Munch goes to the Modern Cafe
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As a member of the double-secret probation society of anonymous food critics, Munch strives to keep cover in the face of the nefarious forces trying to reveal us to the world (this despite Munch's high-tech brown-bag subterfuge). We're like a deep-fried Priory of Sion. A Justice League with wing sauce and blue cheese. Very cloak and ... spork.
So Munch was put in a precarious spot a few weeks ago while at the venerable Modern Cafe in the Allegheny West section of Pittsburgh's North Side. Enjoying a sandwich and a beer with Dad of Munch (DOM), Munch was thrust into panic when Post-Gazette columnist Brian O'Neill sauntered in.
Munch thought of the movie "Donnie Brasco" when Johnny Depp's deep cover lawman is nearly inadvertantly outed by a fellow FBI agent in front of a group of gangsters. Depp's character attacks the other agent so as to keep his front.
Munch's mind raced: "If O'Neill drops a dime -- fuhgeddabowdit -- I'm dropping him!"
But O'Neill played it cool as a poker ace, nodding hello, never mentioning our common employer while chatting with DOM about Pittsburgh history in an environment suitable for doing so.
The Modern opened in 1933, pouring post-Prohibition drinks ever since. Just about, anyway. A fire on New Year's Day 2009 had the place closed for 15 months, and it reopened in April 2010. The iconic green neon sign still hangs outside, but inside most of the old fixtures are gone, replaced with a comfortable, somewhat sleek modern look, no pun intended.
A pair of original light fixtures hang behind the bar, as do old pictures of the place, and a collage of photos from when the 1996 Michael Douglas film "Wonder Boys" shot a scene inside. Framed pages from a 1936 Sun-Telegraph are displayed as is a full-page editorial blasting the New Deal and FDR from the Post-Gazette. It reads like a modern-day Tea Party manifesto if only you subbed in "Health Care" "Obama" and "Tribune-Review."
Lore states that The Chief -- Art Rooney Sr. -- frequented the place, and he's still there, via a 1936 reproduction of the Pittsburgh (football) Pirates team photo on a rear wall. Appropriate, as you can see Rooney's ultimate legacy, Heinz Field, from the corner out front.
Some things change, but people still come here to eat and drink, and have their pints filled by North Side bartending institution, George Ifft. The Modern boasts a highly respectable selection of American micros on draft, and even more in bottle. Munch and DOM each had a quaff of local Full Pint products, the Tri-PA and White Lightning ($6).
Standard bar staples of sandwiches, salads and munchies make up the menu.
We tore through the well-prepared Mediterranean layered dip of hummus, diced tomatoes, kalamata olives and cucumbers topped with feta cheese, which was served with an aesthetic array of warm pita chips ($8.99).
O'Neill recommended the Rueben ($6.95) but Munch can't help but have the biggest, most calorie-laden item on any menu and so gorged on "The Spartan" -- a huge and tasty hoagie made with seasoned steak, gyro meat, provolone and feta cheeses, onions and tomato slices topped with Greek tzatziki sauce ($7.50).
As is his nature, DOM showed the restraint his progeny lacks, enjoying a pleasing nibble on the lighter fare of a Mediterranean chicken salad ($6.95) constructed of spinach, chicken strips, feta cheese, tomato and artichoke hearts with a balsamic vinaigrette. He reported it to be pretty good.
With O'Neill typically engulfed in the broadcast of a another ill-fated Pirates endeavor (and a mug of Guinness), Munch relaxed. This was another successful mission, to a nice little neighborhood haunt for a nosh and a swig.
But if O'Neill disappears, well ... you know that canary sang.
First Published April 19, 2012 12:00 am