without being intrusive. 

After the coconut ice cream was cleared and the check was placed on the table, my family wasn’t ready to live.  With the echoes of chatter around the walls, the occasion glimpse of a child running around in the back, and the smell of curry floating in the air, it was better than going home.  Winter was stuck outside, work was stuck at the house, and we were here, away from it all.  For two hours, these problems faded away, and all that mattered was the rush of flavors that flooded in, the waves of conversation that came and went, the satisfied groan of noodle-filled stomachs.  For two hours, the stress and strain of the week was soaked up by plates of rice.  For a meal, this is everything we want.(Pusadee’s Garden is located on 5321 Butler Street in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh.  Entrees range from $11-$18.)

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Restaurant Review: Root 174

Thursday, October 6, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

by Noah Gup

Billing itself as a “neighborhood bistro” and drawing its name from Regent Square’s area code, Root 174 hopes to establish itself as a neighborhood favorite. Pledging to do a movie night with a Star Wars themed meal, chef and owner Keith Fuller is full of ambitious ideas, and Root 174’s eclectic, wild menu effectively displays culinary chutzpah.

This farm-to-table experimentation is best showcased in the appetizers. Confit wings display a masterful array of flavors, from the coffee spiced, crispy wings, to the green curry paste on the side. A sprinkle of dehydrated bananas add more of a crunch than flavor, but their light sweetness tempers the curry’s bite. Bone Marrow Crème Brulee was another triumph of creativity. Bone marrow, the current food fad, is buried beneath a savory pudding of cream, cheese and a crisp top layer of Parmesan. Spread on ciabatta, the bone marrow is sweet and rich. Slices of apple only accentuate the bone marrow’s sweetness and add a light touch of fall to a heavy dish. Fuller’s take on a Caesar salad is no less interesting. Preserving only the essence of a traditional Caesar, the lettuce is grilled. Instead of croutons there are tiny strips of crisp dough that add a salty but crispy touch. But the true clever touch is an insert of a bed of cannellini beans, giving a filling heart to the dish. Also, avoiding a usual pitfall of Caesar salad, dressing is applied appropriately, without drowning the salad.

Root 174 still feels in many ways like a work in progress. After a wait, an order of Concord grape soda is flat and flavorless, tasting like extremely diluted grape juice. A side of Brussels sprouts is served fried and salted, though absolutely nothing to enhance their flavor except a side of gummy bacon jam, which is too sweet to eat.

The main courses are also a hodgepodge of different nationalities, though lack some of the ingenuity of the appetizers. An order of Mexican influenced chicken was set up wonderfully. A bed of grits is smooth, the mole sauce adds spice and sweetness, and a topping of tomato corn salsa adds freshness. However, the chicken (served lightly fried) was far too dry, requiring intensive effort to cut. Still, coupled with the mole sauce and the fresh salsa, it was near impossible not to enjoy. A daily special of mussels, however, was a stumble. Served in a spicy tomato sauce with potatoes, peppers and onions, the sauce lacked any of the intrigue of Root 174’s other options. The mussels themselves lacked any of the subtle sweetness that makes quality mussels appealing. Besides chunks of homemade spicy-sweet sausage, there was nothing memorable in the dish.

Root 174 also offers a variety of vegetarian entrees, and their take on falafel is full of bold flavors. The Falafel itself is not as heavily spiced as many others, but chunks of chickpeas within its crisp exterior added some textual variation. Yet the sides the falafel is served with give it distinction. A side of tapenade is startlingly strong and a streak of homemade harissa hot sauce transported me back to Israel. For dessert, a slice of Peanut Butter & Jelly cheesecake is worth getting simply for the clever arrangement; the fresh jam spread around the just-sweet-enough cheesecake is also enticing.

