There’s a chill in the air. The days are short. And the lists are long.
With only 10 shopping days left until 2018, it’s year-end listicle season for us media types, and along with it come all of the requisite Top 10 and Best Of lists, trends, award nominees and snubs in movies, TV, books — you name it. Music writer nonpareil Scott Mervis put together a terrific wrap-up of the year in music, and last week the food staff named our favorite restaurant dishes of the year.
So if you’ll allow Munch to get even more esoteric with a list, in what’s been another banner year for Pittsburgh dining, here are the 10 best new restaurant names in 2017, for better and worse.
There’s or, The Whale in the Distrikt (with-a-K) Hotel, which even with its punctuation pretense is admittedly hard to forget, if only for that reason. It is outdone in that regard, however, by the Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel’s flirtation with abbreviations at fl.2 — that’s Floor Two to you rubes because it’s ON THE SECOND FLOOR, GET IT? Superior Motors honors its history in Braddock. Acorn planted a seed in Shadyside. The Strip’s Iron Born combines two of the great things in this world: pizza and “Game of Thrones.” Dormont’s Needle & Pin employs cockney slang. The most excellently titled Onion Maiden in Allentown reflects its vegan-metal-female chef ethos, and Bahn Mi & Tea in Lawrenceville and Baby Loves Tacos! in Bloomfield are both just fun to say.
But more than any other, Brick N’ Mortar in Heidelberg tells a great story with its title.
University of Pittsburgh and Art Institute of Pittsburgh culinary program grad Ricci Minella — who bears a striking resemblance to Poe Dameron in the new “Star Wars” movies — started the Burgh Bites food cart six years ago in Shadyside, building a loyal following among East Enders looking for a nosh after a night on the town. That grew into a full-fledged Burgh Bites food truck three years later. And keeping on that same three-year schedule, the Chartiers Valley alumnus spun off a storefront location close to home on Route 50 in Heidelberg.
Hence, Brick N’ Mortar.
So, good story — local kid with ambition and entrepreneurial spirit does well growing his business. But how is it?
It’s a cozy little spot with seating for about 20 around some beautiful new live-edge tables, with antique pop bottles bordering the ceiling and a friendly staff. The menu is essentially high-quality pub grub — sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, salads, pizza and Italian-American favorites. Alluding to the name, many dishes include brick cheese and the house red or “mortar” sauce, and they make as much as possible in-house: everything from fresh pasta to ranch dressing. And, it is very reasonable in an age of skyrocketing menu prices — nothing is more than $15, and the helpings are copious.
On one visit, the Schmucker, slow-braised pork shoulder in a sweet and spicy chipotle sauce with coleslaw and spicy pickles on grilled ciabatta ($8.99) was not only delicious but also roughly the size of a football, leaving little room for a respectable cup of beef and bean chili, with cheese, sour cream, jalapenos, scallions and house-made tortilla chips ($3.99).
On another stop, my mother gushed about the Hey Dude BBQ chicken sandwich bacon, roasted sweet peppers, caramelized onions, cheddar jack cheese, spicy pickles and greens on a grilled pita ($9.49).
The Chicken Parm platter was massive: two large pieces of breaded and pan-fried chicken smothered with brick cheese, mortar sauce, roasted tomatoes, Parmesan and Romano cheese with fresh basil and served over fettuccine ($13.99). The chicken was perfectly cooked, the sauce light and the cheese plentiful, but it wasn’t a bubbling mess as is often the case. The only gripe — it needed a little more seasoning in the breading.
Brick N’ Mortar also recently started a brunch that has some promising if not decadent-sounding dishes, like the Pizza Benedict — ham, bacon and cheese with a poached egg and hollandaise on pizza crust ($9.99).
Mr. Minella’s food cart yielded a food truck in three years, and that truck begat a literal ‘Brick N’ Mortar’ location three years after that. So it’ll be interesting to see what another three years brings — Brick N’ Franchise?
Brick N’ Mortar: 1709 E. Railroad St., Heidelberg; 412-276 -0727; burghbitestruck.com/brick-n-mortar-restaurant.
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @gigs412.