Vegetarian delights: O'Hara's Blue Elephant Cafe expands on its coffee beginnings
Carnivores should not be put off when they hear the Blue Elephant Cafe has no meat on the menu.
This RIDC Park restaurant in O'Hara offers vegetarian food that relies heavily on the comfort foods of grilled bread and melted cheese. No tofu or bean sprouts in sight.
Carmella Acre, the cafe's general manager, said meatless food was a natural choice for vegetarian Lalit Chordia, the owner of the cafe and Thar Companies, which share a Gamma Drive building.
Acre said Blue Elephant began as a coffee shop with a limited menu of salads and wraps in the summer of 2012. It soon grew into a cafe with eclectic breakfast and lunch foods that should appeal to employees of RIDC Park, which has a scant number of eateries.
Acre said the cafe takes its name from a symbol for peace and prosperity; two whimsical, waist-high elephants flank the front doors and welcome visitors.
Inside, the space is full of simple, clean lines: White walls and a black ceiling are brightened by red lounge chairs and colorful chalkboard menus.
There isn't a lot of seating, but we had no problem finding a spot at one of the half-dozen tables and small counter during two lunchtime visits. Most customers who stopped by while we were there grabbed their orders to go.
During warm weather, the cafe offers outdoor patio seating, which is accessed through a garage-style door. The door and an array of windows let in plenty of light.
Acre said the cafe relies on a radiant floor-heating system that uses a continuously recirculating stream of carbon dioxide heat-transfer fluid under the floor. The system is one of the green technologies developed by Thar and also is used to melt snow from the patio and sidewalks in winter.
Although the cafe employs a small staff, we waited less than 10 minutes for our food both times we visited. Employees were cheerful and helpful on both visits.
The panini sandwiches at Blue Elephant were a hit — think grilled cheese sandwiches for an adult palate. All sounded appealing; it was hard to choose which ones to sample.
The Greek Panini ($6.25) was a tangy blend of mozzarella and feta cheeses, garlic, black olives, spinach and tomato. The Caprese Panini ($6.25) offered the classic Italian flavors of pesto, mozzarella and tomato. Both were grilled to crunchy perfection on the outside and oozing with soft, warm cheese on the inside.
The Mexican Wrap ($6.25) was so full of traditional flavors — shredded cheese, bell and jalapeno peppers, tomatoes and onions — that we didn't notice the lack of grilled meat amid the spinach and lettuce. We found this item on the online menu but not on the chalkboard in the store; the staff had no problem making it.
Wraps and paninis are served with a side of chips and a pickle. For an additional $1.75, we substituted french fries for an order of chips. The fries were OK; next time, we'll probably stick with the chips.
The Small Quesadilla ($5.49) was a grilled version of the Mexican Wrap. The tortillas were filled with melted cheese, peppers, onions, spinach and tomatoes and served with a side of sour cream and salsa. The quesadilla was cut into four filling slices.
The potato-and-cheese Pierogies ($6.25 for an order of five) were sauteed in butter and diced onions. Even the small order came with a generous side of steamed carrots, broccoli and sweet red peppers. We split the pierogies and veggies as an appetizer, but it could easily serve as a light lunch.
The Margherita Personal Pizza ($4.99) was a bit of a disappointment. It tasted like a frozen pizza and would've been perfectly acceptable as such (especially for the price), but we'd like a bit more from a restaurant. Also, we'd consider this offering more of a plain cheese pizza than a margherita pizza that usually includes tomatoes instead of pizza sauce and fresh basil.
Even though the weather was turning cold, we had to sample some of the frozen offerings — and we weren't disappointed. We sucked down the Strawberry Peach Smoothie ($3.75) fast enough to get the dreaded brain freeze.
Blue Elephant also offers several flavors of Pittsburgh-based Dave and Andy's Homemade Ice Cream. After eating what might be considered a healthy lunch — it was vegetarian — we each felt entitled to a cone with a scoop of ice cream ($2.50 for a sugar cone, $3.20 for a waffle cone). The more adventurous diner tried black cherry chocolate chip and the more vanilla diner tried French vanilla, of course. Both of us were pleased with our choices.
Finally, on our way out, we figured we should try the product that started it all — the organic coffee. Even though they felt decadent after the ice cream, we opted for lattes. The plain Caffe Latte ($3.80 for a large) and seasonal Pumpkin Spice Latte ($3.65 for a medium) both hit the spot. If you're feeling more reserved, the regular coffee ($1.65 for a small) was pretty good, too.
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Mary Ann Thomas contributed.