Location: 1500 Washington Road, in The Galleria, Mount Lebanon. 412-344-5253
Hours: Mon.-Thu.11:30 a.m.--10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $2.50-10; sandwiches and burger $8-12; entrees $10-20
Fare: Western barbecue
Atmosphere: Inside the Sundance catalog
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated sections
Think barbecue: Roadside shed, smokehouse alongside, old guy with sinewy arms turning meat from dawn 'til it's good and tender. Are you with us?
Or are you thinking about The Galleria? You know, that posh palace of consumerism on the silver seam between Mount Lebanon and Upper St. Clair, home to Anthropologie and Restoration Hardware and -- yes, Virginia -- barbecue. Jake's Beef & Bar-B-Que, to be exact. Because the folks who run LeMont and the Café Euros thought that the South Hills could use a dose of rustic cooking, suburban style.
At Jake's, the decorative theme is Wild West, not Sleepy South. Robert Redford would feel very at home. Servers are decked out in cowboy hats and bandannas. Polished steer-horn sconces cast a refined glow on whole cowhides on the wall. Although the restaurant is a one-off, it has the carefully branded feel of a chain, from the displays of totemic objects to the gimmicky use of pitchers for single servings of soft drinks (the hard stuff is more traditionally portioned) and the trained patter of the servers.
On the menu, almost everything is barbecue, steak or Cajun. At the heart of the selection is a broad variety of grill meats that is more authentic than at nearly any other barbecue place we've tried. In most barbecue traditions, the sauce comes late, rather than basting the meat throughout its cooking. From Texas to the Carolinas, the meat takes center stage, with the sauce as a condiment, not the other way around. Jake's cooks all of its barbecued meats dry, with rubs, and leaves the diner to choose from four regional sauces on each table: Virginia, Memphis, Kansas City and Texas.
Virginia' mustardy sauce is unfamiliar to most northerners, and the small addition of ketchup has an unfortunate echo of hot dogs. Memphis-style is reminiscent of more familiar sauces, but with a strong emphasis on smokiness. Kansas City is the most traditional, thick and sweet, with only hints of spice or tartness. Lastly, Texans serve spicy, vinegary sauce alongside their meat. Jason found Jake's Texas sauce too thick, but the tangy flavor was his favorite. We appreciated the opportunity to explore, and found all of Jake's sauces respectable. Unfortunately, the one-size-fits-all cooking method does a disservice to some styles: KC ribs are supposed to be the gooey, basted mess that we mostly associate with barbecue, while Texans use a "mop" of thinned sauce to flavor their meat as it cooks. For these regions, sauce added at the end can never substitute for the real deal.
But then, who looks for the real deal at the mall? The food itself was very good, from flavorful pulled pork to meaty -- not merely tender -- ribs and a beautiful, thick, almost steaky Cajun catfish. The latter was served with a mild rub and, on the side, a creamy, tangy, subtly spicy remoulade which could be applied as thickly as one desired to modulate the flavor.
Chili was a ground-beef stew, beanless in the authentic Texas style, so thick it could be eaten with a fork. Detectable bits of real chilis added distinctive fresh flavor, and cheese melted on top made it rich, almost decadent.
Potato skins were well proportioned, retaining a layer of fluffy potato beneath a blanket of cheese studded with diced pork, brisket or chicken. De rigueur sour cream was a tasty addition, but the skins were also a great way to explore the sauces. Unfortunately, only the skins with pork really stood up to the array of barbecue flavors.
Jake's offers a lot of tasty sides, mostly successful. Baked beans were Southwest style -- no molasses, thank you -- studded with bacon and bits of barbecue: fantastic. Onion strings were light and crisp, almost like salty tempura, and jalapeño cornbread muffins were another hit, tasting spicy without overdoing the heat. The only real miss was Cajun rice, undercooked grains that didn't come together with additions of sausage and spice.
Jake's has made barbecue safe for the malls without sacrificing its rough-and-ready authenticity. So shop till you drop -- in at Jake's, that is.
CORRECTION: The review of Cuzamil in the April 25 issue misstated the relationship of Alex Fernandez to the restaurant. He is not a co-owner, and is no longer associated with Cuzamil, which is owned by Gabino and Lilian Bernal.