Sunday, November 22, 2009

One year and counting!

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of Hungry Canuck! I wanted to write a quick post to thank my few regular readers for their support, suggestions, and comments which have helped me build this site up to its current nearly respectable status.

In one year I managed to review establishments in five states, four countries, and on three continents (counting a day trip to the Asian side of Turkey). Personal highlights include my Southern road trip through Tennessee and transcendent Grilled Cheese in London. I seem to be attracting about 20 readers a day (hi guys!) except the two times that I have been tastespotted when about ten times that amount swarm to the site. My post about Boustan in Montreal gets the most hits which is great, since it's one that I am happiest with. I'm glad to be another resource for stoned college kids at Concordia and McGill when they get their midnight cravings

I have optimistic plans for the next year, including some extensive traveling and eating in new parts of the world. Stay tuned for details! It's also likely that in a year's time Tam and I will be living away from Pittsburgh, and there must be a dozen restaurants in the city that I want to write about before we hit the road. I'll try to get to a few of them each month in the new year.

In honour of the past year, here's one favourite picture that didn't make it into a full post: the slightly less than appetizing Skyline Chili, a Cincinnati institution. A mountain of fluorescent orange cheese, overcooked pasta, and seasoned ground beef. Somehow, I failed to appreciate its culinary value.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pittsburgh Rib Fest, Pittsburgh, PA

July 2010 update: While I haven't seen official word from the Steelers or Heinz Field, from what I can tell the 2010 festival will be held over Labor Day weekend, from September 2 - 6. The festival will kick off that Thursday evening (September 2) as the Steelers host the Carolina Panthers in the final preseason game.

August 2010 update: The Steelers have finally confirmed what I reported here weeks ago. The 2010 Rib Fest will indeed take place over Labor Day Weekend. See their press release for the full schedule of musical acts and activities. As usual, we'll be there getting our fingers messy with sauce!

As fall edges into winter here in Pittsburgh, I've been reminiscing about one of my favourite annual traditions in this city, the Pittsburgh Rib Fest.

At the end of every summer, barbecue teams descend on Heinz Field for a long weekend of outdoor grilling and competition. While awards are handed out at the end of the weekend for the best ribs, best sauce, and so on, the festival is moreover an opportunity for barbecue lovers to wander the area and sample some great ribs from around the country. Menus vary from vendor to vendor, with the one constant being pork ribs and sides like slaw and baked beans (although you should ask before you order since it seemed like most beans came from a can). Many also sell barbecue chicken and pulled pork, while brisket, beef ribs, and corn bread can be found too. Aside from the dozen or so barbecue joints, kiosks also sell Pennsylvania country fair staples like lemonade, funnel cake, and frozen custard.

But as regular readers of this blog know, I get most excited by barbecue. So every year, I make the trek down to Heinz Field and get 3-bone rib samplers (for $5-6 each) from as many different vendors as it takes to fill me up. If you're not craving a particular regional style of pork, there are many other ways to help you decide which ribs to eat. You can go with the stand with the shortest lines, the one that has the most trophies or award banners, order from the vendor with the catchiest slogan, or perhaps support the stand where the grillmaster is also pulling double duty as MC. It's hard to go wrong.

This year Tam and I started with Bad Wolf Barbecue ("The K.C. Legend", surprisingly based out of Toronto) which combined an impressive array of award banners with some kitchy statuary.

The Bad Wolf ribs were very good without being mindblowing. I'll give them points for the sweet sauce which made for both sticky fingers and a nicely caramelized, slightly charred crust on each rib. The ribs were also quite juicy, not having been cooked to the point of falling off the bone, and maintained a lot of richness from the fat which hadn't fully rendered out of the meat. Are they beautiful, or what?

We thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

Not yet full, we wandered the length of the festival before deciding that our second stop should be at Ron's Ribs ("The King of Ribs"), based out of Mansfield, OH. A huge factor in our decision was this larger-than-life size poster of the King of Ribs himself.

There's a lot to be said for a man who can proudly don a crown on top of his chef's hat, epaulettes, a golden sash (literally proclaiming him the "King of Ribs and Sauce"), five medals (presumably for excellence in ribs and/or sauce), and white gloves (not very practical for a barbecue grillmaster), without a hint of irony. And is that a scepter he's wielding?

