First Look: Pork & Beans
The highly anticipated restaurant from chefs Richard DeShantz and Keith Fuller now is open Downtown.
Photos by hal b. klein
Pork & Beans is now open Downtown. The restaurant is the fourth establishment from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group, which also operates Meat & Potatoes, Butcher and the Rye and täkō (all are among Pittsburgh Magazine 2016 Best Restaurants). “We started smoking meats at Meat & Potatoes knowing someday we’d like to do some type of barbecue smokehouse. Pittsburgh needs something that's serving real smoked meats — a straight-from-the-smoker-to-the-table type of place,” DeShantz says.
Keith Fuller, formerly of Root 174 in Regent Square, joins DeShantz as chef/co-owner; longtime DeShantz Group chef James Ciminillo is the restaurant’s chef de cuisine and will run the restaurant’s Southern Pride smoker.
It’s the most ambitious project yet from DeShantz and company. The 120-plus seat restaurant is divided into three areas: there are long, communal tables in the back of the space, several semiprivate “shed” tables alongside the right wall, and, separated from the dining area by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, is ample bar space for walk-in customers.
“We want to be traditional, but we also want to have some chef-driven entrees. It’s a balance. When you first open a restaurant, you don’t know exactly what’s going to take off or how people are going to understand it. So we’re just having fun with it and putting things on [the menu] that we enjoy eating,” DeShantz says.
The opening menu from DeShantz, Fuller and Ciminillo features a number of smoked-meat plates with cuts such as brisket, pulled pork, spare ribs and turkey (all are served with Hawaiian rolls, onions, cabbage and pickles), plus sandwiches such as Kentucky Hot Brown, kielbasa and the decadent Double Down (pickled brine fried chicken, pork roll, foie gras torchon, truffle mornay and iceberg lettuce). Side dishes include potato salad, burnt-end baked beans, collard greens and mac-n-cheese.
“When you’re doing something so simple it has to be perfect. It’s all about technique. When people use tons of sauces and rubs, it hides the mistakes easier. We’re not going to do that. It’s either going to be perfect or it’s not,” DeShantz says.
My first impression is that the kitchen team — as is to be expected on opening night — still has some fine-tuning to do but solidly is on the right track. Spare ribs were the brightest star of what I sampled from the menu. A friend and I couldn’t stop eating them, picking pieces of sweet, smoke, pepper and spiced-fat meat off the bones even as we were sampling other cuts. The ribs were so superb I’m considering going back for a second round today to make sure I wasn't dreaming.
Pulled pork is very good on its own but gets a healthy assist from “tangy mustard,” one of four house-made sauces. I made a little sandwich with the roll and the side fixin's, and that gave the pork the support it needed to become something wonderful. Brisket, despite a good base flavor, leaned toward dry and unyielding, longing for more intramuscular fat and either more or less time in the smoker.
As a pal put it last night: “They’re going to go through a lot of paper towels at this place.”
Collard greens, toothsome and with a bright, vinegary back note, are an excellent side dish. A group of friends reported back that they loved very cheesy mac-n-cheese and also raved about the ham plate appetizer. I found the boiled peanuts, spiked with Tabasco, Old Bay and lemon to be a great bar snack, but I wanted more beans and less meat in the burnt-end beans, which were hearty with a robust smoke flavor. I’d also like to see at least one substantial vegetarian item on the menu. I get it, you’re a barbecue joint, but also it’s 2016. Fuller, who built a reputation for crafting indulgent vegan and vegetarian entrees at Root 174, should be able to succeed with that here, too.
As always is the case with Richard DeShantz restaurants, the bar program is a draw. There is an excellent cocktail list — and an all-star bar team of service industry veterans — but at Pork & Beans the focus is on beer. Beer boss Riley Snyder, who moved to the restaurant from Beerhead Bar & Eatery on the North Shore, developed a list that features 30 nationally celebrated craft brews on tap and another 90 beers sold by the can or bottle. In the main dining area, there’s a grab-n-go old wooden cooler with an antithetical mix of large format Belgian bombers and 40s.
DeShantz has several more projects in the works, including two restaurants planned for the former Salt of the Earth space in Garfield and a Strip District restaurant that likely will focus on Southern cuisine. Downtown, however, remains his hub.
“We need to grow from Downtown out. Lawrenceville is popping and the East End has a lot going on, but when people come through our city, they’re mostly based in the Downtown area. When I first opened Meat there was nothing to do down here. This is our heart, and this is our foundation, so Downtown has to represent,” he says.
(136 Sixth St., Downtown; 412/338-1876, porkandbeanspgh.com)