Over the past year, I’ve had the honor and the pleasure to discover some truly unique and incredible restaurants. We’re so lucky to be in a city nearly bursting at the seams with quality options for any kind of meal you’d wish to have. I cannot in good confidence present the following list as some kind of end-all-be-all list of the “best” of Pittsburgh, as 15 is just far too small of a number to do the culinary scene any justice. These are simply my most memorable plates/bowls/bites of the year and I am very excited to share them with you.
The restaurant names will link to their menus and the date will be linked to my original review (when available). As always, I welcome conversation and feedback on my choices.
15. Yinzburgh BBQ / Pulled Pork, Ribs, Quarter Chicken / October 14
Pittsburgh is severely lacking in its BBQ options (especially since Union Pig and Chicken decided to go the way it did), but the strongest contender in my book right now for pure, good, smoked meats is Yinzburgh BBQ. Not only are all of their meats perfectly cooked and juicy, their sauces are top notch. So many BBQ joints are happy to throw out Hot/Sweet BBQ, some kind of gross yellow mustard base, and maybe a tasteless vinegar for your pulled pork/chicken. Yinzburgh has created the best bbq condiments in the city, with their Signature Red (a tomato based bbq sauce with a wonderful kick of peppers and spices), Afterburner (far more peppery, with a chili twist on the front end, vinegary, but still smooth unlike a hot buffalo sauce), and their outstanding Hot Honey (the front end of a creamy bbq sauce with both a tangy mustard and sweet honey twist at the back end). What Yinzburgh has done is craft the marriage of meat and sauce, both wonderful on their own, but even better together.
tako is the image of the perfect downtown restaurant: cool, hip, great cocktail program, delicious small plates, appetizers great for sharing, and impossible to get a table at. While it seems like a strange statement, many great Mexican restaurants do not have great queso. tako breaks that trend with their wonderfully thick and indulgent queso dip, loaded heavily with chorizo and smokey shishito peppers, topped liberally with cilantro and green onions, it’s best enjoyed on their flour tortillas, made fresh in-house. I’ve eaten there many times and still have yet to sit at an actual table: the kitchen-side seating outside is a wonderful experience on a beautiful day, while sitting at the bar allows you the opportunity to converse with their amiable bar staff.
13. Istanbul Sofra / Whole Dorado / July 29
While it’s difficult to recommend to everyone (especially to those with an aversion to eating something with the head still attached), I can confidently say that if you like fish, you will love the dorado from Istanbul Sofra. Dense, flavorful white fish held within a wonderfully crisp skin (like the best parts of flounder and grilled salmon), I absolutely love the preparation and care. The freshness of the ingredients and the skill of the chef in the kitchen shines through this exemplary seafood offering and provide what it can look like in Pittsburgh.
12. Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream / Brioche Ice Cream Sandwich / March 11
Millie’s takes all of the best parts of good, simple ice cream and elevates them to new culinary heights. Their Vietnamese Coffee and Salted Caramel flavors are pure, beautiful, and rich. They don’t cut any corners with their ingredients, or their process, and it shines through their small-batch offerings. Going even further beyond their ice cream, is the delivery method in which to enjoy it. Unique to Millie’s and certainly the only once I’ve had, they take a perfect sphere of your choice of ice cream (or sorbet) place it in the middle of two slices of buttery brioche bread, and place it into a kind of panini press (with a sphere in the middle to not completely compress the ice cream). What results is a hot, crispy, french toasty outside, with a cold, only melty on the outside ball of incredible ice cream. It’s a can’t-miss sweet treat. I am extremely excited for their new location within Market Square and look forward to grabbing a pint or two during my lunch break to bring home.
11. Butcher and the Rye / Pig Wing / July 22
The extremely difficult to share “pig wing” (really just a deep fried rib) at Butcher and the Rye was one of my favorite small plates of the year. Crunchy exterior, succulent and unctuous interior, perfect balances of salty, sweet, and spicy, with the beautiful undertone of roasted pork. The coating was evenly spread to ensure each bite contained that magnificent crunch and sauce. It fits perfectly onto the well-composed menu of small plates and shareable larger plates.
