Bar Exam: Steel Cactus
Who's up for a Yinzerita? These Shadyside and Carson Street Mexican joints are welcoming and appetizing.
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Want to evaluate a bar? Order a drink that usually doesn’t turn out too well.
Take, for example, the Hurricane. A (tourist’s) favorite in New Orleans and a fixture among bars with fake palm trees, the rum-based cocktail usually goes one of two unpleasant ways: You’ll either get a war between mismatched rums or a sugary concoction reminiscent of the worst punch-bowl monstrosities from your undergraduate career.
But the Hurricanes at Steel Cactus are awesome.
The Mexican joint’s two locations in Shadyside and South Side have emerged as under-the-radar favorites; think of them as the Deluca’s to Mad Mex’s Pamela’s. After inaugurating our exploration of Shadyside nightlife with last week’s entry on Cappy’s Cafe, Steel Cactus was next on my list. The Walnut Street location is in the heart of things on the trendy street, with a rooftop deck (billed as the largest in Shadyside) that offers a birds-eye view on the commerce below.
Like many Pittsburgh bars, Steel Cactus aims to be a go-to joint for informal happy hour and weekend gatherings. Ample daily specials provide incentive, and a healthy list of signature cocktails, draft beers and Ameri-Mexican staples (think sangria, tequila, queso and guacamole) make the proposition of a visit alluring. Fortunately, the food is more than up to snuff; the menu is focused on tacos, burritos and plenty of apps that are tasty and filling (but not gorge-level filling). And for those with a strong stance on the taco culture war — which pits authentic-minded guests in search of cilantro and sauce against the Americanized set, with lettuce, tomato and cheese — Steel Cactus will make ’em either way.
The indecisive diner will be pointed in the right direction by an unobtrusively friendly, gregarious waitstaff. And yes, they know how to make a cocktail. My Hurricane was delightful, with neither the booze nor the sugar dominating. A margarita I sampled made me want to order one, and I don’t actually like margaritas.
The signature cocktail, the Yinzerita, is a sight to behold: a very large, flavored margarita with an upside-down bottle of Corona (or perhaps a pumpkin ale, or an I.C. Light Mango for a summertime reprieve) deposited in the middle of the drink. I can’t report on the quality of the drink personally because, frankly, I don’t have the strength. But I did receive this tip from a server: Because of, uh, science, an upside-down beer bottle in a cocktail will retain an appropriate amount of beer within the glass. Should you remove the brew from the drink, however, beer will come cascading out, causing your drink to overflow (and you to furiously sip in response). So if you go for a Yinzerita, leave the Corona where it lies.
The vibe at Steel Cactus will be more sports bar than cocktail corner, so — while we can endorse it as a lunch stop — it may not be the perfect bar for a quiet conversation. For an after-work jaunt or group excursion, though, it’s an excellent choice. We’re inundated with Tex-Mex choices; even so, this one rises above the crowd.