Root 174 is not the most attractive of restaurants. For seating, there are two long wooden booths on both sides of the restaurant, which are not terribly comfortable. The floor is dirty linoleum, and besides a chalkboard menu of specials, there isn’t much more to look at. Still, the wait staff is so friendly and welcoming that the modest ambiance makes the environment only more endearing. Root 174’s occasionally hiccups are often forgivable due to the casual atmosphere. But if this restaurant wants to live up to the promise of its finest moments (and its price tag), a more refined experience is necessary. Still, when Root 174 shines, as with the appetizers, it is unique, surprising, and a whole lot of fun.

(Root 174 is located at 1113 South Braddock in the Regent Square neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Entrees range from $15-$26.)
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Restaurant Review: Alma

Tuesday, September 13, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Noah Gup

One of my most potent memories of South America is the food. Whether it was Carne Asado, Lomo Saltado, or good old Ceviche, the flavors were always distinctive and bold . While I’m still waiting for a Pittsburgh restaurant to offer alpaca, South American food is making an appearance around the city. With a new Peruvian-inspired restaurant in Squirrel Hill, as well as taquerias popping up around the city, Latin American cuisine is expanding throughout Pittsburgh. Alma, a more upscale Pan-Latin restaurant located in Regent Square, goes as far as to cite each item on the menu with the country from which it originated. Even more, it serves an authentic Pisco Sour, Peru’s national drink (although Chile also claims ownership), complete with egg whites.

While Alma is a clearly studied take on Latin-American cuisine, it is not without flair or wit. An order of shrimp ceviche, for example, is served elegantly in a martini glass, with a slice of fried plantain sticking up. The dish itself is not for the light of palate; the intensity of the lemon juice and chiles can be a bit much to take. Only cubes of sweet potatoes mellow its sharpness. An appetizer of Papitas Rellenas (potatoes stuffed with ground beef) is a dish much easier to handle and all the better for it. The outside of the potatoes are golden and crisp, though when cut open, the majestic combination of meat and potatoes turns the dish into a melt-in-mouth savory sensation. The meat is rich and a topping of pickled onions and fresh salsa add color. Alma offers a soup du jour, and their cup of vegetable soup was surprisingly complex. With mushrooms, arugula, and a healthy kick of chiles, the soup tastes exciting.

At Alma, the simplest dishes often pack surprises. Their Vaca Frita, instead of being sautéed until crispy (as is traditionally served in Cuba), is just beef brisket. Served without gravy and on top of rice and pigeon peas, the dish is simply adorned. Yet the meat is so tender that adding a sauce would only compromise its natural flavor. Even more, the brisket juices soak into the rice and peas, complementing its already creamy texture. Alma also offers fish of the day, and an order of scallops, while deviating from traditional South American cuisine, is heavenly. Served with a delicate ginger-mango sauce, the scallops are cooked to perfection. The subtly sweet sauce, with a bite of ginger, only enhances the buttery scallops. Alma also offers several vegetarian dishes. While their black bean burgers are certainly filling and peppery, they could benefit from chutney to add some excitement. A dessert of Molten Lava cake is rich, dark, and not too sweet, while a side of cinnamon ice cream seals the deal. The only real hiccup in an otherwise great meal was a side of fries. While the fries had a pleasant crunch, a topping of chimichurri was far too salty, rendering the fries nearly inedible.

Despite the quality food, Alma’s atmosphere does not appear promising. The tile exterior and cartoony sign suggests a tacky family restaurant. Half the restaurant is floored in linoleum tiles, while the other half in wood. Colorful hanging lights add a sense of playfulness, but the atmosphere still feels cold. Still, the food at Alma effectively makes this lack of ambiance a slight qualm. Wait staff offer solid recommendations and, while not always knowledgeable about the menu, are ready and willing to hunt down answers.

The word “alma” translates to English as “soul,” and Alma certainly provides for the soul. Whether it’s a cup of the stomach-warming soup or even-better-than-your-grandma’s brisket, Alma knows how to provide for simple pleasures. Still, the research in each dish shows, making Alma an authentic door into modern Latin American cuisine. Geography never tasted so good.

