Before Independent Brewing Company occupied this treasured space just off the Squirrel Hill business district, there was Fanatics. Fanatics was dark and so choked with cigarette smoke that Munch tended to avoid it, except to grab a six-pack before scurrying off to a nearby restaurant where we could enjoy a night out without so many airborne carcinogens.
So needless to say, the new establishment is an automatic improvement for the nonsmokers among us. It's brighter, with slightly nicer furnishings -- a marble bar, for example. And it's dedicated to serving Western Pennsylvania beers, and we're not just talking Iron City. Breweries from Lawrenceville, North Versailles and Venango Co. dominate the taps.
But it's also located just off Forbes Avenue, a veritable boulevard of Munch All-Stars. There's Everyday Noodles, with its satiating soup dumplings; Bagel Factory, with the city's best bagels; and Cool Ice Taipei, with its bizarre Taiwanese desserts. And it is right next to How Lee, whose mouth-searing Szechuan made Munch a believer.
So could its food stack up to its neighbors? Well, it depends on the night. The bar has a constantly shifting menu. It's helpful to know that Wednesdays, for example, are International Fry Night, which sounds a little like a gimmick you might find at a college dining hall.
My dining companion Julia and I didn't realize that when we wandered in last week, but we decided to give it a shot. So we ordered the Polish Fries ($7) at the recommendation of our waiter, a pile of fairly average french fries that were supposed to be topped with "Arsenal Cider and carmelized onion sauce, creme fraiche, aged cheddar." Unfortunately, the only detectable toppings were the creme fraiche -- drizzled on lightly -- and the aged cheddar. So we ended up adding our own favorite accoutrement -- ketchup.
"The only thing good about these french fries is the ketchup," Julia, who is admittedly hard to please, grumbled. We ended up heading next door for some more satiating Szechuan at How Lee.
I returned on Thursday with reinforcements -- my friends Megan and Maria, both with discriminating palates. The menu, this time, was far more enticing. And it was fairly short, which is a strength for an indecisive diner and, for a new establishment, a sign they're trying to focus on being good at a handful of things.
We split several plates, starting with curry beef satay ($9) and the fried Brussels sprouts ($6). The satay, while a little dry, was served atop a scrumptious sweet potato cream sauce and the fried Brussels sprouts -- crispy and slightly sweet -- were a crowd-pleaser.
Munch's personal favorite was the mac 'n' cheese ($12 with a side salad), tiny elbows of pasta drenched in a well-balanced cheese sauce and topped with scallions and addictively crunchy topping called "herb cornflake crumble." Even the simple side salad was impressive: fine-looking greens, cucumbers and tomatoes lightly dressed in a citrus-y dressing.
Megan and Maria voted (with their mouths) for the bacon sandwich ($12), served on nicely toasted sandwich bread with thick pieces of bacon, generously piled arugula, tomato and a sweet pepper spread.
The weekly taco special -- we all agreed -- was a little weird. Termed the "Poe Po" (some play on Edgar Allan Poe and the po' boy perhaps?), it came as three tiny open-faced tortillas with a pork meatball and yucca root hash. The yucca was a bit too chewy, and the meatball, while tasty, was an odd preparation for a taco. It was supposed to come with a mango sauce, which lent something slightly sweet to the few bites it took to consume. The slightly fluffy tortillas were lovely. The dish was about as inexplicable -- which is not to say bad -- as the soundtrack to "Jesus Christ Superstar" playing.
As far as bar food goes, Independent Brewing Company is certainly a standout. There's no bone-dry chicken wings nor sad-looking nachos with industrial cheese nor salads still gritty with sand. It appears to be making a strong and creative effort to match the quality of its beers, rather than simply serving barely edible slop to make the Coors Light slide down easier.
So while it is hard-pressed to compete with other establishments on Forbes Avenue in terms of quality, it is certainly on the right track. And Munch applauds this.
Independent Brewing Company is at 1704-1706 Shady Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412-422-5040 or www.independentpgh.com.
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