The Smiling Moose—Pittsburgh, PA

Four years ago you may have found yourself on the Southside of Pittsburgh stumbling into a bar called the Smiling Moose. Maybe you were there for a show, maybe for a beer and a shot of Jäger. One thing’s for certain: you weren’t going for the food.

Maybe you managed (somehow) to throw back enough pints to get something to eat. If so the best you could hope for was a partially rewarmed frozen pizza burning your mouth at the edges, frozen solid in the center. Maybe you’d get a bag of pretzels.

Point is: the Moose was not where you went for food.

That all changed when Chef Christopher “Locke” Cook walked through the doors, changed a storeroom in the back of the house into a full kitchen, and used his eight years of experience at Café DuJour to craft a menu full of great, fresh, and inventive food for the Moose.

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The first time I can remember going to the Moose (and this is Pittsburgh, a town that knows how to drink—so the key word here is “remember”) I went to see the debut show of the metal band Stormking. I remember the special brand of hole-in-the-wall bar that Pittsburgh grows. And no one will argue that is wasn’t at one point the sort of place where you wanted watch your back.

“Hey man,” a friend of mine told me as we sat at the bar drinking High Life, “did I ever tell you about the time some guy broke my ankle here? They beat the shit out of me.”

The Smiling Moose is a far cry from those days now. The stage has been moved upstairs, and they now offer all ages shows. The downstairs received a serious wash and a facelift. With Locke in the kitchen the Moose completed its rebirth.

Now a totally respectable lunch destination, and a great place to grab dinner, the Smiling Moose offers a full menu of apps, salads, sandwiches, and sliders, as well as Chef’s award winning soups with daily drink and food specials.

The bar still lines up a row of rowdy Yinzers as the night goes on, just to keep things authentic. And in a Southside gone a little crazy, these gals and guys are more like slightly slurring chaperons than a danger to kith and kin.

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The Moose hosted my Pittsburgh Eat and Greet, and twenty or so folks gathered there to eat my honorary “Vagabond Burger,” an epic hand packed burger covered in Apple Bacon Chutney and Cheddar Cheese on a locally baked roll. Things may have gotten slightly out of hand that night, so I stopped back by another day to talk to Locke about his menu and see what going on back there in his kitchen.

First up, he showed me his Leek, Broccoli, and Muenster Fritters served with a side of Roasted Red Pepper Sour Cream. Fried to golden brown, the broccoli and leeks perfectly complimented the muenster and vice versa. A dip in the sour cream cooled and slightly softened the satisfying crunch as I bit into each fritter… with of course, a beer to wash it down.

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Chef Locke began like many of us in the Culinary tradecraft… in the dishpit. Working hard and exhibiting skill and a desire to learn got him on the line, then the same qualities continued to inform and shape his career. Now as the Head Chef at the Moose, Locke has a chance to take years of knowledge and turn them into something great.

His Cantaloupe Pineapple and Peach Gazpacho made it plain—this guys knows his way around a kitchen. The flavors intertwined and wove together with a nice backdrop of spice. It was the perfect soup for a hot summer’s day.

And Chef knows his soup. In 2012 he won the Southside Soup Contest with a Pineapple, Tomatillo, and Habanero Soup, and in 2013 he was the runner-up with a Roasted Pepper and Leek Beer Cheese Soup.

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Keeping the food fresh develops the menu. Fresh, local produce comes from the Strip District and South Side Farmer’s Market. Chef explained how the fresh food inspired the menu and specials as exhibited above in these Crostinis of Avocado Mousse, Grilled Paneer, and Fresh Yellow Tomatoes.

We in the food industry, and all of us who are interested in good food, are living in an amazing time. It’s a Renaissance for food in our country. Places like the Smiling Moose on Carson Street in Pittsburgh’s Southside are a perfect example. Get out there and eat great food!