Restaurant Review: Superior Motors
Kevin Sousa’s long-anticipated project fires on all cylinders as a restaurant. But, will it fulfill its larger mission?
photos by laura petrilla
The three-year saga surrounding the opening of Superior Motors played out like a serial.
In the beginning, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman invited Kevin Sousa, who grew up in McKees Rocks, another town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh decimated by the collapse of heavy industry, to the borough for a walk. Sousa eventually moved to Braddock and the two later settled on the restaurant’s location, with the promise of free rent and institutional support to rehabilitate a long abandoned automobile dealership.
Everything looked promising. There was buzz. And more buzz. A hyped-up, record-shattering Kickstarter campaign.
Then came a years-long pause in construction due to cost overruns and an unwillingness from banks to offer Sousa loans due to the perceived risk of opening a restaurant in Braddock and his shaky credit history surrounding his prior ventures: Salt of the Earth, Union Pig and Chicken, and Station Street.
The 2,000-plus Kickstarter backers waited to cash in on their rewards. “Will he ever open?” stories ran in local and national publications while at the same time, even though nothing had happened, “Kevin Sousa’s soon-to-open Superior Motors” became part of the oft-repeated, overwrought hymn praising Pittsburgh’s “booming foodie scene.”
It took an angel investor to step in as the lead of a small group of private financiers to get things going.
In July, Superior Motors opened.
In an early online look at the restaurant, I drew a comparison between Superior Motors and Salt of the Earth, Sousa’s 2010 Garfield restaurant that, alongside Dinette, Cure, Bar Marco and a few others, spurred Pittsburgh into its modern dining era. “If Salt was Sousa’s ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ this is his ‘Pride and Prejudice,’” I wrote. “It’s written in the same voice, but the characters are more compelling.” This still rings true.
As a restaurant, Superior Motors is pretty much exactly where it should be at this point in its development. The menu isn’t rooted in any particular cuisine, per se, so let’s call it “New American with hints of farm-to-table and an occasional detour to Japan.”
Just about everything is tasty. There are a handful of clunkers, such a chewy, over-fried skate wing, but, more often than not, the often-changing menu is enjoyable. As an example, I was thrilled with the textures, balanced flavors and bright plating of fresh-as-the-sea hamachi dressed with avocado, black garlic and pineapple.
That’s not to say that many dishes couldn’t use a little editing; Sousa’s style is more cerebral than soulful, which is fine because even though I’d sometimes like to see him cook more from the gut, he’s very good at what he does. Occasionally, though, that leads to overcomplicated offerings. For example, trout roe added color but no character to “Pork,” a dish that a friend loved (because he enjoys assembling a perfect bite every time) but other dining companions felt was too composed for its own good. “Tuna” was a stunning set piece of color, yet the cover was better than the story — a sea of bitter olive tapenade overwhelmed the meaty fish.
The main dining room is a grey study in poured concrete, with various levels creating a sense of movement. Snag one of the standard-height tables in the center of the room — make sure you get a seat that faces the dramatic flares coming from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works — and you’re set for a comfortable, lively evening. But the high-top tables on the far wall are long rectangles that jut away from diners — which can lead to awkward seating for groups of four — and it’s near-impossible to get cozy at the low lounge tables near the windows (the view from those seats is stunning, however). There also is a chill second dining room brightened with art by Pittsburgh-based Mia Tarducci (her work is on display throughout the restaurant) — depending on your mood you’ll either enjoy the quiet or feel isolated from the main action, as if you were banished to the kids’ table instead of being invited to the party.
The restaurant’s general manager, Chris Clark, acts as Sousa’s anchor and chief consigliare. Clark once was maitre d’ of WD-50 in New York and, prior to taking his current position, served as general manager of Mezzo Downtown. He is a confident leader, and he’s shepherding an exemplary front-of-house program. Some of the younger members of his diverse crew don’t have much or any restaurant experience, but missteps are small and quickly corrected.
Clark is responsible for setting the vibe, too. He and Sousa curate the tone of each evening with a selection of philosophically connected records (release year, influence of form, genre) played at pitch-perfect volume from start to finish. Clark says he’s also quick to change the plan if the energy in the room isn’t the anticipated reaction to the tunes.
Beverage director Jeremy Bustamante, who was always a reliable craftsman at Salt of the Earth and his other Pittsburgh gigs, struts his stirrer and his shaker stronger than ever at Superior Motors. Every cocktail, save for an undrinkable tomato concoction (hey, it had a nice aroma), was balanced, cleverly constructed to hit a specific flavor profile. Considering the drive back home, it’s a good thing “Vermouth,” a tart and slightly sour low-alcohol cocktail, was my favorite of the bunch.
Pastry chef Kate Carney’s big-time debut is a big success. Carney previously worked under James Beard semifinalist Casey Renee at Whitfield in East Liberty and also prepared desserts at Gaucho Parrilla Argentina in the Strip (and worked as a pizza-maker prior to that). I’m still thinking about her pavlova with its perfect crunchy crust and nougat interior, bolstered by a yuzu sauce taken to the point of tartness without crossing the line.
There’s no reason to think that Superior Motors won’t continue to get even better as it settles in. As it stands now, it’s an establishment that deserves to be part of Pittsburgh’s restaurant conversation.
But that conversation can’t just be about the food, service and drinks. Sousa’s long-term commitment to Braddock remains to be seen.
Sousa has gone to great lengths to assert that Superior Motors isn’t a fancy restaurant dropped into a low-income neighborhood because the price was right. He bills it as a “community restaurant and farm ecosystem” and often has stressed how important the inclusion of the Braddock community is to the success of the restaurant.
Yet right now it feels like Superior Motors largely is a destination restaurant for establishment diners feeling “brave” enough to go to a neighborhood they normally wouldn’t consider visiting, and for the cool kids who always are part of the scene.
Management worked with community leaders such as Mary Carey at the Braddock Carnegie Library to ensure that residents get a discount card; anyone who lives in the Braddock part of the 15104 ZIP code (Rankin and North Braddock are excluded) can come with a guest 18 times per year and receive a 50 percent discount on their food; a meal with two small plates and two entree-sized portions runs, with the discount, somewhere around $20 per person. I hope they use it, and, if they’re not, I hope the Superior Motors team reaches out to learn what’s keeping them from visiting.
Sousa and Clark are, at the very least, making inroads with whom they are employing. At any given time, according to Clark, 30 to 40 percent of the staff, both front- and back-of-house, are residents of Braddock. Although an early conversation about an apprentice program with the esteemed, community-focused nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh and its Braddock Farms never materialized, Sousa now looks to be in the nascent stage of a promised culinary training curriculum.
The adjacent lot that houses the Braddock Community Oven, a project funded in part by a grant stipulating that the oven is accessible for community use, might be a bellwether. It’s imperative that space, a longstanding meeting spot for neighborhood and nonprofit events that Sousa and his team now are using for a pizza offshoot called Parts & Service, remains open to the community, even if that means fewer pizza nights and private events for the restaurant.
At the end of the day, whether or not Superior Motors integrates its community mission with its mission as a restaurant will determine if this is a true transformative space or simply a very good place to eat.
1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock; 412/271-1022, superiormotors15104.com