The corner of 36th and Penn has housed a bar of one sort or another for decades. For as long as we’ve been here, it was Kopec’s Korner, a little neighborhood watering hole with a dim, divey vibe. It’s possible we jumped to conclusions, but let’s just say it didn’t seem like a destination for good food.
We can vouch for a very different scenario at Pints on Penn, a sort of stealth gastropub that replaced Kopec’s late this past summer. The late-19th century storefront has been handsomely restored, opening up broad plate-glass windows and revealing the ornate tin ceiling inside. Craft beers, wine and cocktails are poured at the newly built oak bar downstairs, and a full kitchen serves lunch and dinner in the bright, somewhat spartan but comfortable dining room upstairs.
The decor wasn’t much more than beer ads and flat-screen TVs, but the kitchen’s offerings ran the gamut from Kopec’s-era throwback (kielbasa and sauerkraut) to pub-grub standard (wings) to modern and trendy (bacon appetizer). The menu had breadth without seeming scattershot, and our confidence in it increased with every dish we ordered.
The aforementioned bacon appetizer was a no-brainer. We got four skewers with thick slices — not slabs — of fairly lean bacon atop smears of sweet barbecue sauce. We don’t love sweet sauces, but here, against meat that was smoky, salty and spicy, the barbecue effectively rounded out the flavor balance. Angelique prefers her bacon crispy, while Jason likes it meaty, but we both liked the texture of these strips, which were chewy with well-crisped edges.
Buffalo wings were good, with moist meat and sufficient red-hot kick, but Buffalo cauliflower was even better. Like chicken, cauliflower has a mild flavor and pale color, making it an excellent vehicle for buttery, peppery, bright-russet Buffalo sauce. Our only quibble was that we wished for uniformly smaller and more deeply roasted pieces of cauliflower. The larger florets in our portion were still crunchy, but the smaller ones that had fallen to the bottom and had a little more contact with the roasting pan took on deep flavor and a more tender texture that didn’t shout for attention. Blue-cheese crumbles, added to the dish before serving, added richness and tangy flavor to every bite, whether dipped in the blue-cheese dressing or not.
Meatballs are on trend right now, yet we’ve found that few places can handle them. Pints on Penn’s stuffed meatball “burger” was an exceptional success. A traditional meat blend with a heart of molten mozzarella and a slightly squashed shape, this meatball patty was firm enough to work in the sandwich without a hint of toughness. It was also flavorful enough in combination with herbs and seasonings that no condiment was necessary. That said, the roasted-tomato sauce served with it was like a sophisticated combination of ketchup and marinara, taking on a little of the sweetness of the former and astringency of the latter to enhance the meatball’s savory notes.
A “city chicken” sandwich presented an entire, thumb-thick pork chop, breaded and fried, and topped with gouda, caramelized onions and Guinness mustard. It was, in a word, fantastic. The chop itself was juicy and tender, fit for a stand-alone entree, but the layers of flavors from the other components added up to a superb sandwich. (The onions could have used maybe another few minutes on the griddle.) The fries on the side were also noteworthy. They were thinner than typical pub cut, not so thin as shoestring fries, but with similar crispy edges; they’d be great in poutine.
Speaking of great, two words: fish tacos. The ones at Pints on Penn may just be the best in the ’Burgh. The fish was moist and juicy inside, crispy outside, topped with shredded red cabbage and pickled red onions, a squirt of spicy mayo and a slice of creamy avocado. The housemade flour-tortilla chips were also exceptional: substantial, yet with a delicate, almost pastry-like crispness.
Pints on Penn has a solid menu matched, if not exceeded, by its execution of just about every dish we ordered. It’s several cuts above a dive, but stops thankfully short of being an over-designed hipster haven. Pints on Penn is a straightforward bar serving straight-up good food.