A 15-foot man guards the entrance to U.S. Steel’s lone remaining Pittsburgh plant, smiling as he bends a rail with his bare hands. Joe Magarac is to steelworkers what Paul Bunyan is to lumberjacks; the plaque on this statue of him claims Joe was born in an ore mine, never slept, and “ate hot steel like soup, and cold ingots like meat.”
Until recently, you weren’t likely to find a more appealing meal in Braddock, Pa., a borough of 2,000 residents 10 miles upstream from downtown Pittsburgh that became an urban food desert when the local steel industry collapsed. The last place serving food was the canteen at the local hospital, which shuttered in 2010.
Any restaurant coming to Braddock would be cause for local celebration. And yet within months of opening last summer, Superior Motors was tabbed by Food & Wine magazine as one of its 10 Restaurants of the Year.
There’s good reason. The restaurant’s modern American menu, created by the chef Kevin Sousa, walks the tightrope between down-home and elegant, serving stick-to-your-ribs dishes like roast duck with Swiss chard, and lighter, inventive fare including cold slices of raw cobia steeping in a shallow broth of spicy tomatillo, garnished with an avocado mousse.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Mr. Sousa said. “It’s fine dining without being fussy or overly delicate. You don’t look at it and go, ‘I don’t even know where to start.’ You want to eat it.” (He garnished “eat” with an expletive.) To wit: One of the menu’s most popular items is Crispy Pig Face, whose pithy name belies its long prep time of smoking pork heads and shoulders.
“John and I walked around Braddock and I just fell in love with the place,” said Pittsburgh native Mr. Sousa, 43, referring to borough mayor John Fetterman (who is running for lieutenant governor). “I moved into an old warehouse a few blocks away. I had this idea of creating a restaurant that wasn’t chasing trends, but one that had no choice but to represent a place and time. Luckily people went for it.”
After banks initially refused to bet on the project, Mr. Sousa set a Kickstarter record for a restaurant, raising $310,225 to break ground. With Chris Clark, his general manager and an alum of New York’s beloved, shuttered, WD-50, Mr. Sousa oversaw every detail, down to the place settings, which include silverware balanced atop pieces of powder-coated c-channel steel.
Housed in what had been one of America’s first indoor car dealerships, the open kitchen looks into the former Chevy showroom, converted to a main dining room of exposed brick and board form concrete, and lit by cylindrical bamboo sconces that echo the smokestacks across the street. Alternating between bites of the crispy salmon with sorrel, and the savory chicken with morels, my 6-year-old stared, rapt, out the plate glass windows at the blast furnace’s gas flares rending the nighttime sky.
“We love when we have kids in,” Mr. Sousa said. “This is very much a family environment.” Nearly half of his staff are Braddock natives, and borough residents eat for half-price. The dessert choices include semifreddo and ganache, but also pretzel salad, a Pennsylvania potluck staple. Instead of Jell-O, Mr. Sousa uses whipped white chocolate as a base, topped with crushed salty pretzels, elderflowers grown on the rooftop greenhouse and mulberries picked from the tree out front. Finishing it, I felt like a giant kid, licking my steel spoon clean.
Superior Motors, 1211 Braddock Avenue; superiormotors15104.com. A dinner for two, without drinks or tip, is about $100. (A can of Miller is $3.) On Wednesdays and Thursdays, a two-course tasting menu is $35 per person.
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