Late Night Bites: Sidelines with the Ladies’ Beer Circle

Our second regular haunt for the Ladies’ Beer Circle is Sidelines Bar in Millvale on Monday Nights. Unlike our Wednesday night option, the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium in Friendship, you’ve probably never heard of Sidelines unless you live in Millvale or know somebody who is a regular there. Sidelines notoriety may be on the rise, now that they have added a location in Sewickley, but I have known about Sidelines for years precisely because the Spiher/Robinson household have been such dedicated regulars.

“Regulars” may be understating it.

One of the main features of Sidelines is its beer club. Upon joining the club, one gets a cardstock beer list, which is kept on file at the bar until it is filled out. The list contains various categories, such as domestic beers, European beers, draft beers and beers “from everywhere else.” All beers at Sidelines count for the list, but you can’t drink the same beer twice while working on one particular list (with the exception of using up your five “freebie” slots), and you have to fill up each category entirely for the list to be considered complete. I suspect the beer list choices become more challenging as the list narrows; I only started a list a few months ago, so pretty much everything and anything I want to drink counts.

Sabrina and Ted, however, are beer list veterans. I don’t even remember what list, precisely, Sabrina is on right now. 13? 15? Keep in mind that it takes 50 beers to fill each list. The bar offers a diminishing system of rewards for completing lists. The first list complete earns the patron a t-shirt commemorating the event. The second list garners the beer aficionado a personalized beer mug. This mug is kept at the bar and the patron is served drafts from it. The mug is a little bigger than the standard pint, so beer club accomplishment means heartier drafts. Ten lists in, the Sidelines bar fly gets the all-coveted black mug, which affords all the advantages of the first mug, but with the added status it conveys (and at this point the patron gets to take the first mug home).

Both Sabrina and Ted have black mugs and they are working toward a new reward at 20 lists (that’s 1000 beers, folks) that hasn’t entirely been determined because so few people ever make it that far.

And that is why we go to Sidelines on Monday for Ladies’ Beer Circle, because it’s beer club special night. Every beer we drink that counts for the list is $1 off. Now, this special might not be so great at a lot of bars. In fact, a $1 off beers as Sharp Edge wouldn’t be so impressive a special at all; but Sidelines has a ton of beers in the $3 to $4 range, as well as more expensive beers, and beers for $2.50 and $2.75. A dollar off makes a big difference on those cheap brews. Apparently there are also $2.50 well drinks on Monday nights, but we’ve been so dedicated to our beer lists we haven’t taken advantage, but there is also a 1/2 off appetizer special from 10 to midnight, and we frequently take advantage of that.

The appetizers at Sidelines definitely win out over the appetizers at Sharp Edge. For starters, the appetizer prices range from $3 to $6, so getting half off is an attractive special. The appetizers are also just better. The stuffed pretzel is a good one because it is hearty for sopping up beer in the belly, but also relatively cheap ($3.99, regular price); Dayle and I have enjoyed it on a few occasions. The provolone sticks are a favorite all around. I have enjoyed the fried zucchini on many occasions, and it’s always a generous portion (seriously, it may be a whole zucchini, or at least half of a large one). The beer cheese in bread bowl is fun and tasty. The only appetizer I’ve been a little disappointed in was the chicken strips, not because they weren’t tasty, but because it’s only four strips and they aren’t terribly large. I was hungrier at the end of my strips basket than when I walked in. On occasions past, Sabrina and Ted have enjoyed the quesadillas and give good credit to the tastiness of the wings. I’m not a wing person, myself, so I wouldn’t know.

When it comes right down to it, Sidelines is definitely a comparable spot to Sharp Edge in terms of beer value. The beer special on Mondays isn’t quite as good as the Sharp Edge half off drafts on Wednesdays, but the appetizers and wider selection of bargain beers makes up for it. The promise of beer club glory also adds a fun dimension to the bar, as it actively encourages us to try new beers at every turn. Admittedly, Sidelines may be a trek from points south, but for those living in northern areas of the city, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, East End, it may just be the best bar you’re completely unaware of!

Late Night Bites: Sharp Edge with the Ladies Beer Circle

Earlier this summer, while looking for a place where we could enjoy quality brews after work, our Ladies’ Beer Circle discovered Sharp Edge Wednesdays.

Of course, we all knew about the Sharp Edge previously; anyone who lives in the city and even remotely qualifies as an occasional beer aficionado has heard of the Sharp Edge. Known for its plethora of drafts, augmented by an extensive selection of bottles, the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium in Friendship has a long-standing reputation among beer lovers in the city.

What I didn’t realize was that since the last time I found my way to the Sharp Edge, they have since opened several additional locations throughout our metro area, and have instituted a half priced craft drafts special on Wednesdays.

That’s right, Wednesdays. Not happy hour on Wednesdays, or for some limited number of weird hours on Wednesdays, but all day Wednesdays. And that’s a full half price off every draft on their craft list. That makes it the single best beer special we’ve found.

The craft list features upwards of thirty beers (check out the current beer menu online); in the time since we’ve been going there it appears that some beers (perhaps the most popular) are kept on tap perennially, whereas other beers show up seasonally and/or occasionally and then are replaced by new selections when the keg runs out. The drafts on the craft list at regular price are not cheap, ranging from $4.50 (for Yuengling? That’s extortion) to $6.50 for the bulk of their selections, with some special beers being as much as $8, $9 or even over $10. Thus, one can see why half price nights are such a find. We can enjoy some pretty awesome craft brews at what is fundamentally 2 for 1 (and two is usually all I can drink since they close at midnight during the week)!