(Alma is located on the corner of Forbes and S. Braddock in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Regent Square. Entrees range from $13-$21.)

Restaurant Review: Park Bruges

Wednesday, July 6, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

by Noah Gup

Just as independent stores and architecture make communities unique, neighborhood restaurants are essential for local flavor. These restaurants must not only offer likeable food, but also a homey and friendly ambiance. I grew up with a strong tradition of frequenting favorite restaurants, and their food gained a comforting familiarity, even an emotional attachment; my love for Eat’n’Park, however, has long since fled. Sibling to the Point Breeze gem Point Brugge Café, Park Bruges hopes to establish itself as a staple of Highland Park. With a slick take on comfort food and assistance from established Pittsburgh eateries, Park Bruges seems to fit the bill. But if Park Bruges hopes to attract those who live further than walking distance, inconsistencies in the menu must be straightened out.

Park Bruges works to make guests comfortable. With wooden tables and leather booths (not to mention its extensive beer menu), it is easy to get settled. Servers introduce themselves and the manager makes the rounds, checking on food and chatting with regulars. There are even a few tables outside which, besides the occasional roar of passing busses, are equally relaxing on a summer night. However, with consistent crowds, the interior can get equally noisy.

While offering an eclectic choice of appetizers, the frites are an absolute necessity. The frites at Park Bruges are thinner (dare I say crisper) than their counterparts at Point Brugge. Instead of being soaked in grease, the frites have a light crunch on the outside while still retaining moisture on the inside, making them among the best fries in Pittsburgh. When I heard Park Bruges offered poutine, I couldn’t have been more excited. My one Canadian poutine experience was like something out of a fever dream: a bowl of fries overflowing with gravy and globs of melting cheese curds. Park Bruges’ Montreal-style poutine is clearly less messy, but sacrifices much of the unholy joy of the original concoction. In order to get to the gravy, one must dig through the top shell of frites. Even more, the only perceivable flavor in the gravy was salt, lending only mushiness to the frites. An appetizer of Organic Phoenix Tofu was overwhelmed by its salty “soy-ginger sauce,” which tasted more like Kikkoman than anything else. One of Park Bruges’ specialties is the Tarte Flambée, a thinly crusted French/Alsatian pizza. Baked in Enrique Biscotti’s ovens, the light, crunch crust could be a great snack on its own. A tomato-herb topping for the pizza, similar to a caprese salad, was unfortunately drenched in olive oil. As far as appetizers go, sticking with the frites may be the most consistent choice.

While one of the highlights of Point Brugge Café is its mussels, Park Bruges may have its sibling beat. The mussels served in the Creole-style sauce are fantastic. The dish’s spicy tomato broth with peppers and lots of minced garlic gives the mussels a slight bite, while drizzles of bitter blue cheese balance the burn of the peppers. Even better, it is served with Allegro Hearth bread, perfect for sopping up the remaining sauce. Unfortunately, the other entrees pale in comparison to the Moules. The sauce on the Steak Frites tastes only salty, while julienne vegetables are only sad, flavorless slices, buried beneath fries. A daily special of breaded black cod with frites (a Park Bruges spin on fish’n’chips) faired much better. With a hearty cornmeal breading and no grease, the fish is delicately pan fried, again showcasing the chefs’ skills with frying. While a bed of creamed spinach adds only texture, an addictive mustard-mayonnaise dipping sauce compensates with more than enough flavor. Park Bruges also offers sandwiches, and the homemade Southwestern Veggie Burger is a surprise hit. Made with beans, peppers and spiced with cumin, then topped with a scorching poblano pepper sauce, the veggie burger is more complex than many of its meat counterparts. While Park Bruges serves dessert, a stomach full of frites forced me to decline.

