Munch goes to Smoke

Munch goes to Smoke -- how ambiguous. Just what exactly does it mean? Five years ago, when Munch was convinced that slurping on a giant Cohiba was the height of sophistication, it might have meant I was bound for the local long-ash club. Ten years ago, when I owned a substantially greater number of tie-dyed shirts than I do presently, it might have meant a trip to Tela Ropa for some -- what's the word? -- paraphernalia.

Today? "Munch goes to Smoke" means a trip to Homestead, to a deliriously inviting storefront with a deliciously simple focus: tacos and barbecued meats. Just five lunch tacos on the menu, four sides, a couple of breakfast items and some homemade drinks.

This is Smoke Barbeque and Taqueria, and Munch has been eying this space, and its painfully slow rehab job (painful for a taco junkie, in any event) since last year. Finally, at the end of May, it opened, a rapturous sight for even the Gloomiest Gourmand to behold. Swear to God, cherubs strummed on harps. Choirs of angels sang a transcendent Hallelujah. Maybe this is what amateur evangelist and professional nitwit Howard Camping was talking about last month?

The building, with its unique facade and two-story bay window, was once a boarding house, then, most recently, the Curiosity Shop and furniture store. When would-be restaurant owners Jeff Petruso and Nelda Carranco toured the space (and learned how cheap the rent was in Homestead, compared with Austin, Texas, where they had recently moved from), they were smitten.

They pondered a bar, a doughnut shop and other ideas before deciding on what they, and Texas, know best: tacos and barbecue.

Put 'em together. Now we're onto something.

The pork taco ($3.50) is dressed with a sweet and spicy apricot habanero sauce, caramelized onions, cilantro and, like the rest of their tacos, served with a lime wedge. Tender, peppery beef brisket was the main attraction in another taco ($4). Jalapeno apple slaw ($1.50) was a crunchy take on the summer barbecue staple. Clearly this is a place that cares greatly for the taco, inside and out, from the meats to the homemade flour and corn tortillas.

For now, this is a take-out place, at least until the restrooms are expanded. That's too bad, because you'll no doubt want to linger here, given the way the smells of rough-hewn furnishings mingle with smoked hickory and mesquite. Even if you can't dine in, Munch suggests you linger long enough to sample one of Smoke's homemade drinks -- lemonade, fruity aqua frescas (last week, it was watermelon-flavored), and the milky horchata ($3), which in Mexico is traditionally made with rice, cinnamon and other spices.

The restaurateurs have big plans for this space, including a bar on the main floor, a courtyard in the back and perhaps a small brewery in the basement. Already, the work they and their landlord (developer Joe Ranii) have put into the space is evident, given what this building must have looked like after years of abandonment.

Did I say "this building"? I meant "this city." You know Homestead's story, I'm sure. A mill town of 20,000, circa 1940, it's now inhabited by fewer than 4,000. Depopulation on such a massive scale is difficult to face, even for the true believers. But little places like Smoke -- and Tin Front Cafe across the street, and the nearby Blue Dust, and Duke's Upper Deck, and Yvette's on 8th, and the kitchenware store and the candy market and retro furniture shop -- give Munch hope. If you can reclaim one block, why not two? If not two, why not three or four or five? Quick, somebody get Geoffrey Canada on the phone.

So that's your challenge, Pittsburgh. Next time you're shopping for window treatments at The Waterfront, instead of taking the easy way out and eating at Red Robin for the bazillionth time, take a left at Amity Street, cross the railroad tracks and give Smoke -- and the rest of Homestead -- a chance. If East Carson Street can do it, why not East Eighth?


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