Luke & Mike's Front Porch Grill has the look and feel, not to mention the name, of a neighborhood landmark in the making. Located in Aspinwall's historic train station, a handsome yet modest structure well-suited to one of the county's most charming little towns, it anchors one end of the strip of businesses along Commercial Avenue. Plenty of outdoor tables fit under the deep eaves, while the inside has been renovated in the fashion of a contemporary lodge, with warm wood floors, serene sage-green walls accented with crisp white trim, and a stone fireplace as focal point.
The menu offers the same array of soups and sandwiches for lunch and dinner, with the addition in the evening of a chalkboard's worth of proper entrees. It all combines to be a place equally welcoming to seniors, young families and professionals bringing in a six-pack for a post-work get-together.
Most offerings aren't upscale, lobster roll and butterfly shrimp notwithstanding, but nor is this the kind of sandwich shop with any choices under $5. Even the BLT and fried-bologna-and-cheese will run you more than a Lincoln. But they're served on sourdough bread, a thoughtful updating of these "old standbys" (as the menu classifies them), and Luke and Mike aren't skimpy with their portions. The hot dog is a quarter-pounder, the burger a half-pounder, so come hungry.
Especially if you order wings to start. Here, a half-dozen wings means six whole wings, and enormous, plump, meaty ones at that. The sauce choices range from hot to mild, with barbecue as well. But Jason chose seasoned, the better to enjoy the chicken's crisp skin. Unfortunately, the seasoning was so extraordinarily salty, it was hard to discern the intended flavor underneath -- Cajun? garlic? The thick coating of dusty, salty powder masked all other tastes, even the thick meat on those big bones.
Stuffed-pepper soup is a strange, yet often satisfying, concoction, seemingly an excuse to beef up vegetable soup with plenty of ground meat. Luke and Mike served a credible version, well balanced between the hearty notes of beef broth and the sweeter ones of tomato and red pepper. An old-school salad of iceberg lettuce, grated carrot, chopped cucumber and black olives pepped up when dressed with the kitchen's tangy, creamy housemade bleu cheese dressing.
The sandwich options looked tasty, if fairly conventional, but it was the dinner blackboard that whetted our appetites. Like the sandwiches, the entrees -- such as a T-bone pork chop and beef Bordelaise over egg noodles -- represented simple classics of the American table, but seemed to promise sophistication in the quality of ingredients and preparations. Angelique selected the Virginia spots, based on our server's note that the fish dish was a house specialty, and in honor of a state where she spent a large part of her childhood.
Prepared English style, the simple white fish was heavily buttered, faintly lemony and crunchy with just-right breadcrumbs; whether they were Japanese panko or perfectly-broiled fresh from the loaf, we couldn't tell. In the end, Angelique found the meat simultaneously bland and a touch fishy, and the sauce lacking sufficient song. From his broader experience with Virginia spots, Jason's tastes confirmed her impression, but also that this was a pretty good version of the dish; it may just be a bit old-fashioned for the modern seafood palate.
There's nothing modern about the batter-fried cod inside Luke & Mike's fish soft taco, but it was crispy with a good proportion of crust to flesh. Unfortunately, the proportions of the other ingredients were much less salutary. More of a wrap than a taco, the sandwich was bundled in a flavorless flour tortilla that became thick and dispiriting at the folded ends. The lettuce that subbed for traditional shredded cabbage included far too much white core, and at times was thicker than the fish or the excess tortilla. The sauce -- the same one used for the lobster roll, which sold out right before we arrived -- was tasty enough, reminiscent of an extra-creamy Thousand Island, but there wasn't enough to flavor the lettuce and tortilla.
Neither the burger nor the "Best Dog in the 'Wall" redeemed our sandwich experience. While the ciabatta in the bread basket was excellent, and the bun on the burger was big and hearty, the enormous wiener came in a supermarket-grade roll that didn't do justice to its heft. The tubesteak itself was beefy in taste and texture, so it was a shame it wasn't served with anything to make it stand out. Meanwhile the massive burger was a bit tough and bland, although it was juicy and cooked to order. But French fries and sweet-potato fries were successes, the former pale but crisp and fluffy, the latter crunchy and well done.
Although our meal had its ups as well as its downs, the best part of eating at Luke and Mike's was the atmosphere. The menu is standard enough that only unalloyed excellence could set the fare apart. What really does distinguish Luke and Mike's neighborhood grill from all the rest is the atmosphere it has created from a genuine Aspinwall landmark. Visiting is like stopping by a neighbor's living room or, in nice weather, front porch.
Luke & Mike's Front Porch Grill
235 Commercial Ave., Aspinwall. 412-252-2877
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Sandwiches $6-10; entrees $12-16