The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

two squirrel hill restaurant disappointments

This weekend brought two more disappointing restaurant experiences. The first was at The Silk Elephant, a "Thai tapas" place at Forbes and Murray run by the people who own Bangkok Balcony up the street. Having come from the west coast, we've never found Bangkok Balcony to be all that great (we prefer the Green Mango in Edgewood and its new Regent Square storefront), but I've always thought it more than adequate (and the yellow curry is actually quite excellent). We went Saturday evening at about six and sat in the bar, intending, as we were headed to an office Christmas party, just to order "tapas" after the good experience we'd had two weeks ago at Ibiza, The place was crowded, but the bartended took our order pretty quickly. The problems were two: first of all, the food took FOREVER to come, largely because, I'm convinced, the bartender just forgot to submit our order to the kitchen. (Other wait staff were telling other diners that the kitchen was backed up, but ours took exceptionally long--almost an hour.) When the food arrived it was both cold and, frankly, not all that great. I might be willing to chalk up the experience to a kitchen staff who just got slammed one night for whaever reason--a sick day by a line cook, maybe--but the food wasn't great, either. Disappointing.

Fortunately, when we went to Cuzamil, a new Mexican place on lower Murray in Squirrel Hill, we had no high hopes, having realized long ago that it's impossible to find good Mexican food in Pittsburgh. This isn't to knock the people who run those places, who have all been quite pleasant, but every place we've been--Cozumel in Shadyside, El Campesino in Monroeville, Taco Loco on Carson, Mad Mex, Fajita Grill in Shadyside--has been pretty poor, and Cuzamil was no exception. Overpriced, old-fashioned (and I don't mean this in a good way) Mexican. It might have been acceptable in the 1980s to cook Mexican food largely with canned ingredients, but after the fresh-food revolution you just can't do it anymore: you have got to have fresh cilantro, tomatillos, peppers of varying kinds, etc. And that's just a baseline of adequacy. Sadly, this news has yet to hit here. It's aggravating.

I realized that I subconsciously judge Pittsburgh Mexican restaurants on what I call the "El Coyote scale": is this place better than the famous, famously bad El Coyote restaurant on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles? El Coyote survives, in a city full of genuinely good Mexican eateries, because of its strong margaritas, its defiant insistence on providing a large smoking section, and its kitsch factor. Its refusal to move with the times is its charm. Unfortunately, most of Pittsburgh's Mexican places fail the El Coyote test: and I wouldn't go there, either.

It's infuriating because these places are (with the exception of Mad Mex, as far as I know) all run by Mexicans, and THEY KNOW that they're not serving up the good stuff. I'm not demanding completely authentic fare; I'm not looking for Fonda San Miguel or anything. But I think that the food is so poor because that's what people want here. Or maybe I'm just blaming the victims.


  • At 10:17 AM, Blogger zp said…

    Thai. Tapas. Wine Bar.

    I thought that was kind of ambitious.

  • At 11:14 AM, Blogger mantooth said…

    their reach clearly exceeded their grasp.

  • At 1:58 PM, Blogger ARAJAY said…

    the tapas craze is accelerating to terminal velocity. don't be surrpised when they introduce the 99 cent "tapas bell grande"

  • At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Jason said…

    I thought that Cuzamil was a good addition, though. It may not be on par with what you described from California - but come on, its better than La Fiesta in Oakland, and more Authentic than Mad Mex. Plus, opening a restaurant that isnt somehow linked to an asian country, in Squirrel Hill, is no small task. I think you were a little hard on Cuzamil.

  • At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Coming from a native Californian, Cuzamil is a big exception to the Pgh rule.

  • At 1:36 PM, Blogger Vance said…

    Wow, you are a complete jackass! What type of pretentious poser are you? The 'silk elephant' is one of Squirrel Hill's better restaraunts and Cozumil is very authemtic Mexican cuizine with a lovely staff. Both have yet to disappoint us but then again, we are not ass holes who want to pretend like we know what the hell we are talking about.

  • At 2:56 PM, Blogger Elizabeth said…

    Patrone mexican grill wexford try it

  • At 5:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I agree Patron is the way to go. I grew up in an area with a large Mexican population and struggled to find something satisfying in Pittsburgh as far as Mexican food goes. Patron is the best I've had.


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