Location: 3720 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-904-2279
Kitchen Hours: Mon. and Wed. 5-11 p.m.; Thu.-Fri. 5 p.m.-midnight; Sat. 6 p.m.-midnight; Sun. 5-10 p.m.
Prices: All small plates, $4-8
Fare: Modern Mexican
Atmosphere: Warm and dark
Liquor: Full bar
Lower Lawrenceville is the ground zero of Butler Street's boutiquey-antiquey movement. In its midst, the stalwart former Sufak's Round Corner Hotel, freshly spiffed-up by its previous tenants, has been reborn as the Round Corner Cantina. The cantina has become a place for hipsters, the tailored after-work crowd and occasional neighborhood old-timers to commingle over herb-infused cocktails, beer foaming over the rims of mason jars and the Round Corner's half-authentic, half-updated take on Mexican food.
Both the bar and the back dining room are painted and -- in a nod to the 1870s as well as 1970s fashions -- papered in dark, intense colors, creating a warm, enveloping feeling of refuge.
Reading the menu by candlelight, we realized that in one sense, there was not much to it: It's like the first third of the menu at a full-service restaurant, with chips and salsa, soups, quesadillas, tacos and other small dishes. Yet, it is completely unlike any such menu. It is an extension of Pittsburgh's recent renaissance in Mexican dining, wherein authentic elements like escabeche (pickled vegetables), hominy and freshly made tamales have a place as bar food -- even as the kitchen experiments with brie in the quesadilla and seitan in the taco.
The chips delivered the first hint of Round Corner's focus on the fresh and homemade. Not only were they freshly fried, they were also made from fresh tortillas, giving them a bit of internal layering. In hot oil, that translated to hearty triangles with a crisp surface that lifted off the core. Lighter and crunchier than factory-made chips, these had little pockets that picked up the salsa, which was wisely roasted for better quality in this off-season for tomatoes. Chopped, not crushed, the salsa possessed a bright, vegetal flavor that belied the oven time.
Next came a couple of frankly disappointing dishes. We had high hopes for the beef taco, as it was made with skirt steak, one of our very favorite cuts. But the meat was sliced too thickly, and it was too chewy for finger food without packing enough big flavor to justify its big presence. That said, we liked the rest of the taco, with the tender corn tortilla holding thinly sliced, crunchy fresh radish and a smoky, smooth salsa; a lime wedge completed the offering.
The tamales suffered from the opposite problem: The roasted-pork filling was tender, savory and luscious, but the masa -- the cornmeal that holds the fillings -- was too hefty. Many bites contained practically all masa, and others too little pork to balance the meal. Furthermore, there was no sign of the piquillo pepper mentioned on the menu. Such masa-heavy tamales are probably typical of how they are made in homes where meat is scarce, but it doesn't make for a balanced or satisfying restaurant dish.
Our meal was soon redeemed with the arrival of the ceviche. Mexican-style ceviche can bear a distinct resemblance to shrimp cocktail, with a ketchup-based dipping sauce. But Round Corner broadens its horizons with a South American-style bowl of half-raw fish (fluke the night we went, but it varies) in a brothy, almost creamy liquid. The fish was slightly chewy, the liquid tart with fresh-squeezed citrus but mellowed by a mild dose of coconut milk.
Pozole, a soupy stew made with pork and hominy (an oversize corn kernel with a legume-like character), was a satisfying blend of textures. Tender shreds of meat mixed with just-wilted strips of cabbage and hominy, which offers a pleasant crush, not unlike al dente pasta. The brilliant red broth was a little salty, but the elements it held were so delicious that we finished the large bowl.
Empanadas de carne were made with short ribs, a hot ingredient for chefs who appreciate its silky richness and concentrated beefy flavor. This came through full force in Round Corner's airy pockets of excellent pastry, within which short-rib meat was mixed with raisins, tomatoes and almonds to sweeten its hearty savor.
We also relished a quesadilla de la Parrilla, two layers of flour tortilla pressed around a filling of creamy brie, sweet onions and subtly spicy adobo. The quesadilla was toasted, then sprinkled with crumbs of queso fresco and cilantro for extra salty and citrusy, herbal notes.
Storefront by storefront, Lawrenceville is transforming into a place where the old comfortably coexists with the new. In refurbishing a quirky 19th-century space for a 21st-century menu, Round Corner Cantina brings Lawrenceville full circle.