A blue neon guitar lights the way to a tiny rough-and-ready parking lot that will test every automotive maneuvering skill. I parked precariously near a much-dented guardrail, and after dining it was a relief to discover my car hadn't tumbled into Saw Mill Run. For a five-spot, the aforementioned valet will safely berth your vehicle.
Inside, beer signs beam down from the arched windows onto a bar and dining area. The altar, now buttressed with soundproofing, is reserved for the house band, No Bad JuJu, who rock the casbah after 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. (Until then, some rather lite-blues mix plays, which is soon drowned out by the clatter of patrons.) A pressed plastic sign heralding "Pittsburgh Chapel of Blues" hangs above the stage but beneath the building's best feature: a magnificent gold pressed-tin ceiling.
The large menu will have punsters chortling. The John Lee Hooker features scrod, the salads collect under the heading Al Greens, and Tower of Power isn't a horn-heavy band from California -- it's a platter of fried zucchini. The fare may also have blues fans muttering: the Stevie Ray Vaughn portion of BBQ pork ribs tops Jimmie Vaughn's (an instant bar argument) and there's a couple dishes named for divas Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand.
I picked the appetizer with the silliest name, Slap Me Some Skins, basic bar-grub of savory cheese-topped potato skins. These arrived quickly, but their provenance was unclear: They were cold. At one point, the ample cheese, bacon and green onion topping had met fire -- the melted blobs spoke of applied heat -- but the skins had succumbed to inevitable mortality and lay quiet and congealed. My companion chose the Voodoo Italian Wedding Soup, and though voodoo and Italy have no apparent association, this was a successful get-together: sausage meatballs, pasta nodules, cheese and vegetables jammed in a flavorful broth.
Feelin' kinda lowdown and bluesy, I'd opted for the less expensive platters, a relatively uncomplicated order of big salad and a sandwich. A very long time passed before the main act, our entrees, hit the stage. At last: the Black'n Blues Chicken sandwich. Despite a somewhat thin chicken patty, the sandwich was very bleu and on a fresh, local Mancini Bread roll.
I'd been waiting on Jake, a chargrilled steak salad, named for one of the Blues Brothers. Maybe the name should have tipped me off: Jake Elwood, a fictional parody of a bluesman, is no synonym for "the real thing." Jake showed up supported by two rolls, but the butter was still backstage. Here was a hefty bowl of cold iceberg lettuce with garnishes of cucumber, egg, red pepper, tomato, red onions, plus a cup's worth of shredded cheddar and mozzarella, and French fries. The waitress couldn't define the "Athenian" dressing, but I'd gambled on it. A viscous vinaigrette, it had lots of feta cheese suspended in it and would have been delicious over zestier greens.
Sadly, Jake had brought store-bought frozen fries, unusual since in Pittsburgh fresh-cut fries are the norm not the exception. The grilled steak (charcoal-y but still tender) and fries were warm, but not enough to melt the cheese, the solid consistency of which was controlled by the chilly lettuce. As a group effort, this salad had no harmony; it was as if its components, unknown to one another, had merely arrived onstage at the same time.
New dining ventures, like new bands, ideally benefit from practice and experimentation. The structure here is solid (and this is the second church-to-bar conversion in town; maybe with more we can be the City of Hallowed Beer?). Robert Johnson ultimately made his mark after negotiating a dumb deal with the devil when maybe all he needed was a little more attention to detail and some jam time. **