On the Road: Pittsburgh

Well, fall is officially here. The school buses are back on the road to mess with my commute into the city, DSW is tempting me with e-mails advertising boots, and most importantly, the Pumpkin Spice Lattes have returned to Starbucks.

Over Labor Day weekend, we crammed in one last bit of summertime fun with a trip to Pittsburgh. We had been talking about going for a while and a good deal on a hotel through Hotwire sealed the deal. It’s really not that bad of a drive from Philly. We left at the height of holiday rush hour traffic on Friday, and made it there in a little over five hours. I think I only asked Chester if we were there yet ten times. I’m really not the best passenger.

At some point in grade school, we learned that Pittsburgh was called the “Steel City” and as a result, I’ve always pictured that it would be grey, dreary, and a little boring. Over the years, though, the steel industry has waned, and Pittsburgh has morphed into a hub for education, healthcare, technology, and finance. The city has an interesting combination of old and new, modern and industrial, college students, yuppies, and blue-collar senior citizens. In many ways it is similar to Philly, in that it’s a city of neighborhoods, arts and culture, hardcore sports fans (every second person was wearing at least one kind of Steelers item), and good food.

We stayed at the Omni William Penn, which is located Downtown. Since this is the main business district, it had pretty much emptied out for the long weekend by the time we arrived. It does look like there are a few apartment complexes and condos popping up Downtown, so perhaps, a few years from now, it will be a bit more vibrant on the weekends! But, the hotel is in a good, central location, within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and theaters, so it makes a good base for exploring the city.

We arrived at the hotel just in time to head over to Market Square for dinner. The courthouse, jail, and city hall used to be located on Market Square. It was renovated a couple of years ago to resemble the pedestrian friendly plazas that you would find in Europe, complete with restaurants, cafes, and outdoor seating. Fun fact: the new Batman movie just finished filming there.

Market Square, by day. Looks just like Gotham City, right?

We had reservations at NOLA on the Square. I was excited to go there because I don’t really know of any good Cajun/Creole food in our area. We used to have a place in Media, the New Orleans Café, but that closed years ago. When we arrived at the restaurant, it was pretty crowded and there was a live band playing jazz music. They were very good, but it did make it kind of loud (I know, I’m old). Luckily, we were seated at a table towards the back of the restaurant, so that cut down on the noise a bit.

We ordered drinks—a beer for Chester, a cocktail for me—and they sat on the bar for quite a bit. When our waitress noticed, she was extremely apologetic, and then the manager came over to apologize some more and let us know that he was going to take the drinks off of our bill. We didn’t really mind, as we could see it was really busy, but yay for free drinks, and good customer service. I enjoyed my Toulouse Martini—a mix of Vodka, Ginger Snap, Pineapple Juice, prickly pear granita, Mint. It was a cross between a mojito and a cosmo, two of my favorite drinks.

For an appetizer, we shared the Crispy Fried Alligator, served with a spicy aioli and chives. I know that “tastes like chicken” is what people say when they don’t know quite how to describe the taste of something or they are trying to get you to eat something gross. But, seriously, I can’t think of another way to describe these little bites, except to say that they reminded me of chewy chicken nuggets. I didn’t dislike them, but I guess I was expecting that they would have a bit of a different taste. Perhaps they needed to be tenderized a bit more or the spice needed to be dialed down a bit for that to come through.

For an entrée, I was torn between the jambalaya and the catfish. I decided that the latter would be a better choice, since it was getting kind of late in the evening and approaching my bed time. I had never eaten catfish before—probably because I don’t really like fried fish, and that’s usually how it’s prepared. But, NOLA’s version is marinated in a flavorful citrus sauce and grilled to perfection. Whipped potatoes and grilled sweet peppers and onions were a nice compliment to the flaky fish. Luckily, Chester ordered the jambalaya, so I was still able to sample it. It was almost like paella. The cast iron dish was filled to the brim with rice, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and smoky andouille sausage. It was pretty spicy! The rice was cooked to fluffy perfection, and the seafood was tender, not rubbery.

