Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
True story: I rode a mechanical bull once. Shirtless. It was 20 years and 60 pounds ago, on spring break, long before the six-pack had morphed into a half barrel. Ripped down a shot of tequila and went to play cowboy, thinking this might be an effective strategy with which to woo the fairer sex.
Spoiler alert — it was not. I was dumped right on my face within a few seconds and regurgitated said shot into a nearby garbage can. Not a good look.
I mention this because it was with a bemused fascination that the staff of the Post-Gazette greeted our new downstairs neighbor, Tequila Cowboy, a country-themed club (of which I can hear the bass rattles two floors below me as I type this) and restaurant replete with mechanical bull, upon its opening late last summer. It was the fourth national location of the Columbus, Ohio-based chain and, for at least a solid week, the talk of the office. The name cracked everyone up, as did the bull.
The aesthetic is kind of like the lovechild of Kid Rock and a TGI Fridays. One wall is of a huge waving American flag, which is helpful because lately it’s been easy to forget what country we’re living in. There’s a bar-within-a-bar called Little Red Corvette, which I’m sure the folks up at Paisley Park signed off on, and Wanna B’s, a karaoke lounge.
It’s safe to say that our staff isn’t the core Tequila Cowboy demographic. A lot of Whole Foods shoppers and NPR listeners are among our ranks along with Decemberists fans, jazz buffs and “Downton Abbey” watchers. The Yinztelligentsia, as I’m fond of saying. Yet the place has developed a devoted allegiance from a half-dozen or so staffers who routinely run downstairs at lunch for a quick meal to bring back to their desks or a grown-up pop after work.
The menu is interchangeable with nearly every sports bar in America: wings, burgers, tacos, sandwiches, salads, a few pastas and, almost inexplicably, a $37 bone-in rib-eye.
Nashville hot chicken has become a popular item nationwide in recent years, and what makes it unique is that the chicken is marinated, breaded and fried, then topped with a specific paste of lard and cayenne pepper that kind of melts into the skin. The Tequila Cowboy Nashville hot chicken sandwich ($10.95) was an incredibly average piece of chicken fried and slathered in mediocre wing sauce and topped with some peaked-looking tomatoes and lettuce. The only thing Nashville about it was that it may have passed through there in the back of a freezer truck on Interstate 65 at some point on its journey north from a factory farm.
The Iron City Hot Dog was the size of a police riot control baton and probably could’ve been used for that purpose. The half-pound beef dog came on a toasted hoagie bun and was topped with chili and giardiniera peppers. It required a knife and fork to eat — a personal first, along with the $9.95 price tag for a single, albeit comically colossal, hot dog. It was kind of fun in a “Man v. Food” sort of way.
The Cowboy mac &cheese ($13.95) was OK in the sense that most things with cheese and bacon usually are, but the cavatappi noodles were mushy and the thin slices of chicken mostly tasteless. And they skimped on the bacon. It was served with garlic bread, which is a head scratcher.
A young woman next to me ordered a mango margarita the size of a retention pond ($14.95) that looked so sugary it should’ve been served with a diabetes PSA narrated by Wilfred Brimley. A respectable tap list included Fat Head’s, Full Pint and Southern Tier products. The tequila bar in the back likewise has a perfectly serviceable selection, although no impressive rarities that I noticed.
I was there before some country concert at Stage AE, and although the place was packed, the bartenders were genuinely friendly, not in a saccharine and superficial way, and also very attentive. They moved quickly. They got drinks and food out efficiently. They do their jobs well. A similar performance played out on several weeknights before Pirates games.
And far be it from me to pass too much judgment either. It’s not a place I’d go to now, but I spent most of my 20s and disposable income during that time at terrible pseudo clubs — Margarita Mama’s, Town Tavern, Tequila Willie’s, Banana Joe’s, Hi-Tops, to name a few. So I totally get it.
Conversely, I’ve spent entirely too much time and money in the years since having lousy meals in restaurants purporting to the “best” at something. And in allegedly “good” bars waiting for bartenders with no social skills to take a half-hour to spray a tincture of milk thistle extract or some other ridiculous ingredient through an atomizer to make an overpriced drink for a collection of insufferably pretentious people, when all I want is a damn whiskey neat or a pint of IPA.
So if I return, it’ll be for that, before a ballgame or a show. And that’ll be fine. Maybe even ride the bull. Shirt on this time.
What you see is what you get at Tequila Cowboy. And that’s more than many bars or restaurants — or people — can say.
Tequila Cowboy: 380 North Shore Drive, North Shore; 412-930-0895; tequilacowboy.com/pittsburgh.
Dan Gigler: email@example.com; twitter @gigs412.