Time was, it was noteworthy if a bar had a salad or even fried zucchini on its menu alongside its burgers, fries and wings. Nowadays, practically all but the most basic sports bar goes well beyond that, but the choices can seem kind of rote: potstickers, mac-and-cheese, Brussels sprouts, flatbread.
Now that even the upgrades are predictable, bar kitchens are seeking the next wave. Enter the gastropub. But just off the Cranberry exit on I-79, nestled amidst chains along the suburban strip, Pig Iron Public House is taking innovation in a different direction. With ginormous screens tuned to the Pens game in view of every table, a whopping 66 beers on tap and a kids’ menu, Pig Iron is a sort of hybrid of a sports bar on steroids and a family restaurant.
As the name suggests, steel-era nostalgia is part of the mix. The blast-furnace diagram blown up to floor-to-ceiling dimensions provided a topic of educational conversation with our kids while we waited for our food, but we couldn’t shake the feeling that it seemed a little contrived in Cranberry, whose history of farmland-turned-upper-middle-class-suburb occurred at a time and place removed from the mills.
But judging by the parking lot — almost completely full on a Wednesday evening — the people of Cranberry are hungry for what Pig Iron has to offer. The menu started out familiar, with wings, burgers and sandwiches with fries and slaw on them. But when we looked beyond these staples, things got a lot more interesting, as in a meatball made with lamb, beef and almonds, and stuffed with mozzarella and goat cheese. Or nachos with chorizo, beer cheese, white cheddar and chili-lime sauce. Indeed, there was very little on the menu that was by the book.
We started with sweet-potato waffle fries, which were deeply colored, crisp and light. A smattering of salt played against the sweet potatoes’ inherent sweetness, as did tangy and subtly bitter notes in the accompanying honey-maple-mustard dipping sauce. But Jason thought the two sources of sweetness in the sauce were too much, piling on the sugar at the expense of balance.
Sweet-potato pancakes were even better: not too heavy, browned on top and crisp at the edges, and served with a steel measuring cup of ginger-infused maple syrup that was out of this world.
Between traditional wings and “pig wings” — three hefty pieces of shank — and a plethora of sauces from chili-lime to a house-made blend of garlic, BBQ and hot sauce, wing-lovers have plenty to choose from. We chose pig wings. The meat was very satisfying, nearly fall-apart tender with charred edges. Although the sweet whiskey-BBQ sauce was as thick as a glaze, it wasn’t candy-sweet, allowing the meat’s smokiness to come to the fore.
Pierogi were one item at Pig Iron that wasn’t re-imagined, but served in the classic fashion, with butter and onions. They were both exactly right and a little bit dull, a good introduction to the dish but also one we’d want to move past to fillings beyond plain potato. When served as a pub plate, they’re combined with Brussels sprouts, dotted with cranberries and dressed with an apple vinaigrette.
The house burger featured a fried egg and grilled tomato, plus pickled red onion and red-pepper mayo. The burger was fine, but the stars of this show were the tomato, as vibrant as a peak-season slice, and mayo, which subtly but unmistakably suffused a pretty big sandwich with flavor.
The pulled-pork sandwich also took a workmanlike meat and made it sing. The pork, with middling texture and not much smoke to it, was only lightly coated with BBQ sauce, leaving room for thin slices of Granny Smith apple, plus apple butter on the brioche bun, while finely shredded vinegar-dressed coleslaw cut the richness of the meat and the sweetness of the fruit.
Finally, a grilled gruyere-and-white-cheddar sandwich, with crumbled chorizo, roasted peppers, arugula and horseradish sauce, was truly grilled on a panini press for a delectable squashing and melding of the ingredients into one gooey, sophisticated filling.
We seem to be entering a baroque period of cooking, in which chefs composing dishes out of many ingredients can come uncomfortably close to a kitchen-sink approach. If we had any doubts that a bar in Cranberry would really be able to integrate disparate ingredients, and to balance so much savory and sweet, Pig Iron Public House put them to rest.