10. (TIE) Umami and Teppanyaki Kyoto / Takoyaki / October 21 and December 16
One of my new food obsessions this year (in addition to shishito peppers) are takoyaki. These amazing deep-fried balls of batter, studded with chunks of diced octopus, topped with bonito flake, kewpie mayo, and takoyaki sauce (like a sweeter, thicker, saltier, soy sauce). I first was able to enjoy them at Umami, the hippest (too cool for me) restaurant in Pittsburgh. The soft, pillowy pancake balls were crunchy on the outside almost completely smooth on the inside and strongly flavored with the oceany sweetness, salty sauce, creamy mayo, and smokey bonito. Alternatively, the takoyaki at Teppanyaki Kyoto, which is more like a roadside family-run izakaya had big chunks of tender octopus and the interior were far denser and cooked more evenly. I also preferred the large shavings of bonito, as opposed to the flakes at Umami. As a testament to their quality, my wife (who usually hates seafood) enjoyed them at both locations, although her strong preference was with Umami. My perfect takoyaki lies somewhere between the two (hence the tie) with a crispy shell, smooth oceany sweet filling, large shavings of bonito, only a light application of mayo, and a nice vegetable salad on the side to cut through the heavy dumplings.
9. Nancy’s East End Diner / Pancakes and Chili / June 19 and October 22
My favorite local restaurant is easily Nancy’s East End Diner. I think their pancakes are magnificent with the buttery crispy edges and the light and sweet interiors. Nothing too fancy or elevated, just simple, good food prepared with care and attention. You can’t go wrong with breakfast or lunch, as I had the pleasure of trying their chili on a recent visit during a blustery day in October. Not one to normally order chili, I ordered it and expected to get the standard tomato soup with chunks of tomato, red kidney bean, small bits of ground beef, maybe a sprinkle of cheddar cheese, and club crackers (no offense Eat N Park). I was supremely impressed with their bold, spicy, thick-as-a-stew chili. Extremely well-spiced, rich and deep in its earthy flavors of chili, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, and countless other spices, it was studded with multiple types of beans and heavy with big chunks of chorizo and beef. Easily a meal in and of itself, I heartily recommend the chili at Nancy’s.
8. Dorothy 6 / Reuben / October 7
I’m a sucker for a good corned beef sandwich. It sounds so simple at face-value, but it’s a concept that Pittsburgh has struggled with for decades. My new favorite, hands-down is the reuben at Dorothy 6 in Homestead. You can’t fake good corned beef and it’s evident in the time and effort that Dorothy 6 puts into their proteins and ingredients. The perfectly lean beef shreds within the melty swiss cheese, creamy thousand island, and crunchy sauerkraut. Two wonderful slabs of fresh marble rye hold it all together. The perfect reuben isn’t some great mystery, but Dorothy 6 has done is as good as I’ve had it anywhere.
My favorite sandwich this year however, was the Horse and Pepper at Apteka, the eastern European vegan restaurant. Wonderfully bold in it’s spice and horseradish, I love a good sandwich that plays to its strengths and pulls no punches. The crusty hoagie roll was slathered liberally with black garlic (pretty much the best flavor known to man), topped with a wonderfully heavy slab of their vegetable pate. Closer to a meatloaf than anything else, it was the perfect density and texture to be the star “protein” of the sandwich. The strong toppings of horseradish slaw, spicy sliced chili peppers, and a spicy pepper relish all elevated the sandwich to a wonderful combination of dense pate, crunchy crispy fresh bread, and liberal seasoning. Unfortunately, revisiting their menu online, it doesn’t look like this sandwich is still available. I can only hope they bring it back or at least utilize that black garlic in another way.
6. Chengdu Gourmet / Baby Bok Choy and Black Mushroom / July 15
The vegetable dish, especially at a Sichuan Chinese restaurant can often be overlooked or considered non-essential to the enjoyment of the meal. Chengdu Gourmet casts that aside with this dish, easily my favorite vegetable course of 2016. The baby bok choy is cooked perfectly to the point of a wilted spinach-like top while retaining the crunchy, juicy stalk. The shiitake (black) mushrooms are utilized wonderfully here, providing the contrasting flavor and texture that the best Chinese dishes do. The yin and yang of the plate, here the juicy, soft, crunch bok choy working in harmony with the meaty, soft but still substantial, and power packed punch of flavor of the mushrooms. The velvety black mushroom sauce is so earthy and beefy, it’s all of the best parts of a five-spice sauce and homemade beef gravy. Chengdu Gourmet has the best Sichuan Chinese dishes in the city and this is just one of them, don’t miss the Chongqing Chicken or the Double-Cooked Pork Belly.
