Go outside and take a deep breath. Dare to wear a white shirt. Pittsburgh, the former Smoky City, has long ago cleaned up its act, and the rest of the world is even starting to catch on. But there is one area where 21st-century Pittsburgh could use more smoke, and that is its barbecue.
Sure, we've got plenty of barbecue places, from sidewalk smokers to sit-down restaurants, that have mastered the art of slow-cooked meat slathered in sauce, and some of it is quite tasty. But the true essence of barbecue is succulent meat thoroughly infused with real wood smoke, and here, despite a national resurgence of the art of smoking, our fair city still lags behind.
That's why we are so thrilled to report that Bama's Southern Kitchen delivers the smoke. Though unassuming on the outside, Bama's storefront along the rebuilt Brookline Boulevard is pretty and pleasant inside, and its menu of Southern specialties adds to the surprising diversity and overall quality of the Brookline dining scene.
For the moment, that menu has the stripped-down quality of a place that trades mainly in take-out, despite plenty of seating and a welcoming ambience. Ribs (beef or pork), wings, burgers and a fish sandwich are the menu's mainstays, and can be ordered a la carte or in combos with various sides. But upon falling into conversation with the counter staff (which was easy to do), we learned that pulled pork and half fried chickens might soon be in the offing.
That would count as two more good reasons to visit, because if Bama's can make the transition from simple wings to the greater challenge of cooking chicken breasts and thighs, that's going to be some delicious bird. The wings on offer were a bit small; they were also golden brown and crunchy outside, juicy and flavorful within, with a well-seasoned, but not too salty, crust. The picky eater in our party demolished them in record time.
The fried fish — two nicely sized pieces of whiting — also benefited from an excellent cornmeal-based crust. A burger, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, was very beefy, if not overly juicy.
Pork ribs were available dry or with any of four sauces: mild, spicy, sweet and mustard. Despite being intensely smoky, the meat was not the least bit dried out, so that the flavors of rich pork melded deliciously with the aroma of the fire. These ribs were so good, they didn't even need sauce, but we didn't let that stop us from sampling all four.
Among the three forms of traditional sauce — mild, hot and sweet — there may not have been much distinction, but each one was excellent, well balanced among the sweet, tangy and fiery notes that are the pillars of barbecue flavor. The mild was actually wonderfully peppery, while the hot was distinctly reddened by cayenne without becoming punishing. The sweet was actually savory enough that it complemented, rather than masked, the pungent taste of the meat.
Perhaps most impressive was the mustard-based sauce, which may have finally made a convert of Jason. Time after time, he's gamely tried the South Carolina style, always finding it too one-dimensional, or else too sweetened with honey. But Bama's mustard sauce was thickly, intensely mustardy, with tang from vinegar and just enough sweetness to round out the flavors. It complemented the super-smoky ribs wonderfully.
The sides, on the whole, held up to the quality of the meats. Macaroni and cheese was thick, cheesy and mild enough to defer to the meats, but savory enough to eat alone. Potato salad, in classic American style with hard-boiled eggs, was exemplary, with the yolks enriching the dressing. Greens, studded with bits of smoked meat, were too salty, and sweet-potato casserole tasted a lot like candied yams. But cornbread muffins tipped the scales back to thumbs-up. Just as Pittsburgh barbecue is seldom smoky enough, Pittsburgh cornbread always seems too sweet and cakey. Bama's cornbread, while sweet in the northern style, was nothing you'd mistake for dessert: Its texture differentiated it from a corn cupcake, with a crumb that was tender but not without structure.
Brookline may not have the most restaurants of any neighborhood in Pittsburgh, but from Mediterranean to Mexican and beyond, Bama's is the latest in a string of satisfying meals we've had along the boulevard. If you haven't made Brookline a dining destination, you should. And if you're desperately seeking smoky barbecue, Bama's should be your first stop.