Review: Round Corner Cantina
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The Round Corner Cantina wasn't an obvious candidate for a dining review. When it first opened, no food was served, though a creative cocktail list full of freshly squeezed juices, interesting flavor combinations and even a few chile peppers certainly drew on culinary technique.
Owners Derek Burnell and Jesse Zmuda Burnell emphasized that even though they planned to add a food menu, the Round Corner Cantina would always be a bar that serves food, not a restaurant. Patrons must be 21 and older, and don't try to make reservations or order take-out.
2 stars = Very good
3720 Butler St.,
Hours: Monday, 5 p.m.-midnight; Wednesday-Friday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday, 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday, 5-11 p.m. Kitchen hours: Sunday, 5-10 p.m.; Monday, 5-11 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight.
Basics: This casual yet refined cocktail bar is a welcoming spot to while away an evening over a couple of beers or some truly intoxicating cocktails. It also just happens to serve delicious Latin American street food.
Recommended dishes: Vegetales escabeche, braised short rib empanadas, patatas gratinadas, quesadilla de la parrilla, tamales, tacos de pescado, tacos de carne asada, tacos de puerco
Prices: Small plates, $4-8.
Drinks: Ten tequilas and five mezcals for your sipping pleasure ($7-$39). Five margaritas ($6-$9) are up front, but don't miss out on the lengthier cocktail list on the next page ($6-$9). It includes some classics -- the Perfect 10, Pimms Cup, Latin American imports -- Caipirinha, Aqua Fresca, and some great house inventions. A must try is the Red Pepper Red Pepper with 1800 silver tequila, chartreuse, elderflower liqueur, basil and lemon ($9). The beer list ($3.50-$10) consists of a healthy mix of Mexican favorites (Modelo Especial, Corona, Michelada Mexico and Espana) along with the usual Pittsburgh favorites (IC, Victory Hop Devil, Lindemans Framboise).
Summary: Not wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; no reservations; no BYOB.
Noise level: Loud to deafening.
As a bar, the Cantina is a tremendous addition, but PG drinks writer Bill Toland already wrote about the Cantina's excellent cocktail list and oh-so-trendy scene. The food is good enough and special enough that it deserves a column of its own.
Adam Kaplan, who recently moved to Pittsburgh from Portland, Ore., where he was already a well-regarded chef, is in charge of the kitchen. The menu of small plates is described as Latin American street food, a name which is useful because it allows Kaplan to be authentic in spirit, without having to follow any one country's typical flavorings or cooking techniques.
Let's begin with a quick survey of chip and dip options, since these are the dishes that many people will order first. The tortilla chips (fried in house) were delicious and fresh tasting. Of late the tres salsas ($5.50) included a salsa fresca with assertive enough use of salt and lime to make up for fall tomatoes; an only moderately successful apple salsa, which mostly tasted of apples; and a mouth-watering roasted tomato and chipotle version that I kept coming back to. A large bowl of guacamole ($5) could have used a little more salt, but mixing smooth, mashed avocado and diced pieces gave it great texture. Don't forget about the frijoles con queso ($4.50), a creamy-textured, straightforward concoction with a thin, melted coating of cheese.
Though there were tasty options, these dishes aren't the Cantina's best, so it's practically a crime to fill up on chips. Consider skipping them altogether and starting with an order of empanadas (2, $8) instead. Both a braised short rib and a butternut squash version were superb. The dough was thin but still substantial, flaky yet a touch chewy, a sturdy container for the delicious fillings inside.
Braised short ribs were moist and tender, without any of the stringiness that sometimes mars this cut. Each bite had surprising little bursts of sweetness from plump raisins. The empanadas de vegetal (2, $8) give the kitchen a chance to use seasonal produce such as butternut squash, which made a memorable filling along with pequillo pepper, queso fresca and tomatillo sauce. This filling could also have used a bit more salt, though it was a refreshing change to eat bar food that wasn't over-salted to encourage people to drink up.
Vegetales escabeche ($4) is another seasonally shifting option. The quick-pickled vegetables were served in a large Mason jar, with long skewers provided for fishing out the goodies inside. Highlights of a recent batch were pineapple tomatillos, carrots and whole cloves of garlic made almost sweet from the pickling liquid.
Despite the casual nature of dinner at the Round Corner Cantina -- you're not going to forget you're eating in a bar -- someone certainly has an eye for the stylish detail. Food is served in simple, modern containers; drinks come mostly in Mason jars and martini glasses. The bar's design itself is an attractive, eclectic mix of 19th-century cocktail bar and 21st-century hipster bar, with just a hint of Western saloon-chic in the color scheme.
Occasionally, Kaplan shows off his culinary chops in dishes that really push the boundaries of bar food. An elegantly composed ceviche of the day was made from thin slices of black bass, grapefruit, cucumber, radish and uni -- that's right, sea urchin. Neither Latin American nor Japanese, this original dish demonstrates the high standard to which Kaplan is holding himself, and the respect he clearly has for his guests' palates. Meals were far better paced than one probably has the right to expect at a bar, and our server didn't bat an eye when we ordered in three waves.
The quesadilla de la parrilla ($7.50) is another inventive dish, one that succeeds based on carefully conceived ratios of ingredients as much as the ingredients themselves. Gooey brie cheese alone would have been a cheap trick, but the addition of as much caramelized onion as cheese, with a generous slather of adobo sauce, balanced the flavors and raised the quesadilla to a whole new level of sophistication. Thanks to the adobo, no additional sauce is necessary; each bite is already a perfect combination of flavors.
The heart of this menu, which takes it from bar snacks, however upscale, to a place where you'd eat dinner, is the tacos. There are a seitan taco (2, $6.50) as a vegan option and well-prepared tacos de pescado (2, $8) with mahi-mahi, thinly sliced cabbage, crema, lime and radishes. A chicken taco was simple and tasty. But these can't really compete (at least among omnivores) with the red meat.
The carnitas tacos delivered, with shredded pork shoulder so tender and juicy it got a little messy to eat. The carne asada (2, $8), made from skirt steak, was cooked to medium rare. Perfectly seasoned, each bite was a reminder of how incredibly delicious beef can be.
Some people may claim that pork belly is out, but one bite of this taco (2, $8) convinced me that I hadn't eaten quite enough. Sweet and salty, with very crunchy edges and a melting middle, it was paired with thinly sliced apple, a little queso fresco, and the ubiquitous cilantro and lime, just enough to enhance the flavor of the meat.
For those who'd like a sweet palate cleanser, you'll have to look again to the drinks list, as there are no desserts. The Pancho Villa ($8), a sweet, spicy concoction of tequila, coffee-flavored Tia Maria and orange-flavored Cointreau, was an excellent way to round off a meal.
The Round Corner Cantina is not a restaurant disguised as a bar, but it is a bar that demonstrates better than many restaurants how delicious, creative and affordable eating out can be.