Despite the problems riddled in Park Bruges’ menu, its welcoming atmosphere is difficult to resist. When I opened the door for the first time, I was greeted first with a wave of garlic, frites, polite chatter and the tap of forks on plates. I had never been here before, but I already felt at home.

(Park Bruges is located at 5801 Bryant Street in Pittsburgh. Entrees range from $8-$26.)

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Cafe Tacuba

Monday, June 27, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

By John Samuel Tieman

When I lived in Mexico City, I now and again stopped at the Cafe Tacuba, just a few blocks from the Zocalo, the city center. The Cafe Tacuba is a pastry and snack joint built in a colonial nunnery. It’s a popular lunch spot for government workers. It’s built right on the old Aztec causeway leading in and out of Tenochtitlan. Of course, today it’s just one of the many doors in the many high rises in the center of Mexico City.

It was along this very street that Cortez and his crew were run out of town on the Noche Triste, 30 June 1520. Somewhere, right here somewhere, he and his crew dumped the entire Aztec treasury, this to lighten themselves for their getaway. Those who did not, those soldiers who kept the gold in their boots and uniforms, sunk down into the mud beside this one causeway out of town. Later, after Cortez slaughtered the Aztecs, he would try to find the gold, but the mud is just too deep.

So, today, everyone knows it’s right here somewhere. Within yards of this very bagel is a gold plate engraved with the finest Aztec workmanship, a plate from which the mighty Moctezuma II himself ate his very bagel. But today, that million dollar plate has a fifty million dollar office building on top of it. So there your fortune sits, just sits. Right here somewhere.

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Restaurant Review: Thai Gourmet

Thursday, June 2, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Noah Gup

Restaurants have an unfortunate habit of hyperbolizing their significance. With countless claims of “Best Pizza,” and “Artisan Sandwiches,” it is easy to be skeptical of restaurants’ claims. At first glance, Thai Gourmet may seem to be another mediocre restaurant with an ego problem. While the ambiance is more Pamela’s than Per Se, the food is surprising (and surprisingly good) Thai fare that actually lives up to the name.

Nestled in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, Thai Gourmet is easy to miss, with only a small lit-up sign and Christmas lights in the window. While hanging paper lanterns add a bit of décor, Thai Gourmet is simply adorned. But part of its charm lies in its simplicity; family owned, Thai Gourmet makes you feel at home. Even more, the restaurant is rarely crowded, making conversation easy. But it is neither bar seating nor Christmas lights nor the homey atmosphere that draws groups of devotees. Instead, it is the expansive menu, catering to everyone’s inner Thai cravings that brings people back again and again.

Thai Gourmet offers both common options and more unique creations for appetizers. A dainty order of summer rolls (though slightly gummy) uses mint and basil to a wonderfully refreshing effect. A generous serving of Chicken Satay is standard, but when paired with spicy peanut sauce, becomes difficult to resist. The Thai Samosas are a more interesting option. Stuffed with a smooth combination of sweet potatoes and onions, the samosas are crisp without being greasy. An accompanying sweet and sour cucumber sauce adds a vinegary bite, giving a new spin to a tired dish. The undeniable highlight of the appetizers is also the most unusual. The Hoi Jo, a melody of crab and minced beef wrapped and fried in tofu skin, was, first of all, a triumph of texture. In one bite, the crisp tofu skin is coupled with the soft meat filling, crunchy and chewy, ying and yang. Even more, the meat is liberally spiced, making sure each bite is flavorful with a light tingle of heat.

