Whether a restaurant is authentic often spurs a spirited debate among foodists. Are tortillas hand-made from corn or flour? Is the masa made in house? Are carnitas even on the menu?
When a kitchen adheres to traditional ingredients and techniques, it boosts a restaurant's credibility. It also helps when the destination is tucked amid immigrant businesses in a strip mall in the hinterlands or in an ethnic neighborhood.
Lately, this debate over authenticity has shifted. Superstar ethnic restaurants helmed by non-natives across the country have muddied the discussion. As they earn cult status, these restaurants create lust among diners for a world of bright flavors and urbane experiences. The winning formula requires a chef to cultivate an encyclopedic knowledge of a region's cuisine and infuse it with the passion of an outsider.
1 star = Satisfactory
1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
2 stars = Recommended
1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
5505 Walnut St.
- Hours: Monday-Sunday 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
- Summary: Steel Cactus is a terrific space in Shadyside for margaritas and Mexican bar food.
- Recommended dishes: Traditional guacamole; hot bean dip; 3 amigos; carnitas tacos; fajitas.
- Drink: Margaritas; frozen margaritas; tequila; mass market beer selection; wine.
- Prices: $3-$10.50 appetizers; $10.50-$13 tacos; $9-$11 burritos; $10-$13.50 entrees.
- Useful information: Credit cards accepted; roof deck.
- Noise level: Medium to loud.
Here in Pittsburgh, some restaurants are freewheeling to create cuisine that shows they're in on the conversation. Salt of the Earth for example displays it during its one-Sunday-a-month ramen brunch.
Steel Cactus Authentic Mexican Restaurante and Cantina in Shadyside is not one of these places. Opened in August, the restaurant is still sorting its identity.
"Who knows what authentic is?" Adam DeSimone, partner with owner AMPD Group, said about the restaurant's tagline. "We missed the boat on that. Everyone has his own idea of what authentic means."
He reflected on things he would like to tweak at Steel Cactus, such as improve staff training.
Steel Cactus on Walnut Street is the latest project from the family-run group that began with Diesel Club Lounge in 2006 and has expanded its portfolio to include Local Bar + Kitchen and Delanie's Coffee and Skybar, all on East Carson in the South Side. The sixth property, Dominic's Famous Deli and Bottle Shop, is at PNC Park.
Hipster concepts haven't made the AMPD repertoire. Instead, the DeSimones tend to draw crowds with the traditional lure of a prime location; properties are positioned in the city's busiest restaurant and retail corridors. With six concepts in seven locations and three on the table, the company seems to be doing well.
Steel Cactus is the company's most food-focused project to date. It offers a 130-seat dining room and roof deck with room for 125 more. But a restaurant like Steel Cactus is a different animal than a club, Adam DeSimone acknowledges, and is much larger than his other places. "It presents its challenges."
The identity of Steel Cactus seems to crystallize with the Yinzerita: A giant frozen margarita in a wide-mouth glass that wears an upside-down bottle of Corona.
"I'm at the bar with a ridiculous drink," my dining companion texted as he held seats at the bar.
As he waited, he chatted up the bartender. "I love this idea, but the mango margarita is really sweet," he told her.
The frozen margarita flavor changes daily. "Ladies like it," said the bartender. This may be so, but the drink is so large and diluted with beer, it's hard to imagine anyone finishing one.
At 10 p.m. on a recent Thursday, the bar was packed with a post-collegiate crowd finishing appetizers, celebrating a birthday. Elsewhere, couples were tucked in cushy booths in the dining room that is unrecognizable from its former lives, including a stint as Cozumel Ristorante Mexicano.
Black and brown, steel and slate layer the interior. Wood blocks texturize walls. Star lanterns hang overhead. Tucked along the back, an open kitchen run by executive chef Joseph Scalise has been fully remodeled. Despite the kitchen view, the bar is the room's focal point.
Although many patrons come here just to drink, an extensive menu offers starters such as traditional, picante or especial guacamole with corn ($7.50). Five salsas ($2.50-$3.50) and five dips present more choices. Refried hot bean dip ($7) is packed with chorizo, topped with queso fresca and served with tortilla chips. The classic queso ($6) is a pared-down guilty pleasure of Dos Equis Amber and traditional white cheese. Layered with tomatoes, red onion and cucumber, chunky guacamole is quite tasty. Fresh avocados and an even hand with salt, citrus and garlic ensures it.
Also among Los Apertivos is the Tiny Taco ($3) served with chicken, beef or pork. If you want all three, try the 3 Amigos ($7), crispy rolled tacos of chicken, beef and pork served with salsa and sour cream.
The late night deal keeps the kitchen busy, with $2 tacos after 10 p.m. Carnitas tacos are the clear winner: double-layered tortillas stuffed with orange, cumin and garlic infused pulled pork, garnished with slaw and cilantro, served with a wedge of lime. Brightened with citrus and spiked with heat, savory pork gratifies, especially when a taco is layered with crispy ends.
Pulled chicken or the carne asada are runners-up, served with pico de gallo and slaw. Fried tofu tacos are the least interesting option since they're incredibly bland, despite corn and pineapple filling.
With the exception of tofu, on two of my three visits, the tacos were salty. This is the sinker for any dish and a sign that the kitchen isn't tasting food before it's delivered.
Prior to the late-night menu, patrons are beholden to larger platters as their entrees. This is not necessarily problematic, though it does leave one longing for variety because there's not an option to order different fillings on the same platter.
For Platos Principales, a trio of carne asada tacos, served with rice and a cup of black beans, satiates. But seared mahi-mahi fish tacos ($13) smelled and tasted past prime, served with too-sweet slaw and pineapple.
Your best bet -- if only for the sizzle and do-it-yourself assembly -- is fajitas of chicken ($12), steak ($13.50) or pork ($12.50). They're served with peppers and onions, hot tortillas, guacamole and sour cream.
Runner-up is the pollo enchilada trio ($10), with a choice of salsa verde or the menu's only mole poblano option.
Still, "This seems like more of a bar," said my dining companion, despite the array of a dozen plates in front of us.
That's even more the case some nights on the patio, as patrons pack into a sleek space flanked by heaters for brisk nights. Even Mr. DeSimone suggests Steel Cactus as a margarita destination, though many during my visits opted for standard brews of Yuengling, Blue Moon and Tecate.
Does it matter if a restaurant is authentic? TV personality and University of Pittsburgh alumnus Eddie Huang, chef at New York City's Baohaus, said patrons should view restaurants like college courses when addressing authenticity.
In an article "Is it Fair for Chefs to Cook Other Cultures' Foods?" on Gilt Taste, a market and magazine for food and wine lovers, he cites a restaurant that presents a broad menu of basics as the 101 survey course. The 200-level offers more depth, complexity and unusual ingredients. The 300-level "creative writing course" is reserved for exceptionally ambitious restaurants.
"I think it's great to develop cuisine," said Mr. Huang, the son of a Taiwanese immigrant restaurant family. The problem is that some people will go to an ambitious place and "misunderstand its place in the canon and anoint that as the standard."
Despite the name and its precarious identity, Steel Cactus Authentic Ristorante and Cantina is just this: A restaurant that offers a survey of Mexican staples and ample opportunity to get drunk.restaurantreviews
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198; firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published October 25, 2012 4:00 AM