When a reader called to ask for a recommendation for a good African-American restaurant in Pittsburgh, I was totally stumped. Although I live on the edge of the Hill District, I moved to Pittsburgh long after urban renewal projects had displaced the old Crawford Grill and other beloved Hill dining institutions. Thus began my quest to find our city's finest African-American food establishments. With a number of good candidates, I will continue to report on my findings.Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Michelle Rouse serves up Chicken & Waffles, a Wednesday and weekend special, at Simmie's Restaurant and Lounge.
Click photo for larger image.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 1-11 p.m. Saturdays; 1-8 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays.
Basics: Very casual family-run restaurant with a vast selection of fresh seafood and homemade side dishes using entirely fresh ingredients. Great Southern-style fried chicken and corn muffins. The waitstaff is more friendly than professional. If you want your water glass refilled, you will have to ask.
Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$7.95; entrees, $8.95-$15.95; desserts, $3.50; wines by the glass, $4.50.
Summary: Smoking allowed in part of dining room. Wheelchair accessible. Large free parking lot adjoining restaurant. All major credit cards accepted.
Simmie's Restaurant and Lounge in Homewood grew out of The Frankstown Fish Co., which shares Simmie's building but has a separate entrance. In 1984, Gene Rouse, a retired postal worker, felt that what Homewood was lacking was a fresh fish market. He acquired the building at 8500 Frankstown Road and began marketing fresh fish. Gene and his wife, Valine, had five kids who grew up working in the market in their after-school hours. They eventually added a small takeout operation where their customers could buy coleslaw, potato salad and some sandwiches.
The metamorphosis into a full-blown restaurant and bar in 1991 was a natural progression from the early takeout days. They named the new restaurant after Valine's mother, Simmie, who was the legendary cook in the family. Gene passed away in 2001, and today the restaurant and the fish market are under the direction of four of the Rouse progeny. You will find them behind the counter or in the kitchen or even waiting tables. Make no mistake, this is a family affair. And the family is actively involved in the life of the local community. They sponsor a softball team called the Longriders.
Simmie's is moderate in every respect, from size to decor to price. The long, narrow dining room is divided into smoking and nonsmoking sections, each with eight Formica-topped tables. The window wall is lined with hunter green leatherette banquettes, and modern chairs complete the seating. Many of the patrons seated at the tables are known to the owners, although newcomers are made very welcome.
Be prepared to spend some time perusing the impressive five-page menu, beginning with "Appetizers and Munchies." This section includes such Pittsburgh staples as Fried Zucchini ($5.95) and Cheese Sticks ($3.95). Something more special grabbed my attention -- Fried Oysters and Clams ($6.95). These fresh mollusks are battered and deep-fried and served in a basket just like the ones I remember eating in road-side stands on the North Carolina coast. I noticed that the most popular appetizer being served at neighboring tables was Crispy Seasoned Fried Chicken Wings, $4.95 for four pieces.
There is a section of soups and salads as well as a whole page of specialty sandwiches that would make a great lunch. But with almost two dozen fish entrees on the menu, I decided to go right to the main act, the fresh fish selections. Simmie's will prepare the fish in the manner you choose, fried, broiled with herbs and spices or blackened, cajun style. The selection depends on availability but normally includes Virginia spots, catfish, ocean perch, bluefish, haddock, bass, salmon, tilapia, rainbow trout and red snapper. Orange roughy is also available, although it has been previously frozen while all other fish are strictly fresh. There are snow crab legs and Maine lobster tails, crab cakes and jumbo shrimp or jumbo scallops cooked in several different manners. The seafood prices range from $8.95 to $15.95 for a complete dinner. Dinners are served with a choice of two sides, homemade corn muffin or garlic bread and garden salad or soup. Those corn muffins are a "must not miss" item.
The choice of sides is awesome. The list includes macaroni and cheese, baked potato, potato salad, onion rings, french fries, steamed broccoli, fresh greens seasoned with smoked turkey, candied yams, stir-fry vegetables, coleslaw, rice pilaf and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. I can vouch for the greens, mashed potatoes and the candied yams. They are the real thing -- nothing here comes out of a can or a box. The yams could easily be considered dessert. They are not only sweet but have been seasoned with a pinch of cinnamon, turning them into Sweet Potato Pie without the crust.
Fish isn't the only thing on this menu. Turn the page and you will discover the "turf" options, including Grilled Pork Chops, New York Strip Steak, Baby Back Ribs and Southern Style Fried Chicken. On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, Simmie's serves homemade Belgian waffles topped with one piece of fried chicken for $3.95 or with two pieces for $4.95. This unusual combination is a favorite with Simmie's regulars.
The Rouse family has used favorite family recipes for the desserts they serve. All are $3.50. There is Peach Cobbler with a crumble topping, Turtle Cheesecake with chocolate crust and Fudge Brownie Delight. The brownie is topped with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, hot fudge and toasted pecans, and if you have to ask about the number of calories you shouldn't be eating it!
Simmie's has a luncheon menu of specials that are available from 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, when a whiting fillet sandwich is $1.99.
Wine is $4.50 per glass for generic chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Draft beer is $1.75; bottled domestic beer is $2.75.
My thanks to the reader who got me started on the search for good African-American restaurants. Finding Simmie's has been a wonderful experience, and I look forward to making further discoveries in this category.
Elizabeth Downer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1454.