Location: 1805 Babcock Blvd., Shaler; 412-821-0202
Hours: Mon-Sat 11-9, Sun 12-7
Prices: Sandwiches $5-8; Platters $9-10
Fare: Straight-up barbecue
Atmosphere: Indoor picnic
Most barbecue places work to distinguish themselves through their sauces or their stories. Sometimes it's both, as in somebody's great-uncle's Famous Barbecue Sauce. The menu generally gets scant attention, being left to the standard stand-bys of ribs, chicken and maybe pulled pork.
The Flame, in a little house on Babcock Boulevard near Millvale, offers a full range of barbecued meats -- all of the above, plus pulled chicken and shredded beef -- and has decided to see what more it could do with them. In addition to sandwiches, burritos and platters, the Flame has created a couple of signature dishes: Its Stack-a-Mac and Pick-a-Pen are macaroni and cheese and French fries, respectively, topped with smoked meats. Pierogies, cheesesteaks and a few other sandwiches, as well as traditional barbecue sides, round out the offerings, which are served picnic-style on tables covered with red-checked cloths. Another table holds baskets of plastic flatware, paper napkins, and packets of salt, pepper and condiments. Help yourself.
The Flame's sauce is typically thick, red and vinegary-sweet. With its faint resemblance to straight-up ketchup, it's fundamentally similar to the sauce that is ubiquitous at many Pittsburgh barbecue joints. With this undistinguished topping, the meat had better excel.
The Flame's slow-cooking doesn't emphasize smoke, which can result in mildly flavored meat. On the flip side, it avoids the pitfall of smoke overwhelming all the meat's native notes. Pulled chicken stumped us with hints of a flavor other than its sauce, as if it had been marinated between cooking and serving. The result was a pulled chicken that mysteriously straddled the properties of plain poultry and assertive barbecue sauce.
Pork 'n' Mac proved to be a brilliant pairing. There was easily as much of the tender, moist meat as there was of the classic, creamy macaroni and cheese underneath, so that every bite was a hearty one, and the depth of the pulled pork's flavor and its softly stringy texture elevated the mild, not to say bland, noodles to a superbly savory state.
This brought us to the ribs, big pork bones cooked dry and sauced before serving. The fact that the ribs are marinated was evident in their moistness as well as the absence of charred edges. The surface was nonetheless darkly colored, and the flesh itself rode the edge between melt-in-your-mouth and meaty, a good place to be. In this dish, The Flame's sauce balanced better against the bolder flavor of the ribs.
Another unusual item for a barbecue menu was The Flame's lamb sandwich, consisting of three slices of roasted rolled shoulder on a thick, pillowy pita. The meat was moist, if a bit cold-cut-like in its smooth slabs, and the pita freshly toasted. Pulling it all together was a "white barbecue sauce," a thin, spicy sauce that we couldn't quite identify, but enjoyed a great deal.
In addition to the mac and cheese, we tried several sides. Collard greens were cut fine and cooked to an army-green mush, with vinegar notes in the cooking liquid. Cornbread, in muffin form, was Northern-style, sweet and moist. Shoestring-cut sweet potato-fries had a pleasing thin and crispy texture, but too much salt interfering with their earthy sweetness. Sweet potato with praline topping is a side that veers dangerously close to dessert.
Barbecue can be difficult to judge. The best of it is extraordinary, of course, but there's a vast middle ground of competently cooked meat, unremarkable sauce, and sides of varying quality. The Flame rose above this with its least typical offerings. We could chalk this up to novelty, but it may be a testament to the more enduring value of inspiration.