There's something about Semple Street.
The semi-obscure street in South Oakland has an uncanny knack for hosting delicious ethnic food not common in the rest of the city. There's the excellent Korea Garden (just thinking about it, Munch craves bi bam bap so much it hurts). There's the tasty Lezzet (Turkish, formerly called The Doner Kebab House). And there's the gone-but-definitely-not forgotten Bayleaf, one of Pittsburgh's best Indian restaurants in its brief tenure.
So Munch was not surprised to hear of a new addition to Semple, and to Pittsburgh's dining palette: The Black Bean, a Cuban mini-franchise.
The Black Bean is a sit-down restaurant, but barely. Four tables line a wall across from a take-out counter, so close the chef can practically hand you your food.
The place is small but festive, with a brightly painted red brick wall and lively Cuban-themed posters.
It's a franchise, but an odd one -- just three locations in Florida and the one in Pittsburgh. And the place definitely doesn't have a corporate feel -- there are Steelers and other trinkets for sale at the register, for example.
Oh, you wanted to know about the food? Fairly delicious, really.
Munch and Dear One of Munch drove over to Oakland one chilly Wednesday, famished from a morning spent making lunch plans. Bypassing the famous Cuban sandwiches entirely, Munch and DOOM each chose one of the "dinner" options (the mojo grilled chicken and masitas marinated pork, both $8.95), which come with rice and beans and plaintains. To take the edge off while the food was cooking, Munch also ordered a chicken empanada ($1.95) and a dessert guava and cheese empanada ($2.25).
DOOM was unsure when presented with a plate of tough-looking pork cubes, but instantly converted after biting into one. What looked chewy was actually soft and moist, with delicious flavor. Munch loved the crispy, hot empanadas but wasn't quite as pleased with the mojo grilled chicken -- a little plain for Munch's taste.
The side order of impossibly flavorful black beans, however, made everything go down munch easier.
Munch liked those black beans. Munch liked those black beans a lot. So much so, in fact, that Munch went back less than a week later for more black beans (a healthy helping for $2.95). And this time, Munch also tried a Cuban sandwich -- the vegetarian version for variety's sake.
Munch has waxed poignantly and eloquently in this space about Munch's distaste for the vile cylinders known as pickles. And so even though a Cuban sandwich is supposed to have pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles, Munch's veggie Cuban just pretty much had some lettuce, cheese and peppers. But here's the thing: it was kind of amazing.
Warm, with bread that was flat from a press but somehow still fluffy. The veggies were fresh, and coated in a sweet but tangy mayo-ish "Island sauce" that would turn even the most ardent opponent of mayonnaise. And for $5.95 (including a side dish), it was enormous. Munch barely finished the sandwich but hardly touched the black beans and rice that came with it, which was the whole reason Munch went back in the first place.
On Munch's visits -- once at lunchtime and once in the evening -- the place was pretty empty, which is a shame. For cheap, filling and good quality eats, it's worth a visit.