Even more gems can be found in the entrees. A massive bowl of Tom Yum soup explains why the dish is essential to Thai cuisine. Flavored with chili, lemongrass and lime, and filled with slurp-worthy glass noodles and bites of bean sprouts, the Tom Yum soup manages to be satisfying down to the very last spoonful. No wonder some “scientists” claim Tom Yum soup to have cancer-fighting abilities; after eating the soup, my body felt rejuvenated. The Massaman Curry is surprisingly varied, containing peanuts, carrots, chickpeas and potatoes, all smothered in a rich, sweet, slightly spicy curry. Few things taste better than a bite of good Massaman Curry, and Thai Gourmet offers some of the best. However, the accompanying tofu is oddly tough, even gritty. While most everything is available with tofu instead of meat, all of the tofu is strangely chewy. The Duck Curry had a similar sauce as the Massaman, though a more intense spice and tiny chunks of pineapple modified the flavors. The only real disappointment is the Ginger Pineapple entrée with beef. While containing ample amounts of vegetables, everything comes soaked in a syrupy, overly sweet sauce. With the exception of the Ginger Pineapple, the flavors of every dish are memorable.

Service is splendid. Food comes out amazingly fast, sometimes even too much so; entrees were served before we finished appetizers. Still, this is preferable to an obscene wait for food. The wait staff is attentive and friendly, keeping glasses full and spirits high. While Thai Gourmet offers dessert, the best option may be the bowl of candy that sees each guest off. I took a bite-sized Milky Way on my way out, and, with a stomach comfortably filled with Thai, it never tasted so sweet.

(Thai Gourmet is located at 4505 Liberty Avenue. Entrées range from $9.50-$10.)
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Restaurant Review: Yo Rita

Tuesday, May 10, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Noah Gup

The first thing one sees at Yo Rita is a large cartoon picture of a scantily clad female that adorns the window. At first glance it looks more like a tattoo parlor than a gourmet taco shop. And one look at the menu, and it’s clear this isn’t your mama’s Mexican restaurant: “Vietnamese styled” tacos, grits, and a “fried chicken waffle thing,” are all served, (with some more traditional options). Yo Rita takes the format of a taco and runs with it, with results that are often strange, occasionally delicious, and always interesting.

Besides the sexy mascot, Yo Rita looks unassuming from the street. Tables are squished close together, and when the restaurant is busy, space is tight and noisiness ensues. Waiters constantly run back and forth from the kitchen to accommodate the always-full dining room. Even the bartender occasionally makes rounds to refill water glasses.

The menu is startlingly assorted, focusing on the south: both South America and the Southern United States. Despite the varied menu, Yo Rita abides by a classic Mexican restaurant tradition; each table is served complimentary chips and salsa. Despite the interesting Southern twang, a starter of grits was so overwhelmingly salty that the avant-garde toppings (including “corn fungus”) were squelched. An order of ceviche, however, was nearly perfect. It was first a feast for the eyes, with the white Tilefish, red pickled onions and streaks of yellow lemon zest. While the fish was marinated in lemon juice, the sweet onions balanced the sour.

For entrees, Yo Rita only offers tacos, and two tacos per person is the recommended order. The tacos are often so full, however, that finishing two is difficult (even for a ravenous adolescent such as myself). The soft, hearty tortillas are from Reyna’s in the Strip, and they are up to the challenge of supporting the many toppings piled into a Yo Rita taco. Unfortunately, the tacos themselves are an inconsistent affair. A recurring theme is excess: a spicy-sweet BBQ chicken taco is overwhelmed by cubes of cheese and tortilla chips. A slightly sour pulled lamb taco could be delicious just by itself, but the barbeque potato chips thrown on top are overkill. The Rainbow Trout taco, despite its long list of toppings, tastes only of its thick, bland mustard aioli. The “crispy pork belly” that tops the Trout taco is merely fried, taking away the melt-in-mouth magic of the fatty meat. Pork belly fares much better on the Bahn Mi Vietnamese-styled taco. Surprisingly subtle, pork belly is the star, and the peanut and cilantro topping only compliments its natural richness. The steak taco is also a success, finding a sometimes-scorching balance between pineapple and jalapenos.