While waiting in line, we noticed that the King himself was manning the grill, thankfully having traded in his scepter for a pair of tongs and his crown for a King of Ribs ball cap. After purchasing our ribs, we settled down on the curb and pulled them apart with our hands. These were exactly my style. Achingly tender, lean, and with a perfect balance of sauce to smoky pork. Long live the king!

The Pittsburgh Rib Fest takes place outside Heinz Field and generally runs over the long weekend which contains the first Pittsburgh Panthers home football game in late August or early September. Check back on this page in the summer of 2010 for an update on the upcoming festival's exact schedule.

Similar events periodically take place across the country. The Kansas City Barbeque Society keeps an excellent searchable list of events they sponsor on their website.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Round Corner Cantina, Pittsburgh, PA

Tam and I were meeting a friend at a local bar for a drink in September when he made a passing comment about a new, excellent Mexican restaurant that had only been serving food for two weeks. Regular readers of this space may remember that I've often bemoaned the lack of quality Mexican food in Pittsburgh, so this news excited us tremendously. It took us about ten minutes to settle our tab before we raced down to Lawrenceville to check it out for ourselves.

The Round Corner Hotel had been a Pittsburgh dive for as long as anyone I know here remembered, until a trio of Lawrenceville residents bought out the previous owner and transformed it into the Round Corner Cantina, a bar which also happens to now serve the best, high quality, straightforward Mexican street food in the city. We enjoyed our first meal there so much that we went back with friends the next week. Then popped in for a birthday dinner the week after that. And met another set of friends there last week. This place has quickly become our go-to spot for a low-key, fantastic meal.

We've tasted most of the menu by now, and our favorite item is the escabeche, fresh vegetables lightly pickled with vinegar, cilantro, and a hint of fresh hot pepper, which we've ordered on each visit. It comes in a mason jar with the lid popped off. A few thin wooden skewers are provided for diners to spear their veggies. On our first visit in late summer, the escabeche featured local cauliflower and snap peas, but as we move into fall, the contents are shifting towards carrots, pearl onions, and baby turnips. The crunchy veggies in the jars offer a glimpse at what our local farmers are currently harvesting in Western Pennsylvania.

Another of our favorites is the queso fundido con chorizo, which is divine in its simplicity and is directly inspired by similar dishes in taquerias across Mexico. The Cantina's version consists of a tiny cast iron pan filled with chihuahua cheese and finely diced chorizo, broiled until completed melted and bubbly in the middle, and slightly crispy around the edges. A basket of fresh, warm tortilla chips is provided to help scoop up each bite. This dish is laden with grease from the melted cheese and salty chorizo, but the small serving size keeps it from weighing the diner down.

Also, its hard to go wrong with the tacos. Served two to a plate in very lightly grilled corn tortillas, filled with the protein of your choice (with seitan available for vegetarians). I tend to prefer the carnitas, topped with queso fresco, thinly sliced radishes, diced onions, cilantro, and a wedge of lime. The pork doesn't have the salty crispiness of my favorite carnitas, but they are nonetheless sublime in their stewed smokiness.

The small menu will satisfy your inner carnivore with the carnitas or chicharrones, while vegetarians can enjoy interesting options ranging from a cactus salad and guacamole to elote.

The extensive drink list features over a dozen types of tequila and mezcal, inspired cocktails, and our favorites, the micheladas (we prefer the Mexican over the Spanish). The Mexican michelada consists of a mason jar of Mexican lager topped with a sprig of cilantro, a pinch of salt, a spear of hot pepper, and a splash of lime.

It didn't take long for word to get out, and the Round Corner Cantina has quickly emerged as a popular spot for drinks and bites among Pittsburgh's 20 and 30 something crowd. Early problems with understaffing seemed to have been sorted out on our last visit.

In the warm weather, the fenced in, grassy back yard takes on the feel of a mellow house party, with the wait staff shuttling out drinks and food from inside to the picnic tables and and benches filling the space.

Our same friend recently whispered a new rumour that the menu might be getting touched up for the winter. I know we'll keep checking it out, and suggest that anyone who's ever bemoaned the lack of good Mexican food in this city does the same. The drought is over!

The Round Corner Cantina is located in the beautiful Round Corner Hotel building at 3720 Butler Street in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighbourhood. You can check out their public Facebook page or call 412-904-2279 for more information. As a bar, entry is restricted to those 21 and over.

I apologize for the low quality of the pictures. The dim lighting and rich interior colours in the Cantina make for great atmosphere but difficult photography without a tripod.