By Chris Osburn, Chris Osburn is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant, and curator. He is the driving force behind the long running and award winning blog, tikichris.com.
Tuesday 20 Nov 2018 12:00 pm
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was a city where plate after plate of hearty Americana made my visit well worth while.
It had been on my radar for the past couple of years as an ever-improving dining destination, so I was glad to have the chance to see what the fuss was all about for myself.
As I saw it, the food and drink scene was fiercely hyper local, with eateries concerned more about pleasing regulars than appealing to out-of-towners and destination diners.
That said, showing up from foreign shores as I did, I was received with a warm welcome everywhere I ate, and each meal came with the feeling that I was not going to be allowed to leave unsatisfied. Indeed I never did.
Lets start at the beginning, as in the first – and most important – meal of the day: breakfast.
I had an especially tasty one at the decadently named Pie for Breakfast.
This tiny pit stop near the Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh campuses does an irresistible menu of pastries, breakfast plates and fancy diner fare at an affordable price.
For my brekkie, a slice of pie was obviously obligatory. I went for the vinegar pie, an old timey treat thats a lot sweeter than it sounds. If you love a treacle tart, you would flip for vinegar pie.
Lidias Pittsburgh, owned by Italian/Croatian celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, is one of the citys most popular places to eat.
Despite the high accolades and personal recommendations, I was doubtful at first that I would have a noteworthy dinner.
The nearly two-decades-old restaurant, with its giant and not terribly characterful dining room, looked more a like crowd pleasing coral than any sort of authentic regional ethnic eatery. Boy was I wrong!
Having picked the pasta tasting trio – an unlimited sampling of daily pasta specials served tableside – I could see why crowds might flock to eat at Lidias.
Lidias is located in a part of Pittsburgh known as The Strip.
A post-industrial riverside district next to the downtown area, The Strip is quite the food and drink haven.
Here, decades old traditional establishments coexist with a decidedly new wave of up-and-comers, providing fertile ground for foraging foodies.
Best bites from the old school side of the equation came in perfect little Polish parcels of yum (otherwise known as pierogies) from S&D Polish Deli.
Most memorable of the new wave nosh was a fried chicken sandwich stacked high with Cajun shrimp, andouille, charred peppers, onions, and fontina on a brioche bun with pepper sauce mayo.
Complementing both old and new was my double espresso, pulled properly and without a drop of barista pomp at La Prima Espresso Company, a wholesale coffee roastery with a café.
The most famous of places to eat in The Strip is Primanti Bros. Now with outlets across Pennsylvania and a few other states, this hometown hero opened its original restaurant and bar in The Strip back in 1933.
Since then, this all-night diner, specialising in sandwiches of notoriously gargantuan proportion, has become something of a shrine for aficionados of American nosh.
The desired dish for most on a pilgrimage is the Pitts-Burger, a meatloaf sandwich augmented with French fries, coleslaw, tomatoes and provolone between two thick slices of Italian bread.
Far less known than Primanti Bros – but nevertheless drawing plenty of lunchtime fans – is downtown dive Weiner World.
I was lucky enough to stumble upon this joint on the day I toured downtown Pittsburgh with Walk the Burgh – the daily special was a smoked brisket sandwich on a pretzel roll with coleslaw, provolone, and teriyaki sauce and a side of house made crisps.
Two of Pittsburghs most enduring nicknames include Steel City and Iron City. These allude to its heyday as a major manufacturer of steel.
However, in the south side neighbourhood of Allentown, these monikers more likely refer to the locals love of heavy metal and hardcore punk.
If you like your coffee brewed as black as your eternally tormented soul, Black Forge Coffee House is the death metal themed café of your nightmares.
Macabre decor and a black-on-black colour scheme set a tone unlike any other café Ive ever entered, while the angst-riddled heavy metal piped through the sound system probably wouldnt be what most people would choose for the soundtrack of their latte breaks.
Despite the spooky digs and niche sub-genre background music, the café is a bona fide hit and shows up prominently on lots of Pittsburghs best of lists.
I reckon part of the success is the novelty of Black Forge, but more so is the fact that the carefully selected and locally roasted coffee beans are crafted into delicious espresso-based drinks by competent baristas.
A few blocks away from Black Forge is Onion Maiden, a punk rock fuelled, heavy metal spawned vegan eatery with a menu of plant-based versions of east Asian and American comfort foods.
Like Black Forge, the mood at Onion Maiden is dark. But its far from doleful, with smiling staff and an ambiance of youthful energy.
I adored the two dishes I devoured at Onion Maiden.
A rather substantial starter course of two buns filled with enoki mushrooms, Korean mayo, hoisin, cucumber, coriander and green onions had my taste buds rocking and ready for more.
An extra scrumptious and generously proportioned bowl of Graves at Sea tater tots with house made kimchi, soy caramel, nori, togarashi, and green onions all but did me in.
Whether an eclectic playlist of everything aggro (it was a mix of Twisted Sister, Windhand and Subhumans during my seating) sounds like your sort of ear candy or not – and whether youre inclined to go meatless or not – I wager you would relish the boldly flavoured food rolled out of Onion Maidens rebel kitchen.
Another phenomenal meal and one of the best Ive had this year was at Acorn.
Sitting pretty in the affluent northern Pittsburgh neighbourhood of Shadyside, the cuisine at Acorn is modern American. Dishes are prepared in a straightforward manner with only as many ingredients as absolutely required.
Seasonality and locality play major roles in chef (and co-owner) Scott Waltons creations, but complex flavour profiles are the stars of his creations.
Case in point is Waltons inventive New World take on escargot, complemented with corn, crema, huitlacoche mole, cotija cheese and corn cakes.
More evidence comes by way of his popular crab rice bowl of Peekytoe crab, boiled peanuts, kale, and kimchi vin, topped with fried duck egg.
Serving food along the same lines as Acorn in the less leafy but restaurant-rich neighbourhood of East Liberty is Whitfield.
Inside the lobby of the Ace Hotel, chefs Bethany Zozula and Casey Renee look to Western Pennsylvanias immigrant influence for inspiration, with dishes celebrating the regions Polish, German, Eastern European, and Italian and Jewish heritages.
Staying at the Ace for part of my time in Pittsburgh, I was impressed with the uniquely savoury breakfast of pastrami hash with sunny side up egg, salt and vinegar crisps I had one morning.
In the evening I was similarly wowed with smoked trout with tallow potatoes, wax beans, grilled green onions, pimento aioli and lemon vinaigrette.
Honestly, I couldnt have wished for a more delicious destination.
Where to stay in Pittsburgh and how to get there:
I split my stay between two hotels: the AC Hotel by Marriott Pittsburgh Downtown and the Ace Hotel Pittsburgh.
The sleek months-old AC was especially convenient for accessing the downtown area and The Strip, as well as major cultural attractions such as The Andy Warhol Museum and the Senator John Heinz History Center and to catch pro sports events such as Steelers home games (replete with epic tailgating parties) at Heinz Field.
Rooms at the AC starts from £112 per night.
Situated in a century-old former YMCA in the artsy and edgy enclave of East Liberty, Ace Hotel was a comfy place to stay and an equally happening hub for quirky and community-oriented activities such as dodge ball and tai chi.
I loved having a Martin guitar and turntable with curated vinyl as amenities in my room.
Rooms at the Ace start from £92 per night.
I flew via Wow Air with brief layovers outbound and return in Reykjavik. Fares start from £273 return.
For more tips on having fun in Pittsburgh go to visitpittsburgh.com.
(Top picture: Chris Osburn)