Sunday, April 06, 2008

The State of Pittsburgh Cuisine.

Months ago I got in an argument with a suburbanite about his belief that there are no good restaurants in Pittsburgh. Much of my opposition to his stance had to do with my general contempt for people who choose to live outside of the city, and yet miss no opportunity to put it down. I immediately question what these folks really know about life in Pittsburgh. I wonder how often they get out of their strip mall developments and take in some genuine urban culture. While it's not impossible for some "foodie" to make it a point to venture forth from their McMansion and explore an unknown neighborhood, I have a hard time valuing the opinions of outsiders. However at some level I know that this is narrow-minded of me, and that I shouldn't make too many generalizations.

I will concede that the 'Burgh isn't (and shouldn't be) known for its cuisine. What meal can we associate with our town? A sandwich with cole slaw and french fries piled on top of it? That's not very impressive. What about the pierogi or kielbasa? It's certainly true that there is a long tradition of Eastern Europeans in Western Pennsylvania. But this is true of several cities throughout America, and it's hard to make an exclusive connection between Pittsburgh and (for instance) halushki. You can definitely hit up some quality food festivals in the many ethnic churches dotting the area. I'd expect that to be true in any town of significant size. So what else do we crow about here? Heinz Ketchup? Who's going to get that excited over a friggin' condiment?

I'm a transplant from Eastern Pennsylvania, and so I am no stranger to unique dining traditions. The Pennsylvania Dutch have an entire menu of items to boast about (dried corn, pot pie, shoo-fly pie, headcheese, scrapple, etc.). Then there's Lebanon bologna and Taylor Pork Roll sandwiches throughout the area. Philadelphia has its world-renowned cheese steak (which is authentically served with Cheez Whiz), and is also noted for its quality soft pretzels. Of course the City of Brotherly Love is a huge city compared to Pittsburgh. It's got thriving ethnic neighborhoods that specialize in different types of cooking. Chinatown and Little Italy serve up their favorites. It's got multiple Latino sections that offer their own culinary delights. And with its access to the ocean, Philly also promises the prospect of quality seafood. If there's one thing I miss about living on the other side of the state, it's the variety and quality of the food.

Here in Pittsburgh, we claim to have our own Little Italy. Yet this is a bit of a sham, as Bloomfield is small and has murals of Polish Revolutionary War heroes to greet visitors. There isn't a hint of a Chinatown, and virtually no Latino presence. It has plenty of bars- each of which offer their own version of deviled crabs, hard bolied eggs, and beef jerky. However, to date there are still no Zagat-rated restaurants in Pittsburgh. How can this be? Doesn't anyone care? There are currently 18 places awaiting review. They include Mallorca, Cafe Allegro, Lidia's, Casbah, and the Chrch Brew Works- all decent restaurants where I have enjoyed myself. But we also find stuff like the Cheesecake Factory and Fat Heads Saloon on the list. Is this really the best we have to offer? No wonder people aren't clamoring to provide reviews and ratings.

The truth is that we do have a mix of decent (if not extraordinary) restaurants and eateries. I've written previously about Bona Terra, a Sharpsburg establishment of fine dining. It's informal, cozy and exquisitely presented. There are ethnic curiosities, including Abay (Ethiopian), Lemon Grass (Thai), Taste of India, and Tram's Kitchen (Vietnamese). And there's Max's Allegheny Tavern on the North Side, which is far and away the best German restaurant I have ever experienced. It's like entering your long lost grandmother's house- it's got a great selection of authentic dishes, it's bountiful, and reasonably priced. If there is one place I'd recommend as a can't-miss, it would be this one. Now all I need is a decent diner or two (God, how I miss the East Coast when I'm in the mood for that), and I'll be fat and happy.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Brad said...

You should know that the Lebanon Bologna factory is actually in Palmyra, PA. It is in fact about 50 feet from the back yard of the house where I grew up. Indeed, I could walk out back and see the smoke houses. I could walk across the alley and take a tour. More than once I had to fetch one of our family dogs on a wayward amble around the shipping docks.
I no longer touch the stuff (you can see the specks of fat and gristle in every slice) but I recall many ways in which one might enjoy lebanon bolgona (pronounced ba-lone-e).
You can fry it for a sandwich, but cooking it is entirely unnecessary not to mention it just adds butterfat to an already wholly unhealthy meat product.
You can spread a slice with peanut butter and roll it. You can do the same with cream cheese (pickle optional). But the best way was simply dipping a slice into some ordinary yellow mustard.
If any reader ever finds him/herself on railroad street in Palmyra please stop by for a haircut at the barbershop where my old man has worked for over 40 years and then walk out back across the yard to the smokehouses for a true PA Dutch (who are in fact German immigrants) treat.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Hey Brad,

Thanks for the detailed addition to my post. Your dog must have felt like one of the luckiest on Earth (If he/she could feel that sort of thing. I guess that's a pretty abstract concept for a dog... especially an American one).

My family used to eat appetizers made with Lebanon Bologna and cream cheese on New Year's Eve- 'cept they weren't rolls, but rather dense little box of the layered ingredients.

I've never heard (nor thought about) putting peanut butter on it. That sounds pretty disgusting.

7:18 PM  
Blogger jefg99 said...

Brad casually mentions a pickle option, but for my money, you couldn't beat a slice of Lebanon bologna wrapped around either a big dill pickle (my favorite) or a sweet pickle. If I hadn't started my umpteenth new diet today, I'd head to the store tomorrow to buy some. Did anyone mention sweet Lebanon bologna as an alternative?

Brad, my cousins grew up in Annville, where my uncle was a town dentist.

9:32 PM  

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