Piranha's Bar and Grill
113 Second Ave. N. 248-4375
Open 11 a.m.-3 a.m. daily (kitchen remains open until the doors close)
Price range: $
I can hardly wait to go back to Piranha's Bar and Grill, but the next time I do, I'll be wearing something washable. Unless you own a dry-cleaning business, you should too.
About a week after spending a lively evening at Piranha's with a quartet of off-duty firefighters, I found evidence of the fine time we had on the pair of pants I had worn that night. Not that kind of evidence, for crying out loud. No, these particular stains were of the sauce, condiment and grease families, which sometime over the course of that night had oozed out of the five Piranha's sandwiches I was sampling, and onto my pants' legs. Was that reddish splotch on the right leg from the Titan Cheese Steak, or the Cajun Chicken? The yellowish one on the left leg probably dripped out of the Jumbo Bologna. And the spatters of grease on both legs? I'm betting it was the Italian Sausage. I did the math: Dry-clean one pair of pants at Village Cleaners: $4.37. Five Piranha's sandwiches: $29. Nineteen 22-ounce draft beers, three Jager bombs, two shots of Patron tequila: $103.50. Four hours of nonstop laughs: priceless. The dry-cleaning costs seemed worth it after all.
Generally, I am a pretty tidy eater, but there is nothing neat about a Piranha's sandwicha unique construction devised long ago by truck drivers dropping their loads in Pittsburgh's Strip District (not that kind of strip district, but a market area of warehouses for produce and food buyers and distributors). While their trucks were parked, the drivers headed over to a popular diner to refuel their personal gas tanks. With an eye on the clock and an appreciation for substance over style, they developed the edible pileup, which layers everything one might get with a ham and cheese sandwich on the ham and cheese sandwich. In other words, between two slices of bread, you've got your ham, you've got your cheese, you've got your fries, you've got your slaw and, if you want 'em, you've got your tomatoes and onions too. Basically, what you've got is a big fat mess, and one hell of a sandwich.
The inventionoriginally attributed to the Primanti Brotherscaught on, and in short order the sandwich became to Pittsburgh what cheese steaks are to Philly, po'boys are to New Orleans, hot dogs are to Chicago and pulled pork is to Memphis. Thanks to native Pittsburgher Michael Hanlin, and his partner Kirk Evans, Nashvillians don't have to take a trip to Steel Town to try one on for size.
Hanlin came to Music City about four years ago to interview with a pharmaceutical company. He ended up selling alcohol instead of drugs when, two days into his stay, he met Evans during a night on the town. Evans was managing Bar Nashville on Second Avenue South and needed some help with the company's other Second Avenue club, Time. After about a year managing Time, Hanlin decided that the job wasn't his cup of tea; yet he was interested in the industry if he could have his own business. He approached Evans with the idea of using the Bar Nashville and Time kitchens as a way to introduce the Pittsburgh-style sandwiches to Nashville. Can you say "liquor sop"? "There's no better sandwich to have when you've been drinking all night than one of these," Hanlin concedes. "It's got everything on it: starch, protein, dairy and vegetable."
When Time closed, he kept turning the sandwiches out of the Bar Nashville kitchen from 10 p.m. till closing time. He developed a corps of devoted fans, among them downtown service workers, police officers, firemen and one of the kids he had coached in high school basketball back in Pittsburgh, Jake Schifinonow all grown up and playing football for the Tennessee Titans.
Hanlin's long-term goal was to have his own place, and to that end, he kept an eye on available properties downtown. When the space at 113 Second Ave. N. came open, he and Evans jumped on it, attacking the former Wendy's location with the determination of the Steelers' offense on a last-minute scoring drive. Soon the generic space had been transformed into a comfortable room with sports-themed decor, table seating for 80, bar stools for 17 and standing room for plenty more if you're friendly enough. Behind the bar is the fryer and grill, where you'll usually find Hanlin; Evanswho Hanlin says "can talk to anybody about anything"is the guy pulling the beers, roaming the room, shaking hands and checking on tables. That's how it was the rainy weeknight we were there, and both excelled at their duties.
Both the printed menu and the posted one accurately describe the sandwich, but it doesn't always register with some customers who, upon receipt of their order, are so taken aback by the sandwich's size and structure that they ask to have the French fries removed. As someone who places French fries high on my top-five list of food passions, I can't imagine such a thing; but Hanlin says it happens frequently. "It's even worse when people ask beforehand not to have the fries on the sandwich," he says. "What's the point of getting this sandwich if you're not gonna let me make it the way it's supposed to be made? You might as well go to a deli up the street. When that happens, or when people send it back and ask us to take off the fries, we practically beg them just to try it our way. Once people try it, they love them."
And for good reason. It goes like this: Your basea selection from fourteen meats, Boston cod filets or egggoes on top of a thick slice of Italian bread. Provolone cheese is placed on top of that. The fries are cut before your eyes (a whole potato goes in the potato slicer and drops right into the fryer, skin and all), then they are scattered over the meat-cheese layer. The slawmade fresh daily, tangy and crisp, dressed with a vinegar-based sweet/sour saucegoes on top of the fries, and another slice of bread finishes it off. If you are of the more-is-more school, there are also condiments on the table, along with a stack of napkins that you'll be making good use of. It is a little daunting, to be sure, but well worth the effort. There are utensils available for sissy eaters, but the guys and I went for the hands-on approach, practically guaranteed to leave the proof on your pants.
Piranha's most popular option is the Titan Cheese Steak, and I'll happily attest to its beefy goodness. The distinct flavors of the other meatsthe spicy cappicola ham, for instance, and the peppery Cajun chickenwere still discernable through the fries, cheese, slaw and bread: a tribute to quality and quantity.
Though the sandwich is helpful in counterbalancing the effects of adult beveragesHamlin says that their business really picks up once the downtown bars start closingsobriety is hardly a deterrent to enjoyment, and their lunch business is building steadily among downtown's white-collar workers with blue-collar appetites.
A full bar, a decent selection of domestic and imported bottle and draft beers, and nightly specials are also luring in the revelers: 22-ounce draft beers are $3 domestic, $4 imported all day Fridays, and $4/$5 on Saturdays; pitchers of domestic are just $6 on Thursdays; and a bucket of five beers goes for $10 domestic, $14 import on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
And the fun has just begun. The restaurant's front windows will soon be replaced by double-hung windows that can be slid up when the weather is good, and they have received the permit necessary to build a patio right outside on Second Avenue. Once football season gets under way this fall, I wouldn't be surprised to see hard-core Steeler fans parking their La-Z-Boys in front of one of the four televisions on Sunday afternoons. "Honey, would you bring me a beer and a kielbasa Piranha?" Score!