Munch goes to Ditka's

Pittsburgh, like most other deliriously die-hard sports towns, has its share of bars and hamburger shacks linked to its favorite athletes. Rook's in Ambridge (Jim Rooker) is still going strong after all these years. Woodson's (Rod Woodson) in Station Square was a popular spot. Hines Ward is doing his thing on the South Side, bankruptcy be damned. Jerome Bettis has his fancy-schmancy new steakhouse on the North Shore, Chukki Okobi (really!) just opened a place in the Strip, and who could forget Joe Namath's Kissing Suzy Kolber Kafe?

Well here comes Da Coach, Mike Ditka himself, onto the Pittsburgh restaurant scene. But I thought he coached in Chicago? says Dear One Of Munch (DOOM). You're right, dear one, but he was born in Carnegie, did his high school footballing at Aliquippa, then played for the hometown Panthers collegiately. His Pittsburgh bona fides are impeccable.

But how is his restaurant? Munch and DOOM visited the new Ditka's location in Robinson, the fourth opening in his small chain (though the Florida location has closed, making the Pittsburgh Ditka's the only one outside of Chicago).

DOOM's elated first impression: "Hey, this isn't one of those dives that you usually take me to!" Listen, just because a place serves its food on paper plates and the cook is wearing a stained white undershirt, a la Mel Sharples, doesn't make it a dive ipso facto, OK? The dive-o-meter has many subtle levels.

But no, this is not a dive. Nor is it a sports bar, and except for the chicken wings ($9) and pot roast nachos ($10) appetizer offerings, the menu reflects that. It is a steak house -- but a casual one, and it does not take itself quite so seriously as do places such as The Capital Grille or Morton's. I mean, there are about six dozen photos and paintings of Mike Ditka on the walls. How serious can it be?

There is nothing so sad as visiting a steak house and not being allowed to try the steaks. But alas, this is often Munch's lot in life, restricted to lunch menus by my position as second banana to restaurant critic China Millman, who has a bigger expense account by virtue of her actually knowing what she's talking about. Munch went to Jerome's Grille 36 last year and had the meatloaf. Munch went to Morton's and ordered from the bar menu. It's unfair, but life isn't fair sometimes, kids. This is what we signed up for. This is the path Munch chose. Right?


The heck with this. Munch is getting a steak. Ditka's offers a $15 skirt steak -- on its lunch menu. Aha! A loophole in the Munch-eats-lunch-Millman-eats-dinner rule! Munch has beaten the system! Sweet, sweet victory!

Revenge is a dish best served cold, but Victory is best served medium rare, with a cup of chunky corn chowder ($4) and a sticky side of corn cake ($4), which is not so much traditional cornbread as griddled cornmeal, sweet but spiced with peppers and a tangy citrus drizzle.

Same goes for the supple, citrusy skirt steak, which in the wrong hands can be a tough cut of meat, but has been growing in popularity in the States ever since Americans started eating fajitas in the late 1980s.

The word "fajita," in fact, roughly means "little belt," so named because the skirt steak comes from a sash of flesh around the cow's ribs and diaphragm. You probably didn't need to know that -- all you need to know is that Ditka's handles the cut skillfully. And it's far more than a lunch portion, especially once the mashed potatoes are figured into the caloric equation.

DOOM's soup and salad combo was, at $7, a bargain, with a "petite" salad that was actually generously sized (pecans, blue cheese, cranberries, apples and a balsamic vinaigrette that was a bit too oily) and a fragrant crab bisque, sherried and lightly sweet.

Dessert ($6) was a martini glass filled with berries, draped in a smooth Grand Marnier liqueur sauce. The berries were out of season, but this would make a nice summer treat.

Upon further review, da place is all right. Touchdown!

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