When we go to Sharp Edge on Wednesdays, we usually meet up when I get off work, which means around 10 or 10:30pm. This means that our meetings of the Ladies’ Beer Circle typically fall during the Sharp Edge’s nightly half priced food specials, including deals on wings, appetizers and pizzas. And a good thing, too, as many of their munchies are also pretty darn expensive at regular price.

As far as beer specials are concerned, the Sharp Edge wins hands down in terms of quality for the price. The food specials… well, it’s not quite as enthusiastic a recommendation. As I mentioned, the appetizer prices are rather expensive to begin with, so the half price special takes them down to what I consider ordinary prices for bar food.

Some of the appetizers we’ve found enjoyable, if nothing to write home about. The Mediterranean nachos (basically a spinach artichoke dip) and the Double Dipper plate have served us well, especially the later when ordered with the option of avocado salsa (which is fundamentally a tasty guacamole). The fried appetizers haven’t been as great. We’ve had bad experiences with the boneless chicken wings and the fried provolone wedges. Other fried items have been okay; the fried pita wedges that come with dips have never given us trouble, and I recently had an order of sweet potato fries with no ill consequences.. but we are left reluctant to order chicken bites or provolone again.

But our Ladies’ Beer Circle is looking for precisely that: beer, not dinner. We keep going back to enjoy the best beer special in town!

Sharp Edge Beer Emporium on Urbanspoon

The Golden Pig: Far-flung Korean Worth the Drive

Some things are worth traveling for.

Today I went on a little road trip adventure!  Everyone has been raving about Golden Pig, the tiniest Korean restaurant, clear out in Cecil.  When I say “clear out in Cecil”, I have to say, before I set out today in Marshall, my Honda Accord, I didn’t have the faintest idea where Cecil was.  Honestly.  I’d read and heard people going on about Golden Pig, and they’d be like, “It’s in Cecil,” and from that I figured out that Cecil was 1) within relatively reasonable driving distance of Pittsburgh, and 2) … *cricket cricket*.  It turns out that Cecil is south and west.  It’s actually easy to get to Golden Pig, it just takes a while.  The thing I find curious about Pittsburgh is that there’s the city, which is a city like any major urban center (except better), and then there’re the inner-ring suburbs, which could easily be mistaken for part of the city proper, and then — nothing.  Nothing whatsoever of interest.  Highways.  Trees.  The odd small town, but really, just nothing.  It’s instantly rural, like, 20 minutes outside the city in all directions.  It’s bizarre, frankly.  But so anyway, to get to Cecil, go through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, get on 79 South, get on 50 West, keep an eye out on your left after a few miles, and there you go.


Desolation.  Picturesque enough, though.


So wee.


Golden Pig is about the wee-est place I’ve ever eaten.  There are 11 seats inside.  The cooking happens in the same room as the eating, and everything is prepared fresh by two very nice Korean ladies.  Friend Mark J. joined me for lunch, and I don’t know about him, but I liked the atmosphere.  It was homey.


There’s a theme, you see.

I ordered us a “Korean pancake” to share.  I’m not sure what it was made of, though Mark surmised buckwheat flour.  It was crispy on the edges and had the particular glutinous consistency that I have only ever encountered in Chinese and Korean cooking.  It was filled with kimchi and quite tasty; we also got little dishes of kimchi and other pickled vegetables, which we nommed at with stainless steel chopsticks.  I mention the chopsticks because it occurred to me that I had never seen stainless steel chopsticks before — I’d eaten off very nice, lacquered wood chopsticks, but never stainless.  Well, there you go.


Pancake and various yummy pickled things.


For our entrees, both Mark and I ordered the daeji bulgogi, which was thinly sliced, stir fried pork in a super rich (but not thick), spicy, succulent, just fantastic sauce, plus a side of truly delicious sticky rice.  Good rice is easy to make and common — great rice is an art.


*Homer Simpson gargle*




Seriously.  And my half of the meal came to $12.57.  Plus whatever I spent on gas, but, whatever, I practically never leave the city, so it’s good to burn a little gas from time to time.  I listened (sang along to) Hot Hot Heat on the drive home and just generally was pleased as punch.


**I returned the Golden Pig just recently, with my mother.  I’m a little embarrassed to report that I ate exactly the same things I ate the first time I went there.  They were just so good!  The quality of everything was just as good as I’d remembered, and the owner was even friendlier.  Next time I’m there, I swear I’ll try something different.

Golden Pig Authentic Korean Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Brasserie 33: What the Hell?

The silver lining is, it’s always more enjoyable to write — and read — blogs about things that suck.


Oh, Groupon.  There was a time when you were a wonderland of cheap, delicious meals.  I think restaurants caught on to what a bad deal that was for them, though, and now it may be the case that only embattled and benighted eateries like Brasserie 33 offer Groupons.  Alas.  Alas!


The wine was actually crisp and pleasant. And the label was adorable.

Our Brasserie Groupon was about to expire, so on Monday night, we made reservations for this French restaurant in Shadyside, on Ellsworth.  The space itself is quite well done, with a lovely marble bar and an open kitchen.  The food was OK – Good (though overpriced) even.  But the service.   Ay yi yi.


Problem one: the menu is printed on paper, which would be fine if they offered a new, seasonally inspired menu every day, but they don’t.  After being handled many times, the pathetic, wilting sheet I was handed was damp, wrinkled, and soiled — not particularly appetizing.  Nor were the wine and water glasses placed on our table, which had water marks and fingerprints all over them.


