It’s almost impossible to talk about Superior Motors without acknowledging the hype. A new restaurant from chef Kevin Sousa would have been exciting enough. Add politically ascendant Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, Sousa’s supporter and landlord — then a record-setting Kickstarter campaign; factor in the inevitable delays in opening, and rumors were bound to fly.
Even if you tuned out the speculation and chatter, Sousa’s stated goal to provide training and jobs for residents of one of the region’s poorest boroughs makes Superior Motors a story about more than dining out. Sousa is best known for his influential Garfield-based restaurant Salt of the Earth. But at Superior Motors’ website, instead of the usual self-flattery about the food and ambience, you’ll find a heartfelt statement by Sousa on his own upbringing around food in a blue-collar town and the transformative power of cooking. Braddock is more than Superior Motors’ address; it’s its bedrock and inspiration. Superior Motors’ website characterizes its food as “thoughtful cuisine drawing inspiration from Braddock, its people, its history, and its perseverance.”
We did our best to avoid the gossip, the website and even early reports about the food. To the extent humanly possible, we wanted to go in cold. We’ve been eating Sousa’s food for almost a dozen years, so we could guess at the general approach: modern, local, seasonal, equally and eclectically comfortable with the humble and the haute. But the details? Quickly, we scrolled past social-media posts from friends who scored early reservations.
When our night arrived, we found the former Chevy dealership (source of the name) lightly updated on the exterior, with slatted screens breaking up the plate-glass façade to echo the rhythm of the Edgar Thomson Works building across the street. There was no sign; none was necessary.
The interior blended industrial and modern without veering into steampunk clichés. The exposed-brick walls’ warmth and texture counterbalanced cool poured-concrete elements that formed booths and defined the lounge-like, L-shaped banquette seating at the windows. The semi-open kitchen conveyed the process of our meal’s preparation without creating a theater. A smaller second dining room was more classically intimate.
The menu was both brief and wide-ranging; for instance, without focusing on seafood per se, there were two fish entrees and three seafood appetizers. The titles of dishes were deceptively minimal, simply naming their central ingredient: skate, rigatoni, brassicas. Cuts of meat were rarely named, and if you don’t know what nixtamal is, well, you’ll have to ask. Fortunately, attentive service provides plenty of opportunity.
In a sense, choices weren’t so much about the ingredients themselves as they are about the flavor profiles created by their combinations. While some, like rice cakes with gochujang and cilantro, were clearly inspired by international cuisines, what distinguished most dishes was the kinds of flavors being combined. Thus, sous vide chicken with cabbage and blackberry offered something utterly other as did panzanella with stone fruit, ricotta, sourdough, and whey vinaigrette. A hallmark was the often-ingenious combinations of unusual or foreign ingredients with local ones obtained through the restaurant’s partnerships with Grow Pittsburgh and Braddock Farms.
An appetizer of buttery-soft raw scallops was a textural marvel, with gently crunchy sorrel, firm quinoa, slivers of tomatillo and creme fraiche. But the array of flavors, delicious as it was, hid the simple sweetness of the scallops.
Tomato and sweet-pepper soup, blended with sherry and sourdough, offered another nearly perfect texture, this one creamy and supple, and an exceptionally sophisticated flavor. Superior Motors’ first hot soup since it opened this summer, this was a brilliant transition to fall, taking peak-season tomatoes and turning them in a warming, not refreshing, direction.
A tentacle of octopus looked like a fiddlehead fern and tasted of the vibrant Mexican flavors of nixtamal — lime-slaked corn — and jalapeño, which combined unexpectedly fluently with the oceanic brine of Japanese katsuobushi. Its texture was exquisitely soft.
Thick slices of hanger steak, gorgeous red with gently browned edges, were tender and beefy, but the brilliance of this dish was how the accompanying corn purée, chèvre and thin-sliced, foraged mushrooms, augmented with wilted greens, imparted varying notes of sweet earthiness, tangy creaminess and silky umami. It evoked a classic steakhouse platter without duplicating it in the slightest.
If this embodied one side of Sousa’s talents — perfecting traditional dishes and then adding a sideways element of surprise and delight — his pork entrée represented a more adventurous borrowing from multiple traditions to create a wholly original dish. Lean pork loin and fatty pork belly were served together with gribiche (hard-boiled egg-yolk emulsion), reggiano cheese, briny trout roe and potato boiled in dashi. The lusciously tender textures and harmony of rich, savory flavors were, in a word, amazing.
The time for hype is over. Now that Superior Motors is up and running, it will quickly earn the superlative reputation it deserves.