Demonstrating the adage that you can take the man out of ’Murrica, but you can’t take ’Murrica out of the man, on Saturday afternoon I picked up a dear friend at the airport, who after enduring 15 hours of coach class, layovers and customs lines from Quito, Ecuador, following two weeks of doing vital work to help facilitate clean drinking water access to remote villages in that country as part of a team from a local chapter of Engineers Without Borders, had a few simple and direct requests.
“I want a hamburger, an IPA, a bourbon, and I wanna watch the Pahhrrt game,” he said.
Done, done, done and done at Gus’s Cafe in Lawrenceville.
Opened in December by the Haritos family, who founded Shadyside icon the Harris Grill more than 60 years ago (they sold it in 2003), it is named for family patriarch Konstantinos “Gus” Haritos who passed away in 2001.
The menu is what I’d call “mindful bar food” with an extensive number of staples tailored to be gluten-free and using meats that are touted as natural, grass-fed, and hormone- and antibiotic-free. The bar pours a respectable selection of 16 drafts, dozens more bottled beers and a well-curated list of three dozen bourbons and Scotches.
Located in a brick building that was once a part of next door neighborhood institution Barb’s Country Kitchen, the place frankly looks like a suitable fallout shelter from the outside but that appearance belies the warmth and fun inside.
A black-and-white cartoon wall mural pays homage to some Haritos family history, and the walls are adorned with a bunch of funky artwork, including a painting of Mr. T done up as the Kool-Aid Man, busting out of the gut of “King of the Hill’s” Hank Hill, which is clearly a statement on ... something.
Tunes were set to a pretty decent modern rock Pandora station, but the unsolicited and unintentionally hilarious Pirates play-by-play from our peppy waiter and a kitchen staffer that reminded me so much of Tommy Chong — I kept waiting for him to say “Dave’s not here, man” — was much more entertaining.
Speaking of the munchies, we devoured an appetizer of the Tachos — a piping hot platter of tasty tater tots served like nachos, with a spicy house-made cheddar cheese sauce, jalapeno salsa and diced tomatoes, with a side cup of plain Greek yogurt as a sour cream substitute ($9), and we washed it down with pints of Fat Head’s Headhunter IPA ($5).
As mentioned, the hamburgers use grass-fed beef, which we still don’t see enough on local menus, although we should. Compared to traditional grain-fed beef, it is leaner, lower in saturated fat and calories and an excellent source of essential Omega-3 fatty acids. There are also a number of hot dogs that use hormone and antibiotic-free links.
My pal tried the Cowabunga burger, a half-pound patty with sliced avocado, a red pepper aioli and grilled pineapple on a toasted bun, while I had the Maple Bacon Waffle Burger (both $10), which was also a half-pound of meat, topped with butter, maple syrup and bacon strips, normally served on gluten-free waffles. However the waffle iron was out of commission, so instead they made a huge pancake, which although a fun wrinkle, was a bit cumbersome to eat.
But the burger and its breakfasty elements tasted quite good together, especially when topped with the excellent vinegary tartness of the house-pickled purple cabbage that came with it. This was easily my favorite thing about the meal and I would eat an entire bowl of this by itself.
Unfortunately, both of our burgers were a shade overdone. My medium-rare had no visible pink to it and his medium was approaching well-done territory. But that was hardly so egregious as to ruin an otherwise good afternoon.
Though some decent desserts are available, we finished instead with a nip of the brown sauce, in this case a bourbon called Hooker’s House (because apparently ’Brothel Bourbon’ didn’t do well in test marketing). It’s named for Civil War Major General Joseph Hooker, who according to popular legend is the source of the eponymous synonym for ladies of the evening, although this is of dubious accuracy.
A Kentucky bourbon aged a second time in California Pinot Noir barrels, this was a smooth and rich way to finish a meal. And likewise Gus’s was a good way to welcome a friend back to the States.
Gus’s Cafe is located at 4717 Butler St., Lawrenceville. Call 412-315-7271 or visit www.facebook.com/Gusscafe.
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org,Twitter @gigs412.