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Chef Kevin Sousa reveals clues about menu in soon-to-open Superior Motors in Braddock

| Saturday, June 17, 2017, 5:15 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh chef Kevin Sousa stands outside Superior Motors, the Braddock-based restaurant he's opening in mid-July, on Thursday, June 15, 2017.

Chef Kevin Sousa is ready for his big comeback.

Tatted up, T-shirt-clad and talkative, he's on the brink of returning to the Western Pennsylvania food scene with his unique spin on modern American cuisine.

The long-awaited Superior Motors in Braddock, beneath Mayor John Fetterman's home, is set to open in mid-July, Sousa told the Tribune-Review in an interview.

The space, an old Chevy dealership across from U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson Works, also contains a 75-seat theater space in the rear of the building to be run by Patrick Jordan of Barebones Productions .

"It's exciting, man," Sousa said while showing off the building. "We're really close. Everything is in, crates ready to get uncrated and placed."

His staff of 19, including 10 Braddock residents, starts training June 26. Restaurant sous chefs report Monday.

Sousa, 43, a McKees Rocks native, initially didn't want to reveal many details about the food he'll be serving. With some pressing, he confessed that he's written a 22-item menu that will play on his previous three Pittsburgh restaurants.

Another nudge, and he described a beef short ribs recipe he recently prepared at an event. He cured the ribs with koji spice for two days. Then he slow-cooked them, serving the dish with sassafras and a mix of "wild edibles," like milkweed buds, over sunchoke chips and porcini mushrooms. An accompanying walleye dish included wild herbs from Grow Pittsburgh's nearby urban farm that will be a source for the restaurant.

"I literally went down the street and picked all that stuff from the farm," he said.

Sousa declined to reveal what the event entailed, although a recent photo posted by Fetterman's wife Gisele on her Instagram account shows her posing with CNN food critic Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain has been spotted in and around Pittsburgh over the past couple of weeks for his show "Parts Unknown."

When the enthusiast comes to the #412 #pittsburghproud

A post shared by gisele fetterman (@gfett) on

In summing up his menu, he said, "It's an amalgam of things I've learned over the years. If you look at the food I've done it makes sense. It's a progression."

The progression took shape in 2010 when Sousa opened Salt of the Earth in Garfield, sparking Pittsburgh's burgeoning restaurant scene. He opened two more restaurants in the city's East End, Union Pig & Chicken and Station Street Hot Dogs.

"I was obsessive about those french fries at Station Street," he said while laughing. "I'd tell the staff to pay attention to detail when making them marvelous."

He eventually moved on from all three restaurants, selling his stake in Salt and Union Pig and closing Station Street.

The moves coincided with a vision Fetterman had for a restaurant in Braddock. At that time there were none.

"John and I were talking about Braddock and the need for a great restaurant," Jordan said. "He asked me if I knew Kevin Sousa. He thought Kevin would be the ideal fit for a chef."

Jordan made the introductions as he and Fetterman took Sousa on a tour of Braddock.

"It was an unseasonablly warm day in winter or late fall," Jordan said. "No clouds in the sky, the birds were chirping, kids were saying hello from a playground. Everything was perfect.

"I could tell Kevin was hooked."

Sousa jumped in, moving his family to Braddock and renting out his home in Polish Hill. He began volunteering with the Braddock Youth Project and Grow Pittsburgh.

The kids he encountered reminded him of home in McKees Rocks. Many had no idea about post-high school plans.

He pitched an idea to Fetterman, who provided the restaurant space beneath his home rent-free to Sousa, to start a culinary school for locals.

"We're going to start modest and build on it," Sousa said. "One day, I'll teach butchering. Another, I'll teach sanitation. Some kids might not be drawn to the kitchen, so we'll provide exposure to management-type stuff."

Braddock residents will also be able to dine for half-price on designated nights.

Braddock resident Rae Prunty, 17, who attends Winchester Thurston, has been waiting for a job at Superior Motors since first hearing about it in 2015. Sousa hired him as a dining room assistant.

"I think it will bring more people into the community and it's great that they're hiring Braddock residents," he told the Trib. "It's bringing energy into town we have haven't had in a while."

That energy includes the two-year-old Brew Gentlemen brewery on Braddock Avenue and Portogallo Peppers N'at, bar and restaurant, down the street. The latter, which has a patio and bocce court, opened last summer. Brassero Grill, which has a food truck, is also opening a Mexican restaurant in town.

"Nobody tried to open a restaurant in 30 or more years, and now we have options," Fetterman said. "We've been very fortunate. And Superior Motors will be good for everybody. It will be a destination restaurant for a lot of people outside of Braddock, and Kevin is committed to hiring local people."

The theater component only came about after Superior Motors ran into funding issues. Sousa initially raised $310,225 from supporters on Kickstarter, which was the most funded restaurant for the platform at the time. But repair to building infrastructure quicly burned through that money.

"We pumped the brakes, and that was a hard time," Sousa said. "We fell off the radar, after being in the public eye, but we were trying to get back on track. It was the responsible thing to do."

Jordan dreamed up the theater idea during the construction lull.

Gregg Kander, a Pittsburgh lawyer specializing in business planning and bankruptcy, joined the team as a partner and investor last fall. He and Jordan helped bring in investors and a loan from the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development. A grant from the Chosky Foundation helped with the theater constructions costs.

In total, they raised about $1 million to complete the project, Kander said, adding they came in under budget.

"I'm not in this for the return," Kander said. "I'm in it to make it happen and stay open, but I do think this is going to be a phenomenal success. A great theater experience and a great restuarant. I'd be crazy not to do it."

Kander also fell under Braddock's spell.

"I am bleeding Braddock at this point," he said. "A restaurant can really change a community. Once you visit, you realize how cool of a place this could be."

Jordan has already staged two plays in the theater space, in 2015, before it was completed. Both sold out for several weeks. He said he plans to announce a seasonal scheduled in the coming months.

Another piece came when Superior Motors hired Chris Clark as its general manager. Clark ran WD-50 restaurant in New York and also worked at Mezzo in downtown Pittsburgh.

"Every other restaurant has a restaurant and a bar program," Clark said. "We have that and a farm and a theater and that's what makes it's such a unique cultural experience."

Now, Sousa awaits his first customer and his first call for a reservation. He plans to be open during dinner hours, and will consider weekend brunches in the future.

"It feels grown up," he said. "It feels good. It feels right."

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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