We were sat promptly, but then waited for many minutes before our server came over to greet us.  I was also given no wine list.  I finally hailed down the food runner to bring one to us, and he brought it over a moment before the server finally arrived.  Our server, it turned out, was actually French.  And friendly.  Too friendly.  Look, if I’m in some mom ‘n’ pop diner, and the sassy woman behind the counter wants to call me “Hon”, that all just makes sense.  But at a semi-fine dining establishment, I’m not there to make a new friend.  I expect the service to be courteous, competent, and efficient.  I don’t want to banter with the server.  I want him to have a good working knowledge of the wine list.  Ours didn’t.  He also — and I know I’m a dick for bringing this up — had truly terrible teeth, yellow and rotten, which, I’ve gotta tell you, is not the most appetizing thing to be faced with when choosing your appetizer.


So anyway, the server arrived a moment after the wine list, though after many minutes of waiting, and when I told him we needed another moment with the list, he disappeared again, after some more friendly prattle.  Great.  When he finally returned, he seemed unable to tell me much about the Cote du Rhone blanc I asked him about, and told us we should order all of our food at once, if we wanted it to come out of the kitchen in a timely fashion.  Right.  Right.  He also promised us bread was on the way.


The oysters tasted nice and fresh, though they got a bit overwhelmed by the butter.

To start with, we ordered the oysters rockefeller, which was good, if perhaps a bit greasy.  The arrival of this appetizer, by the way, took probably 25 minutes.  No small plates were given to us, so we used our bread plates — naturally, the bread arrived after the oysters, and by then our plates had been overwhelmed by shellfish drippings, making them useless as bread plates.  We were so hungry at that point we just spread our butter and ate our bread without putting it down; it was a good thing the bread was warm, because the butter was ice cold and hard as a rock.  Our server finally reappeared, bent down towards the plate with the oyster shells on it, real close like, stood up, made a “cuckoo” finger-rotating hand motion against his forehead at Ted, and walked away, without taking the plate.  I shit you not.  I said to Ted, “I think there’s a bit of oyster left in one shell.”  I was just trying to guess what action would result in my plates being cleared.  Ted ate the wee morsel, and when the server returned, he took the plate — but not the wee soiled bread plates, nor did he offer us more bread.  Those soiled bread plates remained on the table for an hour.


More waiting, more waiting, more nursing of our bottle of wine.  Another server came over and refilled our water, and began to tell us, apropos of nothing, about how the air conditioner broke last week, and all the trouble that caused.  What the fuck, people?  I want my goddamn entree, not to chat.


Our main courses finally arrived.  I ordered the half a roast chicken with frites.  The thigh was perfect, moist and tender, with a nice crispy skin covered in a peppery pan jus.  Naturally, therefore, the drumstick and breast were hopelessly dried out and overcooked.  I appreciate that this is the great problem of chicken roasting: since the breast meat finishes cooking before the thigh meat is safely up to temperature, how do you keep the breast from drying out while you wait on the thigh?  This has plagued home cooks since time immemorial, so it’s not that I don’t understand the problem.  But for $22, I expect a restaurant to have had this problem solved.  The frites were fine, but nowhere near as good as Point Brugge’s.  (Or Park Bruges’s, for that matter.)  Ted ordered the coq au van, and he liked his meal a great deal. I tasted it, and it was good, though I thought it was a bit heavily seasoned and a bit too rich for a hot June night.  There was absolutely nothing seasonal on the menu, and many of the offerings, like lamb shank, beef bourguinon, and the coq au van, were heavy, wintertime dishes.  I realize that these are staples of French cooking, but I don’t believe for a moment that the French don’t eat lighter fare in the summer.


Tasty in the center, dried out at the edges. Meh.

Anyway, we finished our meals, all of our plates were finally cleared, and then … we sat.  No appearance from our server.  Ted was determined to order the chocolate mousse, so eventually we flagged down the chatty water woman to put our order in.  The food runner brought the mousse out, and at that point, we hadn’t seen our own server for almost an hour.  Ted finished his dessert, and still no appearance.  We waited another 20 minutes for our French waiter to reappear.  He took my Groupon information, and came back with our check … which he hadn’t deducted our Groupon from.  He had also, natch, disappeared again.  So again we flagged down the woman, who acted confused by what she was seeing on the check, even though I spelled it out for her quite clearly.  “Here is our appetizer, here are our entrees, he didn’t charge us for our dessert, here is our bottle of wine.”  She took the check, and finally our waiter reemerged, to chastise me.

“I was trying to give you a free dessert.  You don’t want a free dessert?”

“I want my Groupon deducted.”

“But you turned down a free dessert.”

Are you fucking serious?  Fuck your $7 dessert, I want my $40 discount removed from the check.  He goes, “But you’re religious, I respect that.”  You see, our priest had stopped into the restaurant, quite by happenstance, and been assigned the table next to ours.  When we told him about the service, he decided not to order anything, though he did chat with us for a while.  When the server had looked at me quizzically, I had volunteered, “That’s our priest.”


Look, Buddy.  Monsieur.  Too familiar, and way unprofessional.  What the fuck?  In the end, he charged us for the dessert, but did subtract the $40.  We still ended up paying, with tip, a hundred bucks, and with that money could have gone down the street to Soba or up the street to Casbah and had an infinity better experience, both food- and (especially) service-wise.  I will not be returning to Brasserie 33, and you shouldn’t go there, either.  I honestly don’t know what the hell whoever owns that place is thinking.  There are reviews all over Yelp and Urbanspoon about how bad the service is, and how the food is overpriced for the quality, as it turns out.  (Here’s one by my friend, Carley, for example.) You’d think eventually a restauranteur would take action to remedy such imminently remediable problems, but nope!


