November 17th, 2009


Pittsburgh Barbecue

I'm padding my LJ post count with something I posted on the Roadfood forums:

I am far from a bbq expert, but I have never found a place around Pittsburgh that would stay open for more than six months in Memphis, Kansas City or North Carolina. But then, truthfully, I really don't seek them out.

I would basically agree there, and I'd add my native Texas to the list. But sometimes the craving comes upon me, and I emerge from my lair and go forth in search of smoked meat.

Here's a rundown on some of the barbecue places I've tried in the Pittsburgh area:

Mr. Ribbs in Penn Hills was the single worst restaurant dining experience I've ever had. Time has mercifully blurred the details, but I recall that not only was the meat horribly gristly, the macaroni and cheese was as well. It was only several years after it closed that I stopped saying "Feh" every time I passed the site. (There are other places around Pittsburgh with the Mr. Ribbs name, but I don't know if my condemnation should extend to those places as well.)

Red River Barbecue on McKnight Road in the North Hills was obviously not authentic; I don't think I've ever had authentic barbecue in a place with cloth napkins, and the sun-dried cherry coleslaw made it doubly inauthentic. The meat was okay, but the menu had a focus on pork that surprised me--perhaps I was wrong in my assumption that the Red River of the name was the river that forms the Texas-Oklahoma boundary. It has now closed.

Q 4 You in Swissvale was a great barbecue place, in a round little building decorated with flames on the roof. The barbeque was wonderful, with a rich bold flavor. (The proprietor said it was Kansas City-style, with some variations of his own.) I loved the baked beans, which were thick enough to stand a spoon in. Meals also came with soft yeast rolls that were huge--the size of a child's head. The prices were very cheap, also--the two of us could have a full meal with leftovers for the next day for $10.
Unfortunately, Q 4 You closed after a few months. I don't know much about why it closed, but I have a guess. Before it closed for good, it closed for a couple of weeks because the owner had shingles. My guess is that some other catastrophe happened, and he didn't have enough reserves of money or help to stay afloat.

Maverick's Bar-B-Que on Route 30 in East Pittsburgh had no particular barbecue tradition; when I asked him what style of barbecue he served, he shrugged and said "Pittsburgh-style". In this case, that meant a barbecue sandwich served on an Italian roll. The shredded pork was pretty good, but the one time I got the shredded beef, it was like a sandwich full of hot wet beef jerky.
It is now closed.

Jake's Beef and Bar-B-Que in the Pittsburgh Galleria was misnamed--it was a steakhouse decorated in an arty southwestern style, with only a few barbecue items on the menu. I recall that they had several different sauces, and the waiter arranged them artfully on a plate to describe the different sauces. The meat was fairly good, but apparently not good enough to call me to the South Hills often.
It is now closed.

Jameson's was in Oakland, very near the 837 exit off the Parkway East. They advertised their barbecue on their sign, but in practice this meant that they had a beef brisket sandwich on the menu. I was hopeful, because beef brisket is a part of my barbecue tradition that is hard to find around here--but the reality of the sandwich was a disappointment.
It is now closed.

Clem's, out on Route 22 near Blairsville, is not closed as far as I know. (After the number of places I've listed that are closed, that seems to put them above the pack.) It's another place that has no smell of smoke, but the meat is rather good. If I were driving out that way, I would certainly stop in at Clem's, but it's not quite close enough to what I want to draw me that far.

Big Mama's House of Soul, down in the Strip, has been praised by restaurant reviewers. But the one time we went there, service was very slow, and the ribs were kind of tough, which is not how I like my ribs. I would give them another try, but I regard them as on probation.

Smokey Bones is a chain restaurant near The Mall at Robinson. It's a good chain, though, and the barbecue is very good. I'll go there any time I'm near Robinson or I go out to the airport.

Red Hot and Blue was another chain restaurant, this one in the Waterfront shopping center near us. It was a very good chain. It had my favorite ribs outside of Memphis (though I don't try ribs all that often, so this is significant but not astounding praise), and their sides were very good. I particularly liked their Brunswick stew, their mac and cheese, and their cornbread. The restaurant showed a respect and affection for Southern food, Southern hospitality, barbecue, and blues that seemed much more genuine than the usual synthetic chain smarm. We would eat there once or twice a month; we were very sad when it closed.

Famous Dave's Barbecue, near Waterworks, was much more synthetic in their attempts to charm. The barbecue was pretty good, but not wonderful. The sauce was a bit too spicy for Lori.
That location is now closed.

Mitch's Mobile Bar-B-Que Pit is a guy and his smoker trailer. The menu is far from authentic barbecue, but it's pretty good. We had him bring his smoker to our house to cater our wedding party, and we might well do so again for an anniversary party. He also makes his own ice cream, which was pretty good.

Elliott's Backstreet Barbecue on 51 in the South Hills has lasted for over a decade (and not closed yet as far as I know). I haven't eaten there in many years, but I remember the food being fairly good, but not special.

Mr. Willie's BBQ opened recently in Squirrel Hill. Its menu is mostly ribs and fried chicken; this is a barbecue tradition shared by several restaurants in Pittsburgh, but it's not my barbecue tradition. I know we've eaten there, but I have little memory of the food, and even when we're in Squirrel Hill, I'd probably eat somewhere else instead.

Gramma Anna's BBQ in Wilkinsburg was another freakishly smoke-free place, but the barbecue was pretty good. They had four sauces, of which I particularly liked their mustard sauce. The sign is still there, but one day I went in and the people there seemed to be running a temp agency, with no indications of selling food at all.

BJ's BBQ Smokehouse is in Swissvale--or at least, the sign is. When I tried to eat there on Saturday, I found all the doors locked, and the phone number on their sign is disconnected. I'm not optimistic that they will satisfy my barbecue cravings.

A few barbecue restaurants in the Pittsburgh area that I've been meaning to try:

Cho-Cho's has recently opened up in Wilkinsburg. It would do well on convenience to my home. The name reminds me of the cannibalistic Tcho-Tcho's from H. P. Lovecraft's fiction, but I don't think that I can reasonably hold that against them.

Wilson's BBQ on the North Side has been around for decades, and was featured in Rick Sebak's TV special on the North Side. I'm not sure that Rick Sebak is an expert on barbecue, though.

Two Brothers Bar-B-Q in the South Hills won "Best Barbecue" in a Post-Gazette opinion poll. I'm not sure how much I can trust Post-Gazette readers about barbecue, but it's certainly worth checking out.

Steel City Smokehouse and Saloon in Century III Mall got a good review from the P-G's food reviewer ( ). I don't expect a wonderfully authentic experience, but Munch's enthusiasm makes me want to check it out.


I've been super-stressed the last few months.

It has felt as if my stress is a separate creature from myself. I could easily visualize it as a monkey on my back, but I found it more cheerful to visualize it as a very large rowdy puppy, the sort that pulls you off-balance as it bounds at the leash.

This week, though, it feels like my stress is elsewhere. That stress-creature hasn't vanished, certainly, but it's not in the room with me.

Not sure what to make of this.