Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans
The latest restaurant from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group brings Texas-style smoked meats and more to Downtown.
photos by laura petrilla
Tear into the spare ribs at Pork & Beans to experience the restaurant at its grease-in-your-beard best. You first hit the smoky and slightly sweet bark and then the meat, which tugs slightly, falling off the bone as you munch into its unctuous fat. It’s my favorite dish on the menu, one I ordered on nearly all of my visits to Pork & Beans since it opened in October.
Pork & Beans is the fourth Downtown establishment of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group. DeShantz, an ambitious restaurateur, redefined what it means to eat and drink in Downtown Pittsburgh when he opened Meat & Potatoes in 2011, and he deepened his influence with Butcher and the Rye in 2013 and täkō in 2015.
One of DeShantz’s keys to success is surrounding himself with people who complement his vision. He doubles down in the kitchen at Pork & Beans: Keith Fuller, formerly of Root 174, is chef/partner, and longstanding RDRG chef James Ciminillo is the restaurant’s chef de cuisine and pit-master. The trio of chefs aspires to bring Texas-style barbecue — with an occasional tilt toward other regions — to Pittsburgh. They largely are successful, though occasional imperfections linger.
Ordering pulled pork is an obvious choice at a barbecue restaurant — rosy from the restaurant’s Southern Pride Smoker, it also is a solid choice at Pork & Beans, particularly when paired with one of the four house-made sauces (try it with a mix of hot and classic). Opt for beer-can chicken, too; it tastes like a summertime Sunday grill-out.
Or, try succulent smoked turkey on its own or in the Hot Brown, which is better than the Louisville original. “I like how indulgent and trashy this is,” a friend said of the knife-and-fork sandwich topped with bacon and mornay sauce.
A hulking beef rib, lacquered black with a crust of smoked and blistered fat, could have been another standout. It’s a shame we had to poke and prod it with a dull butter knife instead of cutting through it easily with a steak knife. As fun as it was to gnaw hunks of it off the dinosaur bone, it also was awkward. And messy. I wish a server would have asked us if we needed a better knife.
That was a rare misstep from the energetic and attentive service staff. Credit general manager Maggie Meskey and RDRG partner Tolga Sevdik (the unsung hero of the restaurant group) for training a team that always is on its toes. Servers know their (excellent) beer list, (needs improvement) cocktails and how to help guests navigate the menu.
I wish the brisket were more consistent. Flavor and texture have improved tremendously since Pork & Beans opened, but the cap of the meat still is coated in a thick layer of salt. Assemble a bite that combines rub, fatty and lean meats, and you’re visiting a prime smokehouse in Houston or Austin; eat just the top bit, and you may as well be licking the Bonneville Flats in Utah. I don’t want to have to work so hard to enjoy my brisket.
At least it’s better than the pork and beans. Cooked and served in a novelty tin, the mixture tastes of tomato molasses and doesn’t have nearly enough pork. Meh.
A better idea is to start your meal with jalapeno corn fritters. The crispy, sweet balls of cornpone are perfect just as they are and are even better when smeared with the accompanying honey lard butter. “I would eat bags and bags and bags of these,” a friend said.
Get the puffy, salty chicharrones or a bag of slightly spicy boiled peanuts to start, too.
Collard greens are my favorite side dish. They also illuminate one of the more problematic elements of Pork & Beans. No single culture can claim barbecue as its own, but it’s tin-eared to incorporate a chain-link fence capped with barbed-wire into your restaurant design when you’re serving cuisine primarily developed by the country’s African-American population. Echoes to decades of segregation and incarceration aren’t intentional, but DeShantz, who designed the restaurant, should consider removing, at the least, the barbed wire from the top of the fence.
You might want to call ahead to make sure there is something you can eat if you’re a vegetarian. A barbecue joint need not specialize in vegetable-forward cuisine, but it wouldn’t hurt to craft a few meat-free dishes for vegetarian diners. On most of my visits, a vegetarian diner would have been limited to scant few side dishes (get broccoli salad, skip mac-n-cheese); on one night, the vegetarian special was sold out before an 8 p.m. reservation. There was a singular meatless success: jackfruit pulled “pork,” a favorite dish on one visit, had the look of meat (seared chunks that “pull” like pork) and a meaty texture too.
What I like best about Pork & Beans is that, with every visit, Ciminillo and Fuller showed more promise with their craft. Pork & Beans might be a bit too heavy for frequent visits, but it — mostly — is another successful addition to DeShantz’s Downtown transformation.
136 6th St., Downtown; 412/338-1876, porkandbeanspgh.com
Executive Chef/Co-Owner | Pork & Beans
Why open a barbecue restaurant?
I’m always thinking about “what does the city need?” as much as I’m thinking about what I want to do when I open a restaurant. I want to push this city forward, so I’m looking for what’s missing. We needed a beer-heavy, barbecue place. And this [physical] space lent itself to that. It’s so big, and it’s so industrial. It’s also close to the ballpark, which is a perfect place to put a barbecue restaurant.
What prompted the decision to bring Keith (Fuller) in as chef/partner?
Chefs in Pittsburgh are constantly pushing each other to do better. It’s not cutthroat here like [it is in] other cities. The reward for that is working with chefs like Keith, as well as Brian (Pekarcik, S+P Restaurant Group) and Justin (Severino, Cure/Morcilla). Keith and I had worked together before on events and dinners, so we decided awhile back we wanted to do something bigger together.
What’s the structure of the kitchen? How do the three of you work together?
I’m everywhere I need to be on any given day. I was in the kitchen in the beginning, but now I’m working on our new spaces and checking in at the other restaurants. Keith and James are the main kitchen guys here. James is the pitmaster; he’s been smoking meats for us for a long time. We bought our first Southern Pride smoker five years ago, and we use it for gallery crawls and events. Keith brings his creative play on everything. He thinks outside of the box. He makes specials, sausages and hotdogs. We all know our strong points, so we all mesh well together.
What’s next for you?
I have two projects under construction right now. We took the space that’s next to Butcher [and the Rye], and we’re doing a raw-focused restaurant; sashimi, tartare, vegetable-driven things. Dave Racicot (chef de cuisine of täkō) will be in charge of that. The design and the food will be super-clean and minimalistic. Our alcohol focus there will be on gin; it’s very aromatic and there are so many flavor profiles to it. We’re in the middle of construction on the [former] Salt of the Earth space. It’s tricky to design, because it’s such a beautiful space already. You’ll know you’re in that space — but you’ll also feel my touch on it. It’s going to be American-style, modern-rustic cuisine. Dan [Carlton, Butcher and the Rye] will run the kitchen there. It’s a new neighborhood for me, and I’m very excited about that.