Ugh.  Just ugh.

Brasserie 33 on Urbanspoon

Thoughts on Gentrification, Race, and Some Delicious, Fraught Fried Chicken

If you like to go out to restaurants in Pittsburgh, you probably know the name Kevin Sousa. He’s the chef behind Salt of the Earth, arguably the best fine dining restaurant in town; he was nominated for a James Beard award this year. He also owns two other restaurant properties, Station Street Hot Dog, which is kind off by itself over on Broad Street, across the busway from the Target, by the East Liberty post office; and Union Pig and Chicken, which is on Highland Avenue, a block back from Penn Circle North. Station Street Hot Dog has been a hot dog place on and off since 1915. Likewise, Union Pig and Chicken is in a store front that has been variably occupied for as long as I’ve lived in the city, but was most recently Steel City Rib House.

I’ve been to Salt twice and it really is amazing food. Sousa put the restaurant into a formerly abandoned building in Garfield, just up Penn from Negley, several years ago. If you live in the city, you know that the Penn Avenue corridor has been slowly improving for years. Fancy lofts came to meet Sousa’s Salt, as did the upscale Mexican restaurant Verde (which is also very tasty). Penn is the dividing line between Garfield to the north and Friendship to the south, running more or less west to east up from where it divides Bloomfield to the south from Lawrenceville to the north. On the Larryville side of Penn, UPMC built the new Children’s Hospital, which has been a boon to the more westerly end of Penn. Likewise, East Liberty, which had at one time been one of the largest commercial districts in the commonwealth, but then was destroyed by terrible city planning in the 1960s, becoming a poor black neighborhood thereafter, has in recent years shaken off its blight and is now home to trendy bars and restaurants along Centre Avenue, which runs into Penn at the Target. The transformation in the neighborhood is now creeping onto Penn as well at this easterly end, which currently houses a number of predominately black businesses — and a fair number of empty store fronts. With the rehabilitation of the Highland Building into upscale apartments now underway, I don’t see how Penn Avenue can fail to go the way of Centre in this area.

My Mom and the Unfinished Boards.

So look, what’s the problem? Well, on one hand, there isn’t a problem, right? I mean, Kevin Sousa put three very good restaurants at three different price points into three empty store fronts in a somewhat blighted neighborhood. It’s hard to argue that something isn’t better for a neighborhood than nothing, and something good and popular isn’t even better than that. And though I haven’t been to Station Street yet, I can tell you that Union Pig and Chicken has some of the most delicious fried chicken I’ve ever had in my mouth, a fact I discovered on Friday when my mother and I went there for lunch.

But on the other hand, we know how gentrification works: a poor neighborhood, often a predominately black neighborhood, is down in the dumps. Working from a variety of intentions, from an honest desire to see a neighborhood get back on its feet to the cold calculation that you’ll make a killing if you get in on the ground floor of the Brooklynification of a city neighborhood, a crowd of wealthier, predominately white folks moves in and starts sprucing up the place. Except they always seem to spruce it up for themselves rather than the people who already live there — let’s be honest, it would seem that the Venn diagram of what black Americans and white Americans like to do with their disposable income does not completely overlap, which is fine, unless all of the businesses in a black neighborhood that catered to the black community get pushed out in favor of Stuff White People Like. Or, a worse scenario perhaps, or at least a more disconcerting one: where there is overlap in what black folks and white folks like, a black business providing it gets supplanted by a white business doing the same damn thing — like selling ribs and fried chicken.

Lemonade is served in mason jars. For some reason.

Look, Sousa didn’t push Steel City Ribs out of business: its doors had been shuttered for a couple of years before he started selling his pig and chicken. And I’d never eaten at Steel City, so I couldn’t tell you how good the food was. (Sad to say, I, like a lot of people I bet, feel more interested in trying Sousa’s comfort food joint — and maybe a little more comfortable — than an anonymous black business owner’s comfort food joint.) So I don’t want to sound as if I’m blaming Sousa for the gentrification of East Liberty, or for running the black residents of the neighborhood out of town, though that is likely to happen eventually if history is a reliable guide to what happens when trendy young white people get ahold of lower class black neighborhoods. I’m just saying that Union is emblematic of something happening in East Liberty right now that’s a bit fraught. I wish improving the neighborhood would raise all boats, so to speak, but I doubt that’s going to happen. And to disclose my own small responsibility in the affair, I’m sort of happily complicit in this — I patronize the new, gentrified businesses in East Liberty a fair amount: Abay, BRGR, Kelly’s, Plum, et cetera, and now Union Pig and Chicken. I prefer having a nice neighborhood full of shit I like right nearby to having an uninviting (to me), kind-of-run down neighborhood there instead.

It is the case that the Urban Redevelopment Authority has tried to keep new housing in the area at a mixed income level, and I hope they continue in that effort. And, to go back to an earlier point, it’s fair enough that the Kevin Sousas of the world would look at an empty store front in a neighborhood that’s had some tough times and say, “I can put something good in there and make this whole block better” — that’s not a bad inclination, nor one I’m trying to fault him or anyone else for.

I’m just saying the whole thing’s sort of fraught, OK?

This fried chicken was so fucking moist and wonderful.