Vegetarian tacos are similarly spotty. A Black eyed pea taco had an astounding curry cucumber raita, only enhanced by a topping of almonds. A potato taco, on the other hand, tasted similar to hash browns. While there is only one dessert option which changes daily, berry shortcake was surprisingly complex. Topped with Grand Marnier whipped cream, the biscuit-like cake relies on the raspberry and blueberry toppings for sweetness.

Service is casual, occasionally do-it-yourself. However, in a restaurant where the staff is constantly moving, service was solid. The best food at Yo Rita is almost always the simplest. If Yo Rita tightens up and calms down, it could be a truly unique taco shop. If not, then there will still be the ceviche.

(Yo Rita is located at 1120 Carson Street in Pittsburgh’s Southside neighborhood. Tacos range from $4 to $8)

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Restaurant Review: BRGR

Wednesday, April 6, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Noah Gup

Burgers and milkshakes. The phrase itself elicits glossy-eyed nostalgia, memories of backyard lunches in the summer, the smoky scent of the grill and the crack of a wiffle bat. BRGR — in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood — strives to transport cold-hearted foodies back to simpler times. Embracing a compromise between highbrow and lowbrow cuisine, BRGR serves shakes spiked with liquor and French Fries drizzled with “truffle cheese whiz,” a strangely delicious bastard child of tailgate bites and haute cuisine.

The restaurant is informal and simple, with dark wooden tables and metallic pillars. Walking in, the first thing to notice is a projector, displaying close-ups of hamburgers on a blank wall, effectively piquing appetites. If you are lucky, you can get seated in some of their criminally comfy leather chairs. On a weekend night, the noise level often limits conversation, which is fine because there isn’t much to say when chowing down on the prime finger food BRGR offers. Fries are subtly spiced and are made dangerously addictive by the aforementioned cheese topping. Thickly battered onion rings leave the fingers greasy and the inner child content.

It isn’t called BRGR for nothing. In short, the burgers deliver. The Kobe Beef Burger finds a perfect compromise between salty and sweet, the crunchy pickled onions and arugula contrasting with savory blue cheese smothered below the burger. Each bite tastes slightly different; each is equally satisfying. Even the buns at BRGR deserve recognition; they can support the massive heft of the meat and toppings throughout the entire meal. The meat is lean, juicy and flavorful, hardly requiring toppings. Unfortunately, the meat’s natural flavor is occasionally overwhelmed, as in the Bad Ass Mexican Burger. Coming dangerously close to a Walking Taco, the Bad Ass is smothered in salsa, tortilla chips and sour cream. While some bites taste like a comfortable fusion, the thick layer of toppings suffocates others.

The undeniable star of the menu is meat. Vegetarians, however, can also indulge. The Tree Hugger falafel burger, liberally spiced with cumin and smothered with thick yogurt, is a solid choice for the meat-averse. If the burgers, fries and onion rings seem like a caloric overload, the seasonal coleslaw can serve as a welcome interlude. The vinegar-based slaw, enhanced with cranberries, almonds and delicately thin apple slices, is refreshing and perfect for spring.

As delicious as the burgers may be, diners must save room for a dessert. Featuring ice cream from Pittsburgh’s own Dave & Andy’s, BRGR has mastered the art of milkshakes. Smooth yet thick, the milkshakes find the perfect balance of old-school simplicity and gourmet experimentation. While a dark chocolate milkshake topped with a swirl of rich syrup offers a glimpse into cocoa heaven, the highlight of the dessert menu is a magical concoction known as The Green Man. In essence, it is a mint milkshake, though its intensely minty flavor of peppermint extract places The Green Man in a category of its own. A crisp butter cookie floats on top, polishing off a delicious desert.

Service is helpful and hospitable, though there were some unfortunate mishaps. An order of fries came out barely warm, and a hamburger ordered medium was served closer to well-done. Regardless, BRGR is a USDA prime choice for those who like an old-fashioned meal with a newfangled twist.

(Burgers range from $7 to $13. Expect a wait on Friday and Saturday nights.)

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