Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Smoke Barbecue Taqueria in Homestead

My favorite. The pork taco with apricot habanero sauce & caramelized onion.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know this place counts for about 40% of my chatter. And Las Palmas in Brookline accounts for another 40%. Both are relatively new to Pittsburgh—Las Palmas started serving tacos on the sidewalk in front of their Brookline grocery store sometime in 2010. I remember reading about Smoke after they opened in May, but it took me until September to visit. Hopefully you’ve been there by now, or if not this post gives you the nudge you've needed.

Smoke's owners, Jeff and Nelda, decided to come to Western Pennsylvania and open the type of place they love. “A burger or donut shop. Something simple, but great.” They’d met working together in Jeff’s restaurant in Vail, and most recently lived in Austin, Texas. They decided on Pittsburgh for a variety of reasons, and Jeff is originally from Meadville. The couple are warm, down to earth and humbly describe themselves as “a couple of taco slingers.”

Homestead? Yes, Homestead; the other side of the railroad tracks. The part without the new box stores and Disney fa├žades. Eighth Ave. between Amity and Anne, across the street from the vegetarian Tin Front Cafe. Near a pawn shop, hair salon and a few medical offices, among so many dusty, vacant storefronts. Behold, Smoke:

Just a humble shop with a vinyl banner and a cactus in the window. Walking through their screen door, it feels like you're entering someone's home. Basically, you are. The dining room has some vintage and ordinary furniture--let's call it Craigslist Chic. The interior is great: exposed brick, earthy colors, original wooden floor, old doors sanded down and built into the bar. Not to mention one of the nicest bathrooms I’ve seen in a restaurant in Pittsburgh. (There is no serviced "bar" but Smoke offers BYOB with no corkage fee. Bring your wine; bring your beer; bring your hooch.) 

Nelda greets you with a smile and hands you a simple printed menu. She asks you what you’d like to drink. There’s some dark-roasted La Prima Chiapas coffee, Mexican Coca-Cola, horchata, or one of many homemade aguas fresca (like fruit punch but not so cloyingly sweet.) I recommend all of them. If you haven’t tried horchata, it’s a cold, cinnamony rice drink popular in Mexico, perfect to soothe the heat of some of the sauces at Smoke. Both the agua fresca and the horchata are topped with a dusting of fine lime zest. It is small touches like this, and there are many more, that make Smoke irresistible and worth the wait that you’ll sometimes encounter.

Strawberry agua fresca with Mexican Coke in background. (note the lime zest)

“Never a day old tortilla,” says the menu. Sometimes you can see Jeff in the back, seated, hand-rolling one of Smoke’s amazing tortillas, his apron white with flour. All the tortillas are fresh, and you can taste it. Even the best pre-packaged tortilla will taste stale in comparison to the ones here. These are soft tacos, made with flour tortillas as opposed to the more traditional cornmeal ones found at Las Palmas. The owners were debating both at first, but chose flour for simplicity’s sake, as well as what they thought the market would prefer. Since purchasing a newer tortilla press to help automate the process, Nelda says they may add corn tortillas in the future.

I said something about Smoke being worth the wait. As the tortillas are made fresh daily, sometimes they run out and make them as they go. This place gets decidedly busy at times. I have waited up to twenty minutes for my food before, which may seem long, but they've always warned me if the wait is sizable. Frankly, I'm willing to wait as long as it takes for this food.

The smoked ribs taco; also a good choice.
There isn’t a taco I haven’t tried, and I like them all. There are nine different ones, all made with fresh ingredients, sauces prepared from scratch and meats smoked on site. The smoked meats, as well as their almost singular pursuit of tacos as entree set Smoke aside in a sea of trendy tacos. Restaurants can easily add tacos to a menu, but all to often the meat filling sits and sits, ending up dry and mealy in your mouth. At Smoke, the meat is the centerpiece. It is always moist, tender, with a depth of flavor that you can taste in every bite. And they are prepared to order; sometimes you can see the cooks stripping the meat from the bone to fill your order.

The new menu, as of July 8, 2012.
Now don't get so excited about the tacos that you disregard the side dishes, because they are tremendous on their own. I could make a meal of them, and often I have. Everyone raves about the cheddar-mascarpone macaroni and cheese, which can be topped with the meat of your choice for a little bit extra ( homemade bacon or chorizo are quite popular toppings.) I, however, eater of too many tacos, choose typically something (relatively) lighter. Like the apple-jalapeno slaw (pictured below) which is a fairly standard take on traditional creamy cabbage coleslaw, with some julienned apples and bits of jalapeno tossed in for good measure. 

Jalapeno Apple Slaw
Or you could order my favorite side, the red potato salad with leek topped with crispy bacon, which for $3 may be one of the best values going ounce to dollar in Pittsburgh. The bacon is moist inside, crisp to the tooth and packs a wollop of flavor in each bite if you conserve it. Most people I've seen just eat it first like candy. The bacon serves a second purpose to warn vegetarians; you see, the leek is sauteed in bacon drippings, imbuing a sweet and smoky flavor and creamy mouthfeel through every molecule of the dish. Don't get me wrong; it serves as a humble and almost simple side dish. But spend some time with this side, over several visits, and you will never not order it. It is so good, that I *always* take extra sides home with me.

Red potato salad with bacon. be continued soon...

SMOKE - barbeque taqueria on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. Love your blog man, hope you continue to do what you do well for long to come.


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