Innovative takeout-only spots thriving in the 'Burgh
Takeout food is usually about convenience first, then flavor, then everything else. Sure, you're happy for that hoagie, or box of lo mein, or whatever, but you're not going to rearrange your life for it — like, say, you might to go out to eat at a great restaurant.
Then again, there's no reason why food can't be convenient and good. In recent months, a curious array of new takeout-only (or mostly) restaurants have begun popping up around Pittsburgh, taking the city's takeout options well beyond pizza and General Tso's.
For instance, now there's tacos, burritos and “Tijuana Street Dogs” at El Burro on the North Side, Liege waffles at Waffallonia in Squirrel Hill and Oakland, and Argentine grilled meats at Gaucho Parilla in the Strip District. Piper's Pub on the South Side is working on opening the Pub Chip Shop in a space next door, selling chips, pastries, meat pies and other English pub grub.
And that's just for starters.
For Karl Horn, owner of Tootie's Famous Italian Beef on the South Side, the takeout-restaurant dream began with a completely unrelated search for office space.
“I was trying to start a consulting company,” he says. “I went on Craigslist and saw this space, right off Carson Street. I thought, ‘How could I pass this up?'”
The only question was what to put there. He dropped the consulting gig and started selling his favorite sandwich, Italian beef, a Chicago specialty. It's his mother's recipe. Her nickname is Tootie.
“My family has been in the food business for four generations now, and this is kind of in our blood,” he says.
There are only two things on the menu — the juicy, thinly sliced, slow-roasted Italian Beef, and the Hot Italian Sausage — though several sizes are available.
It's been an easy sell, so far. It helps that he's one of the only people selling hot food until 3 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.
“The South Side has two distinctive economies,” Horn says. “During the day, it's residents and business employees, service-industry employees. They're looking for a quick bite to get back to what they're doing. In the evening, you have a lot of people coming down here for entertainment. There's nothing better than stopping for a beef sandwich before a couple drinks — slows your alcohol absorption, helps you have a more enjoyable evening.”
The only drawback, if there is one, is that it appeals to a very specific demographic.
“Seventy percent of my customers are male, ages 18 to 44,” Horn says. I've had customers call it ‘man food.' I'm getting ready to add a slow-roasted chicken sandwich to hopefully get more women to come in.”
Horn is in the process of opening a mobile cart selling his signature product Downtown, at Smithfield Street and Fourth Avenue.
Mobile vending carts, food trucks and takeout joints have a lot in common and can all be heaped into the broad category of “street food.” The popularity of food trucks, in particular, has exploded in the past few years, driven by a few creative chefs and entrepreneurs. They've taken carry-and-eat cuisine to new places, coming up with “elevated” or re-imagined versions of street-food staples (Korean tacos, for instance), or simply well-executed versions of the same classics.
According to market research by the National Restaurant Association, 33 percent of all adults surveyed agreed with the statement, “Purchasing takeout food is essential to the way you live.”
Street food, it seems, is now getting some respect.
“I think it has grown out of the food-truck movement,” says Jon Rubin, the artist and Carnegie Mellon University professor who created the Conflict Kitchen, which recently moved into one of the kiosks at Schenley Plaza in Oakland. “I think that's really changed the street-food movement. The startup costs of truck are $20,000 to $40,000, sometimes a fifth of what it takes for a sit-down restaurant. It also has younger people getting involved, more experimentation, and is really driven by street culture.”
Conflict Kitchen is definitely the strangest and most unique takeout restaurant in town — and possibly anywhere. The spot serves ethnic street food from countries that are “in conflict” with the United States in some way, one country at a time. They've featured food from Iran (kubideh), Venezuela (arepas), Afghanistan (bolani pazi). Recently, it transformed again, selling Cuban food like empanadas, congri (Cuban rice and black beans), tostones and freshly made agua fresca.
All items are served in a wrapper that gives information about those countries and interviews with their residents about a host of current issues. Conflict Kitchen also hosts collaborative dinners, Skype conversations with filmmakers in Afghanistan and performance art stunts. The most recent involved having a President Obama impersonator read a speech assembled from submissions by Iranians living in Iran and the United States.
Rubin began Conflict Kitchen as an art project in a vacant storefront in East Liberty, an attempt to jumpstart dialogue with and about America's political opponents. It was simply a window in the side of a building, sharing a kitchen with another Rubin art/food project, the Waffle Shop.
Conflict Kitchen soon attracted national and even international attention, with profiles appearing in venues as varied as NPR, Fast Company and Al Jazeera. Now, they have a full-time chef aboard, Robert Sayre, and just returned from a recipe-research trip to Cuba.
Rubin actually hoped to get out of the takeout business, in favor of a Downtown sit-down restaurant.
“I spent seven to eight months looking, and a couple possibilities fell through,” Rubin says. “The market is tighter Downtown than it used to be. A lot of spaces would have needed a lot of capital investment. We're not taking out loans — we have a grant from the Sprout Fund. We couldn't come in with $100,000 for a build-out and kitchen.
“So, we expanded our search to Oakland, another tight market. This space opened up in Schenley Plaza. The benefit of being in such a public spot (is that) people come from all over the city, for different reasons.”
Gaucho Parilla in the Strip District serves wood-fired meats in the Argentine style.
“We don't have ovens at all,” owner Anthony Falcon explains. “We can't just throw food into the oven or the deep fryer, some of the tricks of the trade that other restaurants do. Even restaurant people say, ‘I can't believe your only source of heat and cooking anything is wood.' People like to stand here and watch, too. You can stand here and eat. We have a courtyard patio, too.”
Customers specify which cuts of meat they want on a sandwich, from Entragna (skirt steak), Bife del Gaucho (Cowboy ribeye steak), to Lomo (filet mignon). There are no seats inside, but a counter wraps around most of the walls. In the center of the room, there's a giant wooden butcher's block. On top are the handmade condiments — ajo, chimmichurri, pimenton, cebolla — which give Argentine food much of its distinctive flavor.
Meat isn't in short supply at Allegheny City Smokehouse either. It's a bit of a stretch to call what they do “takeout,” but there aren't a lot of better one-word descriptions, either.
“Basically, the way it works is, on Sundays, we do about five items, give or take,” says Jared Lordon, who started the Smokehouse with partner and fellow chef Kelly Patton. “We always have bacon and kielbasa. The other stuff changes — sometimes it's brisket, ribs, hot sausage or pulled pork.”
The Smokehouse is only open Sundays for three hours (noon to 3 p.m.). It's in hard-to-find Marshall-Shadeland, without much in the way of foot traffic or other attractions. It's also located in a shed in the backyard. None of this has stopped people from seeking it out.
“The reason we're only open on weekends is that we started it with out-of-pocket money,” Lordon says. “No loans. We do a batch (of meats), and use that money to buy a piece of equipment.
“Social media is great. I'm still amazed at how nicely it works for us. We'd sell on the weekend, people would post about it on Facebook, and word would spread.”
Lordon and Patton, who both have other full-time jobs, see the Smokehouse as a future full-time gig-in-the-making.
“I've seen a lot of restaurants fail, and lot of them succeed,” Lordon says. “We're really cautious about building a steady clientele first. Once we have a good foundation, and enough people who want the product, then we'll take it full-time.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.