Smart Mouth: Pittsburgh steels itself for winter with hot soup

By Christine H. O'Toole
Sunday, February 7, 2010

Along the south side of the Monongahela River, Pittsburgh's European immigrants used to ladle molten steel. One local span is still called the Hot Metal Bridge for the buckets of lavalike steel that were once transported across it.

But this winter in Pittsburgh, it's soup -- lots of soup -- that brings the heat. Local foodies such as Melanie Evankovich (Slovak-Italian), Angel Roy (not really Bulgarian) and Paul Krawiec (Northern Californian) are offering liquid creations such as Balkan bean and Obi Wan Pierogi, topping bowls of old-country tradition with a dash of invention.

"It's really part of the culture here," says 34-year-old Krawiec, who keeps at least three types of soup on the menu of his Cafe du Jour each winter. "It lends itself to the cold weather, and you get to be creative with the ideas."

A recent 10-degree morning is "a good soup day!" says Pat Penka French, ushering a visitor into the humid, fragrant kitchen of the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational & Cultural Center. The epic wedding scene from "The Deer Hunter" could as well have been filmed in the society's West Homestead brick headquarters, a throwback to the days when immigrant steelworkers founded ethnic social clubs.

The country's oldest Bulgarian organization, the center now sustains itself financially with soup. Its popular Soup Sega -- "soup now" -- is a weekly sale of such specialties as gyuvech (stew) and banitza (feta-filled strudel). The northern Bulgarian spicy tomato soup floats a raft of tiny dill dumplings, while the spinach-and-rice variety, finished with lemon and egg, is French's family recipe from central Bulgaria. "We've had visitors from 44 states and 25 countries," says the State Department interpreter and president of the center. "The soup has opened doors."

Directing the weekly volunteer cooking session is red-haired Angel Roy. Drawn to the center by childhood folk-dance lessons rather than Balkan heritage, she now directs the action while her 9-month-old son, Calder, is coddled by aproned admirers. "I love the camaraderie in the kitchen," she says, "and the motherly advice." Her ingredients stay true to Southeastern European tastes: She uses Bulgarian feta, less salty than that of its neighbors, with dashes of mint and paprika.

A mile down the street, a new gastro pub commands a storied local corner: It flanks the former entrance to U.S. Steel's Homestead Works, once the world's largest steel mill. In Pittsburgh, describing Blue Dust as a shot-and-a-beer place is much closer to a compliment than you'd think, even if it shares a building with a shop offering "clean and professional" tattoos.

On the former mill site, a vast shopping complex now offers chain retailers and chain restaurants. But the spare wood-floored bistro, with freight trains rumbling past its plate-glass windows, is the real deal. It offers a host of local microbrews and daily soup specials.

A friendly young waitress with a wool tuque and a few piercings brings us the soups of the day: an elegant chicken corn chowder, rich and sweet, and a smoky ham-and-potato blend. We follow a baby spinach salad, topped with dried cranberries and blueberries and blue cheese, with the cafe's inspired twist on Buffalo wings -- meaty barbecued chicken drumsticks -- and a Homestead surf and turf, a sandwich that flanks a half of thinly sliced brisket with another of silky hot crab, both layered on crunchy homemade bread.

The regulars at Blue Dust aren't a steelworker crowd. In 1984, when the mill here closed for good, most of the relaxed young patrons hadn't been born. Now the shots served at the friendly bar are house vodkas seasoned with chai, horseradish or Thai chili pepper.

Adding more heat to the midwinter dining scene is the city's biggest soup celebration. It takes place this year on Feb. 20, when 1,200 ticket holders will line East Carson Street for the sixth annual South Side Soup Contest.

The location is a no-brainer. The South Side neighborhood is the city's largest enclave of bistros and bars, with adventurous young restaurateurs taking over the 19th-century storefronts. Two dozen local chefs will compete in a friendly competition hosted by retailers and galleries, while tasters stroll a half-mile stretch. "It gives you a reason to walk into a shop," explains Melanie Evankovich, whose Gypsy Cafe has participated in the event since its inception. Her Hungarian-inspired cafe is planning a vegetarian-friendly entry this year -- perhaps an eggplant tomato Florentine, she says.

Butternut bourbon bisque, bacon blue cheese, and apple and chipotle chicken chorizo were among last February's winners, with Paul Krawiec's creation winning runner-up honors.

Krawiec, a "Star Wars" fan, blended allusions to the film, Guinness stout and pirogis in a soup he dubbed Sir Alec Guinness's Obi Wan Pierogi. The blend of sharp cheddar and stout with potatoes and sauerkraut was topped with "Chew-bacon" and served by costumed waiters with lightsabers and a robotic R2D2. This year's creation, Krawiec promises, will be equally "punny."

"The day is hectic," says the chef with a grin. "We're such a small operation. If I make 12 or 15 gallons, I'll use every pot I've got."

O'Toole is a Pittsburgh writer.

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