Con Alma has the feel of a grungy, well-traveled club with a lively, chaotic energy that fills the bar as musicians and diners compete to be heard. With this kind of ambience, the Shadyside restaurant, cocktail bar, and venue on Ellsworth Avenue pays tribute to Pittsburgh’s musical past while exploring the relationship between food, drinks, and live music.
The restaurant is a project of executive chef Josh Ross, general manager Aimee Marshall, and world-renowned guitarist John Shannon. Ross and Marshall teamed up with Shannon “to return jazz to its rightful place at the forefront of the local music scene, while providing patrons with some of the best food and drink the city has to offer.”
Ross’ menu takes influence from South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, creating a list of “innovative yet grounded” Latin-inspired fare. There’s macaroni pie from the Bahamas, traditional Peruvian ropa vieja, and Cuban lechon asado.
A simple Jamaican beef patty was a highlight on a Latin jazz Sunday. Ross ramped up the humble, homey spices of a traditional hand-pie into something crisp and flaky, expertly engineered to avoid any seepage from the filling. A smoky, bright mojo rojo (tomato sauce) added a welcome vibrancy.
On a Saturday, Neo Soul-backed visit, pulpos al ajillo (octopus) stole the show. The robust red garlic sauce proved a brilliant pairing for the light, perfectly cooked octopus. A piece of warm roti was an unexpected component that worked surprisingly well.
For the Chinese-Peruvian fried rice dish arroz chaufa, Ross swapped the traditional hot dogs for pork belly, stir-frying the meat with vegetables, egg, and a blend of soy sauce, hot peppers, and spices. It was, like many of Ross' dishes, both casual and elevated
The only misstep I noted was the jackfruit enchiladas, topped with poblano mole, salsa roja, and Oaxacan cheese. Maybe it was just by comparison to all the other rich, flavorful dishes, but these enchiladas felt a little flat and muted.
All the cocktails on the menu were solid, though the refreshingly drinkable East of the Sun — tequila, yuzu, lemongrass, Thai basil, and ginger beer — was a quick favorite. And since there was no in-house dessert, I turned to a second cocktail made with hazelnut espresso vodka, Maggie’s Farm Rum coffee liqueur, demerara, and orange bitters for a sweet finish.
Food and drink aside, it's the focus on jazz and history that makes Con Alma stand out. The restaurant has live music every night, with lineups ranging from swing to jam sessions to classic jazz. Here, it's the music that provides heart to the space, transforming it from just another Pittsburgh bar to an intimate, underground hideaway worth seeking out.
Take Sunday-funday to Con Alma for the bar’s weekend happy hour, featuring a $6 cocktail and wines by the glass.
2. Back patio
Behind its disco-esque lounge, Con Alma has a second, outdoor bar. (Don't worry: It's heated in the winter.)
Dessert might not be made in-house, but it is supplied by the wonderful team at Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches.
Con Alma. 5994 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside. conalmapgh.com