For what it’s worth, here’s the restaurant review. The atmosphere of Union Pig and Chicken is almost satirically spot on to what a fancy version of a Southern/soul food restaurant should be: unfinished wooden boards make the walls, wooden tables and benches make the seating, and there is a single head-high slit in the back wall allowing the staff to see the customers without being so exposed as to interrupt the New Northeast Picnic feeling of it all; they play bluegrass on the stereo. There are three yummy sauces at every table setting, a BBQ sauce, a hot sauce, and a vinegar sauce. Half a fried chicken is $11, and it is absolutely delicious. Seriously, I want more of this chicken in my mouth, though next time I go back, I feel I should try something else, like the ribs or the pork shoulder — I also hear great things about the brisket. The sides don’t come with, and are $3-$5 apiece. I had the mac and cheese, and frankly, though it was absolutely fine, I was expecting more from Kevin Sousa mac and cheese. Mom got the potato salad and thought the same thing. Next time I’ll try the greens. I also got a fancy lemonade, which had lemonade, mango, vanilla, and rose in it, and it was very good. They have a nice cocktail list that I avoided because I was already suffering from a hangover, but I would definitely try a whiskey drink when next I’m there. So, anyway, there you have it. I’ll totally go back.

I’ll just feel a little fraught about it.

Union Pig and Chicken  on Urbanspoon

Mintt, second by a nose

After hearing many positive recommendations of Mintt from friends in the southerly area of town, and discovering from their website ( that they operate a lunch buffet every day of the week, Sabrina and I decided to venture out to Banksville road to see what all the fuss was about.

MinttOne thing that struck me about Mintt when we first walked in was the more upscale decor. Delicate track lighting, dark wood shutters, shiny wood tables… Mintt is perhaps the more chic looking Indian Buffet we’ve been to (though, oddly enough, nothing like the picture of the interior on their website. A stock photo, perhaps?).

The buffet was quite large at first glance, to the point where it nearly has its own room at Mintt. As it turned out, many items on the buffet were dishes and accompaniments that Sabrina and I had not encountered often or at all, such that I ended up having to taken some notes and do some online research when I got home. The first item on the buffet was one such mystery: paani puri, which I can only describe as a puffy cracker, literally fully puffed up nearly into a ball with an empty center. As I gather, they are meant to be filled with items such as vegetable bits and chick peas, but Sabrina and I ate them alone, and used them as scoops for the curry.

Next up was tandoori chicken, offered freshly sizzling on some sort of plate overtop a brazier. I don’t go in for the tandoori chicken myself, but Sabrina was impressed with the heating system, and later confirmed that the chicken was quite juicy. Next came pakora and bhajis, both relatively crispy (buffets may be the fried appetizer’s worst enemy), followed by naan and idly, a type of bread I had not seen before. It is something of a dense, thick pancake made from lentil and rice flour, apparently for sopping up sambar (which came later on the buffet). They were tasty enough, but given the choice I preferred the naan. Sabrina enjoyed some in a small bowl of sambar, which she found pleasantly thick, as opposed to more watery sambars she has encountered in the past.

From there, Mintt offered an assortment of meat curries. There was an Achari chicken curry that, for once, I did not pass up. It had visible seeds (that’s a good thing) in the sauce, and so looked more intriguing than the ubiquitous orange chicken curry that seems to find its way to every buffet. Indeed I found the Achari curry tasty, but ultimately the Butter Chicken far eclipsed it. The latter turned out to be my favorite item on the entire buffet. There was no lamb, but a goat curry was offered. Both Sabrina and I passed it by, however. I have decided that I don’t like goat curry, not because of the taste, but because it seems to be served everywhere with a wealth of bone pieces in the sauce. Sabrina simply had visions of cute, furry goats and opted to walk by. Rounding off the meat dishes was the chicken biryani, which I found tasty enough, but Sabrina found a bit off-putting, as she found bones in that dish as well.

Off to the vegetable wing of the buffet for many pleasant surprises. Here was served the sambar, as well as peas pilaf and an Indo-chinese dish of noodles. I don’t believe that Sabrina or I tried either of these two–there were just too many other great options and they were the most boring looking items on the buffet. This vegetarian portion of the buffet offered some typical items, some interesting twists, and some things we’d never seen before. There was Saag Paneer, and I loved it. Sabrina, being consistently skeptical of saag, admitted it was good, and credited it with being non-greasy, but cited its favoring of creaminess over vegetable-ness as the reason for it not being her favorite saag ever. There was an Aloo Tikka Masala, which we both enjoyed, but found to be very little like any Tikka Masala we’ve had in the past. There was a dish that appeared to be something of a banana pepper curry. We couldn’t puzzle it out at the time (the handwriting on some of the labels was difficult to read), but after coming home to research, I have determined it is most likely a Bottle Gourd Kadi. Neither of us had tried such a thing before. Apparently it is a yogurt and turmeric based sauce (it was neon yellow, after all), with bottle gourds (shrug?) and green chilis. I liked it well enough, and I trust that it is a shining example of its sort, but given the choice, I would pick other curries–however, I’m glad I got a chance to try it via the buffet. One standout among the vegetables was the Channa Ponyal, a dry-ish mix of chick peas, green beans and spices. It also had visible seeds (mustard, perhaps?) and I enjoyed its rich flavor of spices, among which I could swear I detected the piquancy of clove. Finally, on the vegetable bar, was a Carrot Halwa, a sweet-ish, curry-like mixture of pulped carrots with nuts and golden raisins and a strong cardamom tone; it added a nice variety to the flavors on our plates.