With this satisfying meal, our trip was off to a good start. The next day, we woke up early to go to the Strip District. The Strip lies next to the Alleghany River, and is just a short walk from Downtown. Former industrial spaces and warehouses have been turned into markets—to me, it was a combination of the Italian Market in South Philly and the Pike Place Market in Seattle. Saturday is supposed to be the best day to go—everyone is out, and the markets are bustling.

 

We started with breakfast at DeLuca’s, one of the area’s most popular diners. The line out the door looked intimidating at first, but we really only waited about 15 minutes to be seated. Good thing, too, because it was blazing hot that day. I was so excited to see the sign in the window advertising iced coffee. I need my coffee to function in the morning, but in the 90 plus degree heat, the last thing I want it a hot drink! A few words of warning: 1) DeLuca’s is cash only, so make sure you hit an ATM before you go in; 2) If you are concerned about limiting your intake of carbs, fats, etc. in the morning, this is not the place for you.

 

The service is brisk and the interior no-frills. The menu features the usual hearty breakfast fare, including stuffed omelettes, waffles, crepes, and breakfast burritos. Two of the signature items include the mixed grill (sausage or ham with veggies, eggs, home fries, and toast) and ice cream sundae pancakes. I had the cinnamon-raisin French toast. The bread, which was Italian style from Mancini’s a local bakery, was very good. But, I still prefer my French toast bread to be a bit thick and spongy, so that it can really take on that eggy, custardy, taste. But, the raisins did provide an extra bit of sweetness. Chester had a corned beef omelette with a side of thick-cut, crispy bacon. The eggs were cooked to fluffy perfection, and as you can see, the portion was so generous that it nearly took up the entire plate!

Yes, ten pats of butter came with my three slices of French Toast. That's just crazy.

After breakfast we walked through the neighborhood, to browse stands and shops selling fresh fish, meat, poultry, produce, Italian, Asian, and Polish specialties, art, antiques, and Steelers gear. If we weren’t going to be staying for a couple of more days, I would have loaded up on cheese and fresh pasta from the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company. Side note—it literally just occurred to me that there was a small fridge in our hotel room. Now I’m kicking myself. Someone should sign me up for their Cheese of the Month club for my birthday—they deliver.

Later that day, we headed up the Duquesne Incline, which provides the best views of the city skyline, bridges and rivers. The Incline was opened in 1877, to carry cargo and residents up Mount Washington, and has become one of Pittsburgh’s most popular tourist attractions. The fare to ride each way is $2.25; make sure to bring exact change! The cable car only goes about five miles an hour and is really well maintained, but it is a little scary to think about what would happen if a piece of wood split or a cable broke. Yikes. So, don’t think about it, and just enjoy the view.

View from the Top

Later that evening, we met up with my friend Megan, whom I met while working at Drexel. We actually started our jobs on the same day in 2007, but I lasted a bit longer than she did. We met up at a bar downtown called the Sharp Edge (it had a really extensive beer selection) and I filled her in on everything she missed out on at Drexel. It was great catching up with her (and now she need to come visit us in Philly!)

Megan has been a long time resident of the Pittsburgh area, so she gave us great suggestions about what to do and where to eat. In addition to, NOLA on the Square Megan suggested the restaurant went to our Saturday night—Meat and Potatoes—which was probably my favorite meal of the trip.

Meat and Potatoes is Pittsburgh’s first gastropub. Its menu features updated takes on simple classics, like pasta, chicken pot pie, burgers, and hot dogs. The interior is elegant and cozy—almost like a Parisian bistro—with dark wood trimmed in gold, mirrors, and cushy armchairs at the dinner tables.

It's hard to get a decent photo of this place. It's located inside of a theater.

I can never pass up mac-and-cheese when I see it on a menu. Meat and Potatoes’ version was the best that I have had in a long time (aside from Chester’s mac-and-cheese that he only makes during the colder months). The elbow macaroni, cooked to a perfect al dente and topped with crunchy bread crumbs, was the perfect vehicle to hold on to the tangy taleggio cheese sauce. The bits of ham and peas provided a nice balance of salty and sweet and since they were evenly distributed throughout, all of the flavors were included in each bite.

