Deliciously Cheap? Muddy Waters, Kahuna, and Bird on the Run

Daevan Mangalmurti, Editor

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If you’re one of the many students at Obama who walks down South Highland to get to school, or takes the 71B, or gets a ride from your parents, you might have noticed that a lot of things have changed on that street over the past couple years, for better or for worse. One aspect of that is the food. I recently returned after a months-long hiatus to review Choolaah, the new fast-casual Indian restaurant on Centre Avenue near Target. If you read my review, you’ll know that I loved it (If you haven’t read my review, you should go read it). I’ve returned now to write about a trio of restaurants on the block between Centre and Baum: Kahuna, Muddy Waters, and Bird on the Run. All three of these restaurants are owned by the same couple, Adam Kucenic and Diana Strekalovskaya, who’ve garnered their fair share of controversy over the past year (more on that later).

The first restaurant to be opened by the couple was Muddy Waters. The restaurant is a cajun-style oyster bar serving fresh oysters and a few types of sandwiches. Most of the food is quite good, if a little expensive for students. If you ever get a chance to go, I would recommend ordering the all West Coast oyster dozen, which will set you back $40. If you’ve never had oysters, the platter is a worthwhile treat. If you’re not a fan of shellfish, try their sandwiches, which are generally quite good. I would suggest the classic or bahn mi po boys, which both cost $18. The price is high, but both sandwiches are filling and come with fries. The classic po boy can be ordered with oysters or shrimp; I prefer the oyster version. Overall, Muddy Waters is pretty good in terms of food and atmosphere, but it’s not really the best spot for students looking to grab a quick, cheap bite.

Kahuna, a poke and juice bar, opened in January of this year. Poke (or poké) is a Hawaiian dish that has seen a marked upsurge in popularity in the lower 48 recently. It was originally a raw fish dish made with a variety of pickled vegetables, nuts, shellfish, seaweed, onions, and sauces in a bowl. The modern incarnation served at Kahuna uses a starchy base (usually rice), fish or meat proteins, and a healthy selection of traditional and new toppings and sauces, including spicy mayo, kimchi, and jalapeños. While the “juice bar” part of Kahuna may rub some people the wrong way for its hipster-y implications, the poke itself is nothing to sneer at. The taste is good, the ingredients fresh, and the prices reasonable, even for students. One thing to be wary of is creating combinations that don’t exactly go well together, but staff will usually stop you if things get that bad. My suggestions for an order would be getting the firecracker shrimp bowl, spicy tuna bowl, or a variation on either of the two. Both of those bowls have delicious ingredients and the food comes in just the right amounts. My ideal poke bowl is made with rice, shrimp and spicy tuna, jalapeños, masago (a type of roe), Sichuan mayo, furikake (a Japanese seasoning), seaweed, kimchi/pickled vegetables, wontons, and onion crisps, coming in at $10. I would say Kahuna is the best of the three restaurants owned by Mr. Kucenic and it is definitely worth paying a visit to, especially if you like restaurants like Oishii Bento or Mt. Everest Sushi in Oakland.

A poke bowl from Kahuna

The third restaurant in this collection is Bird on the Run, which was the subject of a controversy last year that caused its opening to be delayed until the end of February. Originally pitched as “The Coop,” the restaurant was envisioned as having a “90’s hip hop theme,” which angered commentators and African-American residents who felt that the idea disregarded the ongoing process of gentrification that is displacing many of East Liberty’s lower-income African-American residents and sought to monetize the history of the neighborhood in the wrong way. Following the controversy, the development of the restaurant was put on hold until it opened as a “little mom-and-pop fried chicken shack” on February 27th. The restaurant serves fried chicken sandwiches in the Nashville style. The food is good, but not exceptional. The chicken was crispy and well cooked, as were the fries, but the chicken could have used a little more seasoning, either in the batter itself or in the sauces included in the sandwich. The food itself is very filling, and it comes at a good ratio of price to quantity. I would suggest that the restaurant increase the spice level of its chicken and expand its dishes beyond just chicken sandwiches to pieces of fried chicken. If you go, I recommend that you get the $11 combo, which includes a sandwich, waffle fries, and a drink, and is a pretty good deal.

In general, the Kucenic restaurants offer good meals for good prices. Mr. Kucenic is clearly trying to attract students and more casual customers with the opening of Kahuna and Bird on the Run, and it’s nice to have even more options in the neighborhood. I’m interested in hearing readers’ thoughts about what these new restaurants signify more broadly about the way East Liberty is changing, and how they feel about a white man from Greensburg trying to open a hip-hop themed eatery. Let me know when you get a chance to visit any of these three places, and tell me what you think about their food, pricing, and themes. As of right now my verdict on them is pretty delicious, sometimes cheap.

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