Yes, Pittsburgh does now have a spot for Cuban cuisine: Salud, in Lawrenceville. Occupying a traditional deep, narrow bar along Butler Street, its decor makes a few nods to the Cuban pastimes of cigars and small cups of coffee, but bypasses the whole Miami Vice vibe. And while Cuban cuisine can be quite refined, there's a comfort and conviviality to such late-night fare as the medianoche (a variation on the Cuban sandwich served around midnight), and that's the target of Salud's short and focused menu. You'll find no detours into other cuisines here, unless you count a burger with Cuban-sandwich toppings.
Eager to try Salud's scratch recipe for empanadas, we put in our order practically before our pants met our chairs. The baked pockets were modestly sized and wrapped in a smooth, crisp, golden-brown dough with a hint of orange, perhaps from annatto. The beef within was savory and well seasoned, with just enough melted mozzarella to round out the flavor and texture. It was plenty tasty, but given that picadillo — a beef hash which is also a common empanada filling — is on the menu as an entrée, we were a bit surprised that it was not an empanada option.
We also ordered black-bean soup and a Cuban salad. The soup was thick and hearty, with whole beans and a garnish of sofrito, the blend of diced onion and green peppers that's the foundation of much Cuban cooking. Its flavor was dominated by a distinct sweetness that, while not foreign to Cuban cuisine, was too prominent in a dish with neither overt spice nor plain rice. The simple salad of tomatoes, avocado and red onion also featured sweet top notes, but this fruity sweetness was better balanced against the vinaigrette's tang and blend of fine, dry herbs. The avocado was admirably ripe, and the tomatoes surprisingly good for this time of year. Vegetables aren't a big part of Cuban menus, nor Salud's, so this was a welcome foundation.
No Cuban meal would be complete without a Cubano sandwich, and Salud's met our high expectations. Cuban bread — a thin-crusted version of a baguette — was unavailable, but the hoagie roll substitute, properly toasted in a press, was hard to distinguish from the real thing. One could quibble with the choices of Dijon mustard and kosher dill pickles instead of yellow mustard and garlic-free dill. But any complaints were washed away by the marinated, slow-cooked, shredded pork. The meat was moist, tender and flavorful, yet mild enough that the ham and Swiss both played their part.
This pork — called lechon — also got to star in its own sandwich. This one was also pressed on a roll, but topped with shredded cheddar and mojo, a butter condiment containing thinly sliced garlic slow-cooked until it's sweet and leeched of any harshness. This was so good, we ate some with a spoon.
Both this sandwich and the Cubano came with hand-cut fries, which ranged from shoestring-thin to steak-cut planks. They were far too pale, with only occasional corners of crispness, but they had two merits: The interior was light and fluffy, and they were tossed with what looked like the herb blend from the vinaigrette, which was tasty enough that no ketchup or other dipping sauce was necessary. If they were only double fried, these would be a standout item.
Entrees include a platter of lechon as well as a Cuban version of Asian lettuce wraps, here combining pork belly and mango. Our choices were jerk chicken and papas rellenos, which were more lechon encased in mashed potatoes, then breaded, fried and coated with cheddar cheese. We found the shredded cheddar too scant to create a gooey layer, and too mild to offer sharp flavor. But more of that luscious mojo butter pumped up the flavor of the simple potatoes. Fresh-fried plantain chips were thick enough that the interior was still soft and earthy-sweet, while the edges were plenty crisp.
Jerk chicken was marvelously moist and flavorful in its pan-seared coating of seasonings. Sides of rice and beans were typically Cuban. Plentiful sweet bell peppers were added to the sofrito, and again the balance tipped too sweet; a little more black pepper and cumin would go a long way toward rounding out this dish.
Bustelo coffee, cooked on the stove top Cuban-style, rounds out Salud's dining experience, along with either flan or deep-fried cheesecake. Salud is the Cuban restaurant we have been waiting for.