Location: 801 N. Negley Ave., Highland Park. 412-363-1717
One of Angelique's favorite anecdotes is that of a friend, a transplant like us, who once innocently asked her neighbor, "Are you from here?", meaning Pittsburgh. "Oh no!" replied the neighbor, a resident of Highland Park. "I'm from East Liberty!"
So it goes in this city that is really a loose amalgamation of neighborhoods -- varied, distinct and occasionally parochial, each a small town unto itself. It's a place where a few blocks can easily mean a world away.
Then there's the Union Project, an innovative, community-based reuse of a once-abandoned church at the hinge of East Liberty and Highland Park. The boundary between these two neighborhoods is one the Union Project is working hard to abate, along with the even more stubborn barriers between black and white, privileged and poor, educated and unemployed. "Create. Connect. Celebrate" is its slogan.
The Union Project's latest venture is Urban Fusion, a café and meeting place whose mission is not merely thirst-quenching, but community-building, one cup of coffee at a time. As of recently, Urban Fusion also serves more substantial fare -- burgers, sandwiches, wraps, salads and more -- from breakfast right on through to the dinner hour.
Located in the anteroom of the former church, the café is painted a warm, cheerful tangerine and furnished with armchairs, mosaic-topped tables, bookcases, and a kids' corner amply stocked with drawing paper and toys. The columns are covered at eye level with corkboards which function as the East End's refrigerator doors, chock-a-block with notices for yoga classes, arts events, yard sales, local artwork and customer doodles.
Fittingly, the menu features items named after local streets and landmarks: Baum Burger, Negley Nibbles (wings or chicken tenders), Craig Academy Quesadilla. Jason chose the Peabody Pulled Pork Quesadilla which he found, and we quote, "Awesome." The pork itself was superb by any standard, much less that of a non-barbecue joint: meaty, juicy shreds coated in a vinegary, slightly spicy sauce with just a hint of sweetness to round it out. The quesadilla preparation, with enough gooey cheese to complement (rather than obscure) the pork and a crisp tortilla wrapper, was a delightful variation on this Southern classic.
Angelique was less awed by her special sandwich featuring roast beef, Brie and caramelized onions on a toasted Mancini roll. Though the molten Brie was wonderfully creamy and bitter-tart, the meat was alternately tender and tough, and the onions were sweet but also overly salty. The sandwich was a good idea that, perhaps simply through lack of practice, had not yet been perfected.
We also had to try one of the Union Project "panitos," an Urban Fusion original creation which is wrapped like a burrito and grilled like a panini. Filling choices include spicy shredded chicken, Philly steak and pulled-pork barbeque. The shrimp version was a success, with a generous serving of shrimp in a spicy marinade, cooling sour cream and guacamole, and a tortilla transformed by its encounter with the panini press. This clever device, like a giant waffle iron, is the key to Urban Fusion's successes, transforming ho-hum sandwiches into satisfying snacks, and good wraps into inventive, richly textured meals. Like the sandwich, the panito came with a distinctive side of mixed potato and corn chips.
Urban Fusion is an idea whose time has come. More than a sandwich shop, it lives up to its mission of serving "a union of colors, flavors and sounds" in a venue that is welcoming to everyone.