Munch goes to Bites and Brews

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If one were so inclined -- and sadly, as a disservice to reader entertainment and a service to his digestive system, Munch was not -- one could venture to Bites and Brews in Shadyside and concoct a sandwich combining ingredients that traditionally mingle only in grocery bags or Tuesday's trash cycle.

   

Bites and Brews is at 5744 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside; 412-361-4425.

   

For instance, a customer with a wish for gustatory mayhem could conceivably order a sandwich layered with tuna fish, capicolla, brie, hummus, red cabbage, sliced portobello, sauerkraut and wasabi mayo. The folks at Bites and Brews would make it for you, no questions asked. (At least not to your face.)

There's something delightfully novel -- and poetically paradoxical -- about the Bites and Brews menu. It offers only two items. And yet it specializes in options. Barring the occasional malfunction (more on that later), here's how it works: All customers are handed a small piece of paper -- essentially a Scantron sheet, specified to test your sense of taste -- detailing the options. Option No. 1, Pizza. Option No. 2, Sandwich. That's it.

Well, that's kind of it. When ordering a pizza, one can select the size, the sauce (two kinds), the meat (seven kinds, including chicken and shrimp) and the veggies (13 kinds, including jalapeno peppers and artichoke hearts). When ordering a sandwich, one can select the bread (pick from six varieties), the meat (select two, choosing from among nine), the cheese (choose from any of 12), the vegetables (pick up to four, choosing among 15) and the dressing (any of 12). Munch, consulting a personal knowledge of permutations that's remained idle since the final math exam in eighth grade, decided that this setup enables one to pick from among, oh ... 3.5 billion different sandwiches. (If that figure is wrong, and chances are high that it is, Munch deflects all blame to an egregiously inadequate eighthgrade math curriculum.)

Anyway, Munch found this ordering process entirely liberating, albeit somewhat nerve-wracking. With so much culinary customization, an unsavory sandwich or pizza could be blamed not only on the person making it, but also on the person who conceptualized it.

That said, Munch's traveling party demonstrated an unmistakable sense for fine cuisine. Former Vegetarian Friend of Munch, eschewing vegetarianism with authority, opted for a combination featuring, among other items, pulled chicken, sliced portobello and a load of veggies on herb foccacia ($7, as are all sandwiches with meat). Purportedly Pompous Friend of Munch also received a sandwich -- something with about 15 ingredients, somehow fused into a pleasing taste highlighted by baked ham and roast beef. High grades all around.

For the sake of variety, Munch was face to face -- well, more accurately, paper bag to face, -- with a massive hunk of pizza erroneously reported as one slice. It was more like three. But no matter. It was still tasty, especially for those who like a crunchier crust. Munch's slice was loaded with sausage, mushrooms and onions.

When we left, having also consumed multiple 20-ounce brews (thus explaining the other half of the restaurant's name), we were both pleased and full. Were it not for one pesky and soon-to-be-explained ordering hitch, this is the point at which Munch would have advocated Scantron-style ordering as the wave of the future, a possible scene detail for Spielberg's next set-in-2050 movie.

But get this. Both Munch and PPFOM witnessed one alarming deficiency. Driven by hallucination-inducing hunger, we both ordered a slice and a sandwich. Thing is, the folks in the kitchen, when presented with our completed Scantron menus, thought only to look at one side, presumably whatever side they saw first. That's how Munch received a pizza and no sandwich. That's how PPFOM received a sandwich and no pizza.

In the end, though, the glitch was excusable. Munch and both FOMs enjoyed the understated, college-cool atmosphere and the friendly service. This Scantron test, from Munch's perspective, certainly bested eighth-grade math.


Bites and Brews is at 5744 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside; 412-361-4425.


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