Certain things are meant to come in pairs: “Burt + Ernie”, “almond butter + apricot jam”, “Fred + Ginger”, “Mazeroski + home run”, “goat cheese + my tummy”, to name a few. Until a recent excursion, I wouldn’t have included “restaurant + politics” on my list. Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh’s East End changed my mind. Yes, this is a restaurant review, and if you just can’t wait to get to the saliva-dripping discussion of the food, jump ahead now. But for those of you with patient stomachs, first let me pontificate on the unique concept behind the Kitchen.
Conflict Kitchen’s catchy name actually does a pretty good job summing up the restaurant’s scope and purpose. Dedicated to serving take-out traditional fare from countries with whom the United States is in some kind of geo-political conflict, Conflict Kitchen has snagged national attention for Pittsburgh by kicking off its existence with a featured dish from Iran. The brain child of Pittsburgh artists John Peña, Jon Rubin, and Dawn Weleski, Conflict Kitchen boasts an arresting façade, fascinating concept, and delicious food. Really, I’m not quite sure how to categorize this place. Is it installation art? Is it political reform? Is it social movement? Viral marketing? Iranian restaurant? A damn good sandwich? Can I have an option for “all of the above”, please?
Third time’s the charm: First, I did a double-take passing Conflict Kitchen’s brightly colored façade on my way to sample Vanilla Pastry Studio. Second, a friend emailed me an article describing the political movement behind the Kitchen. Third, I parked my car at a nearby broken meter and resolved to try Conflict Kitchen’s take-out for myself. (For those of us with kids in tow, the take-out format makes for a convenient and quick meal.) Unlike most restaurants, “What can I get you?” was the simplest question of the day, since Conflict Kitchen serves just one item (and serves it well, I might add): a Kubideh sandwich. More on this later (read on, oh you with the patient stomach). The tricky question I had to answer was this: “Do you have any questions about Conflict Kitchen?”
The question came from the pleasantly bespectacled college student (under grad or grad? could be either) who looked like he would be equally at home lodged in a computer lab at Carnegie Mellon. I was unprepared to answer. I think I drawled an “Uh” or “Um” or something equally unintelligible and unintelligent. Where to begin? I’d done some research on the Conflict Kitchen concept, but how does one ever know what one doesn’t know? I played it safe and followed my hemming and hawing with a question in return: “What should I know about Conflict Kitchen?”
Brushing sweat from his brow (thank you, oppressive heat from Fourth of July), the computer programmer cum kitchen help proceeded to fill me in on everything from the customized façade design (by artist Brett Yasko) and architectural design (by Pablo Garcia/POiNT) to the Live Skype meal hosted by Conflict Kitchen between Pittsburgh and Iranian diners. Conflict Kitchen endeavors to be an education, not just food source, between Pittsburgh and the world. Trust me, when you order a Kubideh sandwich it comes with a side of “I didn’t know that!”
The Kubideh sandwich. My stomach just gave a little groan of pleasure in remembrance. A juicy, spicy ground beef patty accompanied by some fresh sprigs of mint and highlighted by spice-infused red onions, the Kubideh sandwich is hugged together by traditional, homemade babari bread with black sesame seeds. We Americans recognize (most of) the ingredients, but in this combination, it’s a rare and globally-inspired treat. By consulting members of the Iranian community in Pittsburgh, Conflict Kitchen made sure the sandwich was authentic. I’m glad no other menu options are available to distract my attention from the Kubideh sandwich. Its four month tenure on the Conflict Kitchen menu will be enough to leave some Kubideh fans jonesing for their next Iranian fix.
“Four month tenure?” you ask. And both sadly and happily, the answer is “Yes.” In a few months, the revolving restaurant/art project that is the Conflict Kitchen will evolve into a new iteration. An Afghan feature is on deck with North Korea and Venezuela waiting in the wings. The yellow and blue façade will give way to a new (and equally appealing) design. The sandwich will retire to Iranian home kitchens. But I’m sure an eager employee will still be around to offer all sorts of interesting information on Afghanistan when I next query, “What should I know?”
Visit the Conflict Kitchen soon, and you’ll find yourself ruminating afterward on not just how great the sandwich is but also the positive cultural aspects of a country that, if you just tune in to the news, probably gets more negative press than positive. Even the disposable wrappings of the sandwich are anything but disposable. Featuring interviews from Iranians both in Pittsburgh and Iran, the wrapper’s words linger long after the last lip-smacking smear of grease is wiped from your mouth. The Conflict Kitchen serves up a compelling experience for your mind as much as your mouth.
The Conflict Kitchen, currently called Kubideh Kitchen, is open everyday from 11am-2pm and on Friday and Saturday nights from 11pm-3am. They are located next to the Waffle Shop on the corner of Highland and Baum in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. Each of the Conflict Kitchen iterations will be accompanied by events, such as the Pittsburgh-Iran Live Skype meal, that highlight the featured country. Check the Conflict Kitchen website to stay abreast of upcoming events.