I devoured the appetizer sized portion, served in a little cast iron dish (and seriously considered asking for seconds), and still had room for my mushroom burger. If Meat and Potatoes had a location in Philly, their burgers would give Jose Garces’ and his Village Whiskey and JG Domestic a run for their money. The burger was a perfect medium rare. It was so light—almost like biting into air (that analogy probably makes sense only to me). It hadn’t been overworked or over seasoned, so the juiciness of the meat, the earthiness of the mushrooms, and the nuttiness of the Midnight Moon goat’s milk cheese could be fully appreciated. The shoestring style fries were a bit soggy but I was so full by the time I got to them so I didn’t mind leaving them behind.

Chester, in the meantime, got to have bone marrow the way he likes it—straight from the bone. Eating bone marrow is quite a process. You dig it out from the bone, spread it on grilled bread, and top with onions, salt, and gremolata. The three bones provided a generous serving, so you will probably need to ask for more bread to go with it. Chester thought it was “heavenly”—according to him, this is the way to eat bone marrow (not stuffed in a burger). And, you can trust him. He is a connoisseur of this kind of stuff. But, I did not like the fatty texture and the greasiness that lingered in my mouth after just a small bite. I guess it’s an acquired taste. For an entrée, he had the strip steak, which was served with a mix of red and green peppers and corn. Strip steak can be a tough cut of meat to prepare, but this version was tender enough to cut with a fork and well seasoned.

Finally, for dessert, we shared the chocolate pot de crème. I loved that it was served in a mason jar. I was surprised by how rich it was, given that it was made with milk chocolate instead of dark (which seems to be more popular lately). It was served with a slightly sweet, fresh whipped cream was the perfect end to the meal.

The service was a little bit uneven—we waited a really long time between each courses (my fries had probably been sitting for a while, I guess). The restaurant was full and there were a couple of larger parties. It seemed like maybe they could have used a couple of more staff members on duty. By the end of the night though, I was in a food coma, so this didn’t really bother me as much as it might have.

On Sunday, we slept in, and then went to back to the Strip District for lunch at the original Primanti Brothers. Since 1933, Primanti’s has been making its signature sandwiches, which consist of meat, cheese, tomato, cole slaw, and French fries, sandwiched between Italian bread. Like DeLuca’s, there was a brief wait at the door. But, once we were seated, our server took our order right away and our sandwiches arrived at our table in less than ten minutes.

Chester went for pastrami and I had salami. I expected not to like this sandwich. But, you know what? I did. The French fries were not greasy at all and the vinegar based cole slaw was a nice change of pace from the traditional variety that drips mayo all over your hands and makes the bread soggy. I surprised Chester and myself by eating the entire thing. Yes, I beat him in a sandwich challenge, for the first (and probably only) time ever.

After lunch, we went over to the Andy Warhol Museum, which I highly recommend. I’ve always been fascinated by him and the way that he embraced culture, media, celebrity, business, etc. and made art that accessible—and more often than not controversial. It features seven floors devoted to his paintings, drawings, films, and items his massive collection of “time capsules,” which hundreds of cardboard boxes filled over many years with all types of ephemera from his daily life. One of the most memorable exhibits is the “Silver Clouds,” an installation that he designed for a gallery show in the late 1960s. It’s a room full of rectangular mylar balloons, which are blown around by a fan. Guests step into the room and can actually interact with the work. There were a ton of little kids in there, but the grownups—like me and Chester—couldn’t help joining in as well. Video below, so you can see what I mean (there aren’t any people in it, but you get the point.