For dessert, there was the requisite rice pudding, of which Sabrina never partakes, but I always do. This one had a good cardamom flavor, my primary requirement for a good kheer. Additionally, there was hot chai, which both of us enjoyed.

On the ride home, we faced a tough decision. Mightily impressed with Mintt, we had to weigh our experience against the other buffets on our list. The buffet at Mintt received substantial points all around for rich and surprising flavors, for variety and unexpected offerings, and for amenities such as the tandoori chicken sizzler and the chai. Weighing it against all of our top choices one by one we did not find a rival for it until we reached our sitting second place buffet, People’s in Bloomfield. The food was of comparable tastiness, we decided, allowing for the possibility that People’s might be just a little bit better (it would have to come down to a taste test of greater proximity to tell for sure). However, in the end, the larger size of the buffet, the variety of dishes, including many we had not tried before (I had almost forgotten that was one of the reasons I like going to buffets to begin with, such have been my same-old-same-old experiences of late), and the extras and amenities offered by Mintt tipped it just over the edge into the second place slot!

Mintt Indian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Zaiaka Bottoms Out

Alas, but not all excursions on our Great India Buffet Tour can be pleasant surprises. Recently, after a series of happenstances led us to search for a buffet in the Monroeville area, we ended up at Zaiaka, only to experience a series of disappointments.

Zaiaka in Holiday ParkFirst of all, to say that Zaiaka can be found in Monroeville (as their website does) is more than an exaggeration. Luckily Sabrina knew where it was because it took much driving beyond Monroeville to reach its Holiday Park location. We arrived around 1:00pm, having called earlier that day to ascertain that the buffet ran until 3:00pm.

When we approached the buffet, we noticed a lot of the items appeared to be depleted. Such is expected at any buffet; in the time we spent there, however, the buffet was never refilled, which I could understand if we had come at 2:15, but two whole hours before the buffet closed?

Luckily, Zaiaka served us fresh naan at our table, which we thought at first was a nice touch, but in retrospect realized was probably so they didn’t have to keep it refilled at the buffet. The naan was tasty and fresh.

The buffet offered a fairly standard selection of curries: Saag, Chicken Curry, Tikka Masala, Chana Masala… all the standards. Sabrina enjoyed a spiced cabbage dish that was a little out of the ordinary. The one surprise for me was that I actually enjoyed the Mattar Paneer, when I usually find it underwhelming. There was some sort of extra spice or flavor that made it more intriguing than usual. However, despite the standout flavor, this curry was no exception to the rule of Zaiaka curries that became imminently clear.

Every curry on the buffet was very greasy. In many cases it was plain to see the oil (maybe ghee?) pooling in all the little nooks on top of the curry. It reflected clearly in the taste and consistency as well. The curries were universally heavy, and otherwise nothing special.

At the end of our meal, when we went up to the cashier to pay, the bill came to just under $20. While not absurd for a buffet, this was certainly on the more expensive side (our top choice, Tamarind, was $17.95 total inclusive of two buffets), and considering the mediocre quality and the lengthy trek out to Holiday Park, Sabrina and I found ourselves wondering whether it had even been worth the trip.

It was clear at the end of our meal that Zaiaka belonged at the bottom of our current list of India Buffets. Maybe Zaiaka is an appealing destination for Indian food lovers in Holiday Park, but given the plethora of better choices in the city, we can’t fathom ever going back.

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The Prince and the People

Due to the craziness of summer, we have fallen a bit behind in our Great India Buffet Tour, and so when schedules coincided for free time two weekends in a row, Sabrina and I took advantage to make two buffet trips.

Prince of IndiaOur first trip was to the Prince of India buffet in Oakland. I have been to Prince of India a number of times throughout the years and found it enjoyable, but Sabrina had only been to the restaurant once, her freshman year of college, for what she reports was an abominable experience. She had not returned in the intervening 11 years, but it was the only buffet we could find open past 3pm on a Saturday, so she made the leap to venture back.

The buffet at Prince of India was small and unsurprising. They had all the standards, Chicken Tikka Masala, Saag, Chicken Curry, Mattar Paneer, naan, pakoras, rice, etc., etc. The Prince of India also includes free fountain drinks as part of their buffet, which was unique to our buffet experience so far.

The food was… good enough. Sabrina reported that it represented a definite improvement over the semi-traumatic taste experience she’d had there 11 years ago. We both agreed the food was good, but just good. Sabrina found the saag to be a bit greasy, though, I didn’t mind it, but I’ve rarely met a saag I didn’t like. The Tikka Masala was tasty and we found the moistness of the chicken to be great, but, we both agreed, the sauce was unabashedly mild. We expect buffet food to be mild, but this one was extra mild. Prince of India does offer hot sauce on the buffet, but unlike some of the fresh made chili sauces we’ve encountered at other buffets, this one appeared to be no more than something of the Frank’s Red Hot ilk. There was a spiced cauliflower dish that I found enjoyable, considering that I never usually go for the dry vegetable dishes, I suppose it qualifies as the most pleasant surprise on the buffet. The rice pudding was perhaps my favorite part of the meal because if was very heavy on the cardamom.

At the end of the meal, we concluded that Prince of India was necessarily at the bottom of our list so far, but that’s not to say we disliked it. We simply found it pleasantly mediocre. While we would not go out of our way to make a trip back to Prince of India, we also wouldn’t talk anybody out of going. Considering that they have buffet hours until 5pm on a Saturday (and I believe the buffet is open fairly often other days, too), they may be the best place to go if you have a sudden buffet craving during off hours.

