Munch goes to RedWood Cafe

Writing in the Post-Gazette in 1973, Geoffrey Tomb, the city’s first-ever official dining critic and a man who could make chefs shake in their toques with the power of his prose, said of The Redwood in Donora:

“... water glasses are banned from tables, martini drinkers are scorned, smoking raises eyebrows. Admittance is by reservation only, an act which must usually be made weeks in advance. ... Inside the tiny dining room everything is Tiffany, from lamps to silver services. A fresh red rose dots every table.”

Mr. Tomb named it as one of the top destinations in the region in his guidebook, “On Dining Out With Geoffrey Tomb,” the first of three guides published while Tomb was the paper's dining critic.

Why the history lesson? Because Frank Tokach grew up in Donora and The Redwood inspired him to a career in the kitchen.

The Pennsylvania Culinary Institute graduate has worked in kitchens from private clubs in Pittsburgh to Caesars Palace in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to just about anything in between over the past 20 years. But the Redwood always captivated his imagination, and he hoped to return to his hometown someday to reopen it and restore it to its former glory.

That ended up not being in the cards, but when opportunity did knock it was in a physical space and location that both couldn’t have been more different than the opulent Redwood in otherwise industrial Donora: the tiny old C.C.’s lunch counter space in upwardly mobile Mt. Lebanon.

Mr. Tokach paid homage with the name, RedWood Cafe, and he and co-owner Brian Dougherty are turning out high quality but unpretentious fare, perfect for a quick lunch or dinner. They opened over the summer, in the narrow space with a tiny three table rear “dining room” and a half dozen seats at the counter. And they are a couple of genuinely nice dudes.

The menu is soup, sandwiches and salads, and specials including a daily quiche. A particularly good wedding soup is always available ($4), and a recent dinner special featured a perfectly cooked piece of halibut atop a bed of creamy mashed cauliflower and parsnips, with a light Thai chili glaze. At $16, this was a steal, as similar dishes in conventional sit-down spots are typically priced in the $30 range.

But it’s the sandwiches that are well worth the visit.

Their meatball hoagie is as hearty as it is delicious — garlicky meatballs and tomato sauce from a family recipe with a little hot pepper, binded by gooey mozzarella and ricotta on a crisp Mediterra baguette ($12).

My mother might possibly be the world’s foremost expert on crabcake sandwiches, as it is the only seafood she’ll eat, and she’s had them from Boston to San Francisco, from Baltimore to New Orleans. And she loved the RedWood’s, which was all crabmeat with no filler, on a brioche with a mustard aioli ($14).

A recent Banh Mi special was excellent and made with tasso ham which was a nice change-up, and with crispy carrot, radish and jalapeno ($11).

Finally, in this peak-bovine era there’s been an ongoing hoof race as to how much beef and how much other stuff can be crammed onto a burger, often to obnoxious affect. RedWood goes the other way: a simple pair of thin-patties with a nice char on brioche with peppered bacon and provolone, lettuce and mayo ($13). Its construction put me in mind of an iconic West Coast In’N’Out burger.

All sandwiches come with a terrific potato “salad” — mashed baby redskins, with chive, cheese and cured ham, and maybe just a dollop of mayonnaise, rather than the goopy, backyard cookout variety your aunt makes.

This barebones RedWood might not exactly be the one Mr. Tokach had in mind when he set about his life’s work two decades ago, but simple and tasty is a hard formula to beat and they do it very well in this small uptown Mt. Lebanon space.

RedWood Café: 698 Washington Rd., Mt. Lebanon; 412-668-0540;

Dan Gigler:; Twitter@gigs412


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