Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
I once had a bartender tell me that he routinely waits six months before visiting a new restaurant so the place can “Get all the [awful] out of it,” and he’ll be able to enjoy the meal and the service as it was intended, with Swiss watch precision.
But in an age in which restaurant openings and closings are covered like sports teams (with chefs as the star players) that’s just not possible. Like the kickoff, tip off or puck drop, when that OPEN sign flashes, restaurants need to be ready to play and sustain the body blows from customers, Yelpers and newspaper writers alike.
However, that completely belies the complicated nature of the business itself, which has about as many moving parts as a symphony combined with the physical effort of laying asphalt in August. That is to say that it’s a difficult gig, and when visiting a young restaurant, wildly different experiences can transpire night-to-night.
That was the case at Jabo’s Smoque House and Saloon. Jerry “Jabo” Fedell partnered with the folks behind Pittsburgh icon Sammy’s Famous Corned Beef to purchase the space at defunct neighborhood institution Del’s last year and bring barbecue to Bloomfield in mid-December.
Later on a recent Saturday evening only a few patrons remained at the bar, but the staff members collectively had a 1,000-yard stare in their eyes as if they just witnessed the Bowling Green Massacre (wait …). Some hair metal satellite radio station played way too loudly, and despite two bartenders looking right at me, I endured the entirety of musical travesties “Livin’ on the Edge” by Aerosmith and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” by Great White before someone asked if I was being helped. It was like walking into the “before” segment of a “Bar Rescue” episode.
Things didn’t get any better with the food, in this case the Bloomfield Brisket sandwich ($10.99) with sauteed peppers and onions and melted provolone cheese. The meat was dry and flavorless, like it had been sitting around too long, and the best part was the onion roll it came on. The mac and cheese side was like a dull paste, and I left downright annoyed.
As bad as that visit was, it was vastly, exponentially and diametrically better in nearly every possible way just 48 hours later, starting with excellent service from our waitress, Kelsey.
Last month there were national news reports of a bacon shortage, which turned out to be overblown, but it could become a real thing when the appetizer plate at Jabo’s catches on ($4.99). Crispy, hand-carved and thick-cut, it is an absolute hickory smoke bomb akin to having a glass of Lagavulin at a campfire, and it might bring Ron Swanson to tears of joy.
A three-piece dry rubbed slab of St. Louis-style ribs ($6.99) were amply proportioned and nicely cooked with a crisp bark and smoky notes, although the rub flavor was a little faint.
An entree of pulled pork shoulder ($10.99 with two sides), a half-pound of shredded meat slow-smoked for half a day was very good — great juicy, seasoned flavor enhanced by the bite of little black peppercorns. And, the mac and cheese this time was creamy and delicious.
My friend, a tougher critic than I, reported that his Saloon Brisket sandwich ($11.99), made with both the house brisket and pulled pork, was tender and given a beautiful kick with the excellent house hot barbecue sauce made with a touch of ghost pepper. It was our consensus favorite sauce (the others are tangy and mild) and provided the meal with a sweet heat and a little sweat to the brow.
The renovation at Jabo’s is impressive, to say the least, having erased nearly any trace of Del’s, which had been there for some 60 years before closing in 2015. The area that was once the bar was gutted and is now the dining room, and the area that was the dining room is now the bar — and it’s a beautiful one at that. Full of handsome woodwork, it’s a comfortable place to watch a game and have a beverage, with a beer and booze list that’s more than serviceable.
Frankly, it’s almost jarring to come off the Bloomfield Bridge onto Liberty Avenue and see a new establishment there. And, while I wouldn’t bet on anything lasting 60 years like the previous occupant did, once Jabo’s smooths out its opening wrinkles and consistency it will likely become a neighborhood favorite for quite a while.
Jabo’s Smoque House and Saloon: 4428 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield; 412-904-3853; http://jabospgh.com.
Dan Gigler: email@example.com; Twitter @gigs412.