People's Indian RestaurantThe following Saturday, my plans for a short trip fell through, and so I proposed to Sabrina that we might try People’s Indian in Bloomfield. We had heard good things about it online, and we knew they had lunchtime buffet hours on Saturday. Joining us for this trip was Will, a fan of People’s from previous trips.

The buffet at People’s was among the smaller of the buffets we’ve visited, but we were otherwise greatly impressed. Aside from Tandoori Chicken there were none of the typical meat dishes in sight. There was a Chicken and Mushroom curry, a Chicken Shahi Korma, Aloo Saag, Chana Masala, spiced Zucchini and Matter Paneer. They had plain rice as well as a rice pilaf, and in addition to naan and pakoras, they offered Samosas on the buffet.

The first thing that struck us as we ate our inaugural bites was that the food was actually spicy. Hot spicy. Not extremely spicy, but certainly hotter than any other buffet we’ve tried. No need for extra hot sauce here. The dishes were also complex in flavor and fresh tasting. The Chana Masala was a particular favorite of mine and Sabrina’s. I was also a big fan of the Shahi Korma, Sabrina was impressed with the moistness of the Tandoori Chicken and Will noted that the saag was richly flavored without being greasy. Sabrina liked the samosa filling, though found the wrapping less than ideally crispy, but chalked that up to an unavoidable consequence of being served on a buffet.

As we mused over our dishes it became clear that a Buffet Tour upset was in the works. Our assessments were confirmed by a delightful apres diner treat, an offering unique so far to People’s buffet, a cup of hot chai to accompany our our dessert. While we all enjoyed the chai, Sabrina and I shied away from the fried dough dessert, but Will declared them to be a simply perfect specimen of Indian doughnut-ery. I had some of the rice pudding, and found it to be the only mildly disappointing thing on the buffet. There just wasn’t enough spice or flavor to it. No matter, I took a few bites and thoroughly enjoyed my chai.

By the end of the meal, People’s ranking was clear. While we did not think it strong enough to topple the leading buffet, Tamarind, we did find that it merited second place, pushing out Coriander, which had previously held that position. Despite having a much smaller buffet, People’s boasted a taste quality to trump Coriander in the end!

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Braddock’s American Brasserie: Eh.

On the Fourth of July, Ted and I tried a new-to-us fine (semi-fine?) dining restaurant, Braddock’s American Brasserie & Streetside Bar. It’s the hotel restaurant and bar in the Renaissance Hotel downtown, and we had a Groupon. Our plan was to have dinner and then walk out and watch the fireworks. Braddock’s claims that its aim is to serve updated and upscaled meals based on the traditional cooking of Pittsburgh’s many early immigrant communities, and it also touts itself as having the largest selection of whiskeys of any bar in Pittsburgh. This sounded like a super set up.

The bar is separated from the restaurant proper by the hotel lobby (which is beautiful). I like this arrangement, because the noise from the bar doesn’t intrude on the dining room. The dining room itself was done up with big leather booths and dark walls, a sort of more cleanly lined take on old-school fancy restaurant decor. Including Ted and I, there were perhaps seven or eight tables. Ted noticed that despite the fact that the dining room was perhaps only one/fifth full, the three servers were running around frantically as though the place were packed – this was not a good omen, it turned out.

We spent a long time waiting for service with the menu and drink menu. They did have perhaps two or three dozen whiskeys on their list, but frankly, having recently been at McCormack’s Whisky Grill in Richmond, VA, and Village Whiskey in Philadelphia, the selection just wasn’t comparatively all that impressive. I ordered a Blanton’s, though, which I’ve had before and enjoyed.

It came with lipstick on the rim of the glass. Not just a whisper of gloss, either. Bold red lipstick stains, that the bartender and the server both should have noticed. I sent it back. I mean, come on, if I’m spending upwards of $15 on a pour of whiskey, the glass should be clean and sparkling.

The server was very apologetic and hurried a new glass back to me, though, so there was that. Then Ted and I ordered the cheese plate. Frankly, it was uninspired. There were six cheeses, one of which I could identify straight away as Beemster XO, which is a good cheese, but readily available at Giant Eagle – I like my cheese plate experiences to offer me something I can’t pick up readily at the grocery store. There was also a very young gouda that was bland and frankly had no business being on an upscale cheese plate. There were two good goat cheeses, but here we ran into another problem: the bread served with the tray was grilled in garlic butter. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a nice buttery garlic bread. But the flavor of the bread itself completely overwhelmed the subtle tastes of the soft, light goat cheeses. So we asked for more bread, plain.

Here commences a 20-minute wait for bread.

The server came over and apologized after about seven minutes; he apologized again when the bread finally came out after twenty. Guys: it’s fucking bread. How on earth could it take 20 fucking minutes to get me some plain baguette slices? Honestly – how?

Shortly afterward, our entrees came. Ted ordered the special, swordfish steak served with roasted roma tomatoes and a hearty rice pilaf. I ordered the “Housemade Potato Gnocchi and Lobster,” described as coming with “three types of mushrooms, artichokes, and parmesan cream sauce”.

The food was less bad than it was incompetent. Ted’s roasted tomatoes were very good, the tomato flavor being nicely condensed by the roasting and flavored with olive oil. His pilaf was a nice blend of heartier rices, but it was underseasoned. His swordfish was also dreadfully underseasoned, as well as overcooked.

