Back in 1958, Danny and the Juniors were right: Rock 'n' roll is here to stay. But who could have guessed it would end up enshrined in burger joints worldwide? Today, diners in locations as diverse as Bahrain, Guadalajara and Pittsburgh can eat a chicken sandwich that is emboldened by its close association to Billy Joel's suit or to a harmonica once embraced by Mick Jagger's famous lips! That, my friend, is the Hard Rock Café ethos -- bringing the world American culinary favorites dished up fun-style in an emporium of genuine rock 'n' roll detritus. Officially, their philosophy is "Love All Serve All" (though their motto is "Save the Planet"), so I turned up at the new Hard Rock Café and said, "Love me, serve me."
Phil Collins was bleating on dozens of video screens, Hard Rock staffers were scurrying about (you'll know them by clusters of enameled pins they wear from other Hard Rock cafés), and for a late Monday night, plenty of Pittsburghers were chowing down. We were cautioned the wait would be an hour, but then we were called to our table within five minutes. From my seat, I looked straight on at an enormous white stylized angel-woman (something like a very large hood ornament from a very classy 1920s car) who rose out of a trompe l'oeil sky above the bar.
My companion went right for the pulled-pork sandwich from the "Smokehouse" section of the menu; after all, in capital letters, the menu challenged: "If you've been to the Hard Rock Café and you haven't had a 'pig sandwich,' you haven't been to the Hard Rock!" We were determined to be here. I was continually distracted from the menu: Whose guitar is that? What is that big smoking sun thing on the wall? What current angry-dude band is droning on the TV? In a pinch, I went for the jumbo combo appetizer plate -- a real backstage favorite featuring potato skins, wings (available in three favors: classic rock, tangy BBQ or heavy metal), Santa Fe spring rolls, onion rings and Tupelo chicken.
While we were awaiting our food, a little tableside binder of Hard Rock history and factoids proved entertaining. Surprisingly, considering their ubiquity, the first Hard Rock Café T-shirt was sold as late as 1984 (the first café opened in 1971). No need for me to purchase a souvenir. Our food soon arrived, and my appetizer platter sported a tiny Hard Rock Café flag stuck atop it: "We claim this fried food in the name of rock 'n' roll!"
The Santa Fe spring rolls were like taquitos: rolled tortillas stuffed with spinach, seasoned chicken and cheese, then deep-fried. They were propped in a bowl of guacamole (on the light, "stretched" side), or they could be dipped in one of five accompanying sauces: barbecue, sour cream, blue cheese dressing, honey mustard or fresh salsa. The "classic rock" wings had a good bite, and while the cheese-covered potato skins appeared a bit thin, they were moist -- not chewy and leathery, as they can get. I'm not sure what made the chicken fingers -- large, but entirely standard -- "Tupelo" style.
I was reaching for the fifth member of the Jumbo Combo Band -- the onion ring -- when my companion exclaimed, "These beans are really good." His pulled-pig sandwich came with three sides: French fries (with the skins still on), coleslaw and baked beans. In his haste, he had left exactly one bean for me to sample. That bean was soft and sweet, covered in a spicy barbecue sauce boosted by onions. The sandwich was substantial, spilling over with pork -- slow-cooked North Carolina-style -- that was more relish-y than vinegar-y.
Eric Burdon and The Animals turned up on the video screens, singing one of the freakiest tunes in rock 'n' roll: 1964's "House of the Rising Sun." In contrast to all of today's customary antics and flailing, the band seemed especially jarring -- glassy-eyed, standing stock-still in their high-button suits -- while the song spiraled out of control around them. There's the irony: Once rock 'n' roll was -- at its best -- disturbing, but today we just accept its total commodification; it's another flavor of hamburger that Mom and the kids enjoy in the AC/DC nook beneath a pair of Angus Young's shorty pants.
While we ate, about five birthday celebrations broke out. This meant a lot of hollerin' while staff urged us "Hard Rockers" to sing along to "Happy Birthday." Still, the sight of so many desserts flying past to the lucky celebrants tempted. In here, the walls are festooned with the trophies of indulgence both financial and physical -- personalized guitars of rockers whose free-wheelin' lifestyles relocated their act to Rock 'n' Roll Heaven. I ordered the hot fudge sundae -- why not? If rebellion must be commodified, it should at least come with whipped cream and chocolate jimmies. * * 1/2