What with the tech companies, the press accolades and the gentrification — for better or for worse — Pittsburgh should be able to shed its inferiority complex at last. Still, it made us sit up a little straighter when Southern Tier Brewing chose our fair city as the site of its first extramural location. The pride of Lakewood, N.Y., hard by Lake Chautauqua, Southern Tier distributes its product through 30 states. What does it say about Western Pennsylvania that we are, collectively, a particularly enthusiastic consumer? Well, that we get our own outpost of Southern Tier before anyone else, for starters.
We’ll leave it to better beerologists than us to judge those brews (although we enjoyed what we tried). When it came to the food, the menu stood out from those at other gastropubs through a deft combination of brevity (one page), comprehensiveness — everything from smoked garlic almonds to portabella fettuccine — and invention. While a few items were more or less perfunctory — you needn’t cross state lines to find pretzel bites with dijonnaise — pretty much everything else demonstrated care and craft, whether the housemade kraut in the reuben or the apple-sherry jus with the roasted chicken.
The surroundings were a bit more by-the-book: Edison bulbs and barnwood (OK, barrel staves, a slight departure from the usual, but still firmly in the distressed-wood category). A white-painted grid on the back wall seemed to have wandered in from a modernist restaurant, while a variety of seating situations — bar, high-top tables, communal tables and booths — kept the cavernous floor space interesting.
Once settled in a booth, we got down to ordering. The nachos were heavily loaded and enticing, but we went with skillet fries topped with bacon, beer cheese, jalapeños and scallions. Simple but satisfactory — the fries formed a hearty base, the bacon was well-crisped, and the beer cheese was thick, creamy and slightly funky from the hops. The jalapeño slices were not punishingly hot, but, along with the zingy scallions, punched all that salt, starch and cream up nicely.
Is fried cauliflower the new roasted Brussels sprouts? Might be too soon to call, but we really liked Southern Tier’s crispy parmesan cauliflower. Each floret was surrounded by a halo of caramelized edges that were crisp, as promised, and emphasized the vegetable’s native nutty sweetness. The big parmesan flavor meant they were good on their own; garlic aioli was an addictive addition, bold but not harsh.
The meat, smoked in house, in the pulled-pork sandwich came in chunks rather than shreds, the better to savor its slow-cooked tenderness, but we wished for more smokiness. Edge pieces that displayed some bark were tasty, but the center of the shoulder could just as well have come from an oven. There was a tangy vinegar sauce on offer, as well as brown-sugar barbecue; despite the name, the latter was not too cloying. Jerk pickles and a tangy slaw helped enliven the sandwich, served on a rich brioche bun.
The same bun reappeared on the house burger, filled with an oozing center of beer cheese and topped with black-pepper bacon, more garlic aioli and jerk pickles, arugula, and ale-battered onion rings. It was delicious but a bit of a slippery mess to eat, which made getting the ideal bite with all of these flavors in it a challenge.
The smoked-meatloaf entrée featured a sandwich in disguise. Not only were the slices of loaf served open-face, they were actually stacked atop a grilled-cheese sandwich. It’s a brilliant idea, but alas, the chef went overboard, piling on peppers, onions, pickles, provolone, mustard, barbecue and horseradish cream. The poor meatloaf — which, amid all this, was on the scanty side — was buried beneath these flavors, which cohered but didn’t quite combine, like a chorus singing competently in harmony without ever soaring. In different proportions, and perhaps with a lightly edited ingredient list, this could be a masterpiece.
Churrasco hanger steak was much more straightforward and successful, helped by a tender piece of meat that was seared but not cooked much more. We thought we detected some sweetness, perhaps from a spice rub, but the primary flavoring was blue-cheese chimichurri butter. It was rich and flavorful, even if its dairy lushness needed more punch from the herbs.
Standing out among the gastropubs is an increasingly tall order. Southern Tier does so with a concise, creative menu and food that’s worth eating no matter what your affinity for beer.