When we left the museum, we took a stroll along the riverfront. There are miles of trails, green spaces, and public art all along the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. The baseball and football stadiums, hotels, and the headquarters of major corporations (such as Del Monte and Starkist) line the area. Small boats were docked all along the way, and people were hanging out on their decks eating, drinking, and playing cards. The trails also seem to be a destination for runners, bikers, and kayakers. It was vibrant and busy, and it made me wish (as I often do) that Philly would develop its waterfront in the same way.

It rained off and on throughout the afternoon. At one point, we had to duck into a hotel and hang out at their café until things cleared up. After the rain, we stumbled upon Rib Fest which was taking place at Heinz Field. Dozens of nationally known rib vendors were participating, and despite of having eaten a huge lunch earlier, Chester was lured in.

Chester tried ribs from Texas, and these from North Carolina, which he liked better because they weren't too smoky.

On the way back to the car, we stopped by to visit Mr. Rogers. If you grew up watching PBS like I did, you must stop and see him. Although, he does look a bit like Alfred E. Newman here.

Won't you be my neighbor?

For our final dinner in Pittsburgh, we went to the East Liberty section of the city to try out Spoon. Apparently, the local, organic, farm-to-table angle is making its way out to Western Pennsylvania as well. Pittsburgh Magazine named Spoon one of the best new restaurants in the city last year.

The interior of the restaurant is very…zen, for lack of a better word. Warm lighting, earth tone décor, and plush chairs. Even our waiter was very mellow. Chester theorized that he had been hypnotized by the music, which was the kind of stuff you would hear in a spa. It was very relaxing and a change of pace from the other places we ate though, which were loud and on the crowded side.

Spoon has an extensive wine list, with many options available by the glass. I had the St. Chapelle Riesling, which had a nice combination flavor combination of peach, orange, and honey. The latter made it a bit heavier, and not bubbly, like other Riesling I’ve had are. But, I really liked it.

I decided that I needed to go lighter with some lighter options after all of the rich foods that I had been eating over the past couple of days. Luckily, Spoon’s menu had quite a few options, including salads and fish, to choose from.

I had the Caesar salad for an appetizer, which was pretty basic. I would have rather had the “bacon and eggs” that Chester was having. A soft-boiled egg sat atop a thick slab of pork belly. Asparagus and hollandaise sauce accompanied the dish. It was a creative concept that was perfectly executed.

Bacon and Eggs at Spoon.

Source

For an entrée, I had the halibut wrapped in bacon. Halibut is the kind of fish you can do a lot with, since it will take on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with. It was topped with a bright pesto sauce, and the combination of the salt from that and the smoke from the bacon provided a great flavor. It was accompanied by homemade ravioli and vegetables. The thin dough and light mascarpone filling kept the ravioli from being too heavy. The server poured a flavorful broth over the entire dish when it was served, creating a kind of soup. Chester, on the other hand, was a bit disappointed in his Kobe beef burger. It had been overcooked, and as a result was quite dry and lacked the rich, fatty flavor that Kobe beef should have. The parmesan and herb fries, with an earthy truffle dipping sauce, were the best part of his dish.

As you know, I normally always go with the chocolate option on a dessert menu, but the lemon cheesecake caught my eye. I’m glad I changed things up. As you also know, I’m a sucker for a cute presentation; I loved that the cheesecake lacked a crust and was served in a demitasse cup. Mascarpone cheese, (which I think pairs really well with lemon) was topped with an intense lemon curd. Homemade white chocolate cream puffs and raspberry jam accompanied it. Chester went for two kinds of sorbet—peach and strawberry lemonade. The peach was our favorite, but both had a nice, refreshing tang. It was a nice ending to our weekend getaway.

As you can probably tell, Pittsburgh has a lot to offer you if you are a foodie. You can sample so many different types of food from ethnic specialties to comfort food classics that hearken back to the blue-collar days of the city. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much Pittsburgh has to offer, and I think it’s poised for even greater growth and development in the near future. It’s worth the trip—so go!

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  1. [...] vacation, we usually spend some of the time thinking about where we’ll go next. When we were in Pittsburgh over Labor Day, we came up with the idea of a trip to New England to see the fall foliage. We [...]

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