What’s New In Pittsburgh Food For May
Round Corner Cantina’s menu relaunch, Back To The Foodture’s move to a new location and stuntpig food truck have my attention.
Menu Change: New Menu at Round Corner Cantina
This month, we get something new from the Round Corner Cantina — a food menu that is a draw unto itself. Under the wing of executive chef Julio Peraza, the Lawrenceville bar is beginning to shine as a dining destination.
Peraza’s new menu is built around heirloom varieties of corn imported from Mexico. “When you touch the kernel, when you crack it in half, when you feel the density, the dryness. What is the aroma? How does it interact with the water? What happens when you rinse it the next day? How does it feel then? There’s so much going on when you work with it from the start,” Peraza says.
Peraza was born in El Salvador and grew up in Southern California. He built a career working in fine dining establishments, primarily in California and Texas. In Pittsburgh, he worked as the executive chef of Fl.2 at the Fairmont Hotel until last year. He left the establishment to open Cobra (Cantina owner Derek Burnell also is co-owner of Cobra). Conversations with Burnell, who grew up in San Diego, led to a discussion about what they could do with the Cantina kitchen. Both felt like there was space in Pittsburgh to offer a menu built on Mexican and Mesoamerican foodways. “I’ve been cooking with French technique my whole career but never had an opportunity to get into the roots of the food I grew up with,” Peraza says.
Peraza and his kitchen crew nixtamalize and grind the corn in-house, a process that allows for a more profound expression of the aroma, flavor, texture and nutrition of the grain. At the moment, it’s still something of a rarity in Pittsburgh to go through all the steps it takes to process heirloom corn from kernel to plate. “A lot of people take for granted the work that goes into making a beautiful tortilla,” Peraza says.
Tlayuda starts with a crisp-yet-slightly-pliable tortilla made with Oaxaca purple corn; it’s topped with black beans, Oaxaca cheese, cabbage, tomato and avocado for a smoky, earthy bite. Peraza’s sopes are built on a fragrant shell of heirloom white corn and are luxurious when topped with chicken tinga, duck-fat refried black beans, queso fresco, cilantro, crema and avocado. And I loved Peraza’s molotes, cauliflower and plant-based chorizo stuffed in a crispy achiote-infused masa shell and served with guacamole, lettuce, salsa negra and almond crema; they are a top-notch starter, particularly if you’re looking for something vegan (much of the menu is vegan-friendly or can be made so).
Peraza’s tacos are terrific, with aromatic scratch-made corn tortillas housing items such as lush carnitas, savory suadero and piquant salsas. If you’re looking for a larger format dish, I’ll point you to Peraza’s pollo con mole — his mole poblano is layered with earthy, bittersweet, spicy, nutty and vegetal notes.
What Peraza is doing is an exciting evolution for Round Corner. It’s a terrific complement to the already excellent bar program and vibe of the establishment Burnell opened in 2009. “We’re not trying to be the next Pujol (Enrique Olvera’s groundbreaking Mexico City restaurant) or anything like that. I’m just trying to maintain the integrity of dishes that have been made for generations,” Peraza says.
3720 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/904-2279, roundcornercantina.com
On the Move: Back To The Foodture Opens on South Side
Back To The Foodture, Eddie Barnz and Angel Randolph’s outstanding hamburger and wing shop that comes with a side of nostalgia, is now open in the South Side. It’s easy to spot — there’s a massive “Back To The Foodture” sign out front, an icon I hope is an early indication of the potentially bright future for the South Side Works (Back To The Foodture is an early tenant in what promises to be a significant revitalization of the entertainment and retail zone). It’s also a welcoming entry to the 900-square-foot space the couple spent the past few months rehabilitating; there’s a fair amount of seating inside and outside (but be prepared to walk over to the nearby square if it’s crowded), and it’s decorated with pop-culture touches, such as sets streaming vintage television shows, that fascinate Barnz.
I’ve been a big fan of Randolph since I first ate her food in late 2019, and her opening menu at South Side Works remains essentially the same as it was in the now-closed Pitcairn original. There are more than 100 varieties of wings and scores of hamburger builds, as well as a smattering of hot dogs and fries to round things out. Randolph added four new burgers to celebrate the launch of the new restaurant: Perky Herky, named for real estate broker and developer Herky Pollock; Bill The Thrill in honor of Bill Flanagan, host and producer of Our Region’s Business; PTL Burger as a nod to KDKA-TV’s morning show Pittsburgh Today Live; Hal-delious for … well, me. (Yes, having someone name a menu item for you is as heart-warming and just plain cool as you might imagine it would be.)
There are many items to choose from, so it can be a little overwhelming for first-timers to navigate the menu. My advice is to follow your heart — Randolph has a knack for putting together out-of-this-world flavor combinations. Some of my past favorites are burgers such as One More Chance and Buggy, and wings such as salt & vinegar, black magic, Thai basil and Barnzy’s. I’m always looking to try something new (it helps if you bring a few pals so you can share a variety of items). On my first visit to the new location, I tried a Dusty Rhodes burger; the blend of provolone, crispy onions, bacon, Carolina-style barbeque sauce and wing-dust chips is an instant classic, and I loved the spicy Parmesan wings, too. And that Hal-delious burger — the combination of mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, Canadian bacon, pickled banana peppers and habanero sauce hit all the right notes if I do say so myself about a burger with my name on it.
2767 E. Carson St., South Side; facebook.com/Back-To-The-Foodture-737494689957282/
Next Up: stuntpig is Set to Roll
Back on a frigid February afternoon, I ordered delivery from stuntpig, the soon-to-launch food truck from Ariel Alexander and Cody Maze. Eating a sandwich they call Mr. Pink — lovingly smoked pork shoulder, fennel-coriander slaw and violet mustard in a sesame-seed potato bun — sparked dreams of summertime fun. stuntpig’s menu is built around sandwiches and, aside from the buns, everything they can make, down to curing the meats, is done in-house. I’ve been anticipating more from the two chefs since that first bite, following their progress on Instagram as they develop recipes and pop up from time to time around town. First up for me is ordering The Costanza, a hat-tip to New York City and “Seinfeld” with pastrami, melty swiss, caraway and cabbage slaw and violet mustard.
Their truck is set to roll on the regular in early June. “We want to highlight the power of salt, acid and smoke. You’ll see that throughout the menu,” says Alexander.
Alexander grew up on a farm, helped start the butcher program at Marty’s Market and later became executive chef of the grocery store’s in-house restaurant, cooked at Spak Bros. and worked as a butcher and chef at Whitfield. Maze was the longtime chef of Spak Bros. and worked in the kitchens of Cure, Salt of the Earth and Casbah. The pandemic, in part, prompted the duo to launch their own business.
Recently, Alexander and Maze have collaborated on popups with some of their favorite establishments. A popup at Spak meant a joint effort of pizza and sandwich chock full of vegan options. Next up is a May 24 collaboration with Kelly’s Bar & Lounge. Look for the duo to preview core menu options such as Mr. Orange (smoked piri piri chicken, briny cucumbers and chimichurri aioli) as well as site-specific dishes such as brisket with Kelly’s famous mac ‘n cheese.
After that, Alexander says, “We want to work. If we can be out there, we will be as much as we can. Smoked sandwiches, nice sides and vegetables in the forefront.”