On my plate, the gnocchi themselves were excellent, perhaps the best I’ve had – they were buttery, hearty without being starchy, semi-soft and just generally deliciously potato-y. But then things went awry. For one thing, there were absolutely no artichokes – perhaps they got lost wherever the bread went missing. The cream sauce was fine, delicately flavored, though noting noteworthy; the lobster was dropped onto the dish in artless chunks, but otherwise fine. But then the mushrooms – oh, the mushrooms. There were a million of them, heaped over all the rest of the dish, and their strong umami taste completely overwhelmed the light cream sauce and delicate lobster flavor. It was just a terrible idea – who put this dish together? I tried a gnocchi with a bite of Ted’s roasted tomato and it was excellent. Braddock’s – simplify. Since clearly, when you try to get “fancy” you go awry. (Of course, how simple is a rice pilaf and a fish steak, and that, too, went awry. So … I don’t know what to tell you.)

With my meal I had a glass of wine, a $13 pinot noir that was fine, but nothing to write home about – Braddock’s wine list, in fact, was not particularly impressive at all. Ted had a cocktail of whiskey and fresh muddled berries that he liked a lot. We took a look at the bar menu, and it seemed to have simpler fair, sandwiches and moules frites. Perhaps we should have taken our Groupon to the Streetside Bar.

We won’t be returning to Braddock’s. The whiskey list the bar touts doesn’t stack up to other whiskey bars I’ve been to, and the wine list was dismal compared to what I’d expect for a restaurant holding itself out as traditional fine dining. The kitchen was incompetent during our visit, both in terms of getting our food out to us, and in the composition and execution of the dishes. There were a few quality moments in the meal, but at Braddock’s prices, they simply weren’t worth it. Even discounting our $40 Groupon, our meal, with two drinks apiece, one appetizer, and two entrees came in at $107. At this price point, any of the upscale Big Burrito restaurants – Eleven, Soba, Casbah – is a much better, tastier dining experience, and you can have much better food for much less money at Point Brugge or (the BYOB) Piccolo Forno, to name just two better values off the top of my head.

The fireworks were nice, though.

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The Great India Buffet Tour: India Garden in Oakland

Last Sunday night marked the fifth stop on our Great India Buffet Tour of the Pittsburgh area, to take advantage of the Deluxe Dinner Buffet at India Garden on Atwood Street.

Indian Garden OaklandThis was by no means my first visit to the India Garden in Oakland (nor was it Sabrina’s or Nik’s), a venerable institution of cheap spicy eats for the college crowd that has been around since my own college days. I’ve been there before for the late night half priced special, as well as to the lunch buffet on a non-Great-India-Buffet-Tour-related trip.

The evening started with a modicum of confusion. Seeing from the website that the dinner buffet was offered on Sunday night, and that dinner was served until 11:00pm, we naturally assumed that an 8:00 start time for dinner was not a problem. But as we sat and chatted, the waiter confirmed that we were getting the buffet and informed us it would be closing at 9:00pm. Okay… certainly not fatal to our evening, but that would have been nice to know on the website so that we did not risk planning a prohibitively late dinner.

Taking in the buffet, we decided that on the scale of size, this buffet fell somewhere on the scale of smaller than Taj Mahal but larger than Coriander, effectively making it the second largest buffet we have visited so far. There was a wide selection of vegetable curries, including favorites such as Saag and Vegetable Korma. There was a potato and chickpea curry, a yellow dal, a vegetarian Sambar curry and a mattar paneer. There were two chicken curries, as well as a shrimp and a goat curry, making for an impressive non-vegetarian selection. In addition, there were some dry vegetables, and a salad bar with an array of chutney and pickle, but I didn’t avail myself of any of these, save for some hot red pepper sauce.

My favorite item on any India buffet is the Saag (aka the palak, depending on some difference of regional dialects of which I know nothing, or so I presume). That night the saag was served with mushrooms, which was a first in my experience, but certainly no less agreeable than any saag with chicken, paneer, lamb, chickpeas or potatoes (moreso, actually, than the potatoes) I’ve had in the past. It can hold its own against any saag in the city. The vegetable korma was tasty, and no objections were raised on the consistency, as they were at Coriander. The chickpea and potato curry and sambar curries were tasty enough, the yellow dal was nothing special, and the mattar paneer was better than average, as I am usually extremely underwhelmed by mattar paneer, and this one I found okay (though, didn’t encounter any paneer).

The highlight of the buffet was within the meat section. I didn’t try any of the shrimp curry, but Nik highly recommended it (I was too full by that point to go back just to try the shrimp). There was a goat curry offered, but I don’t recall that any of us tried it… mostly we were enamored of the Chicken Chettinad. I have had chettinad from a few Indian restaurants in the past, but it is not a terribly common Indian Restaurant menu item, and this is the first time I have seen it on a buffet. It is a flavorful and fragrant curry which relies on many of the brown spices, such as cinnamon, clove and black cardamom. It was, by far, mine and Sabrina’s favorite item on the buffet. The other chicken offering, the more predictable Tikka Masala, was enjoyable. It was a particular favorite of Nik’s.

The dessert selections were limited: a fruit salad and a rice pudding. I was the only one who availed herself of dessert, enjoying two small helpings of the refreshingly sweet and spiced rice pudding.

A table-wide assessment of the Buffet Tour thus far resulted in the India Garden dinner buffet ending up a solid third on the list. The quality was good, we found, enough to trump Taj and Taste, despite the enormity of the Taj buffet, but it still came in behind Coriander and Tamarind, which remains our leader several stops into the tour after pulling ahead as the early front runner.

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