The best dip of the year easily goes to Spork. Their outstanding take on hummus was still a little coarse but still creamy, heavy on the garlic and tahini and light on the lemon. The perfect spread was enhanced by the chunks of smoky crunchy almonds, as well as the soft sweet dates and wonderful clover honey. The smoke and garlic, paired with the honey-sweet preserved fruit and actual honey all melded together to make a savory sweet spread that was ideal with the grill toasted buttery loaf. I could have eaten it with a spoon, but my wife and I even asked for more bread to ensure we got every last drop of the jar’s offerings.
4. Carota Cafe / Beans and Greens / March 25
The dish that stuck with me the longest (enjoyed in March) was easily the beans and greens from Carota Cafe located within Smallman Galley, the restaurant incubator located in the Strip District. The kale and escarole were just barely on the side of done, still substantial enough to provide a slight vegetal crunch but with enough wilt to lend itself and flavors to the surrounding soup. The white beans were also perfectly cooked, some providing that wonderful snap to well-cooked beans, others melting into the surrounding broth. The absolute star of this dish was that parmesan garlic broth. Perfectly salty and piquant, providing that shining star of acid and tang that good parmesan cheese does, the wonderfully smooth and rich broth permeated every element of this magnificent dish.
Editor’s Note – Please note I incorrectly identified the dish as coming from Provision Pittsburgh/Smallman Galley where in reality the dish was designed and prepared by Carota Cafe. I identified the greens as solely escarole when they were escarole and kale. I also misidentified the broth as having cream, when it was a Parmesan garlic broth or water. Thanks to Jessica Lewis of Carota Cafe for identifying my errors.
3. Everyday Noodle / Pork Soup Dumplings / June 15
The perfect dish at a restaurant is one that you can’t get anywhere else in the city, made with care and attention to seasoning, cooked perfectly, and delivered at the peak of temperature. The soup dumplings at Everyday Noodles are a wonderful package of salty, porky soup broth delivered in the ideal thickness of wonton wrapper. A sign of the undeniable quality of the restaurant itself is the consistency, each of the 8 dumplings are always cooked to the perfect al dente, with the ideal mouthful of soup, and the perfect thickness to hold all of the soup within without making them too chewy or thick. The dumplings are served with julienned ginger and a wonderful sweet, salty plum sauce. To true testament of the quality of the dumplings themselves, they’re perfect alone and without any of the accoutrement.
2. Morcilla / Oxtail Montadito / September 21
Never before in my life have I ever been at a restaurant, ordered, eaten it, and then ordered the exact same dish again. I did exactly this during my first visit to Morcilla in September of this year with my friend Garrett. The best bite of 2016 is easily the oxtail montadito. A thinly sliced piece of baguette, topped with caramelized onions, enrobed in creamy mahon cheese (think a sweeter fontina), with the absolute all-star of this dish, the slow-braised oxtail. The meat is shredded, with the soft layers of fat melting throughout the meat, creating a less-substantial almost brisket-like experience. What makes everything work so well on this slice of bread is the flavor profile: a cohesive and singular direction, vision, and approach. This is a masterfully crafted dish, perfectly seasoned, cultivated, and cooked low and slow for hours and hours until the right amount is portioned, placed delicately upon the bread, given a little bit of time under the broiler to get the cheese melted and bubbling, and served to the luckiest recipient in the restaurant. Sometimes more than once.
As I was prepping this list, I went through my entire collection of photos of food from 2016 and started to catalogue them. Picking just one plate from a lot of meals was easy for some (the reuben at Dorothy 6, the soup dumplings at Everyday Noodles) and harder for others (Chengdu Gourmet and Nancy’s) but no matter how hard I tried and how many revisions I went through, I couldn’t break down the meal at Altius to a single meal or a single element. That’s what makes a restaurant like Altius so transcendent (literally and figuratively). High atop Mount Washington, sitting amongst the dusty dinosaurs on Grandview Avenue, Altius refuses to be distilled to a single element. Their cocktail program, their service, their decor, their flatware, their VIEW, their food: it all works in beautiful synchronicity. The perfect meal is when you never are left wanting. Need more water? It’s being refilled as you notice it. A plate needs clearing? As soon as everyone has finished, without any sense of urgency or rush, a team deftly clears the table. Has it been the perfect amount of time since your last course to think about the next course being delivered? There it is, delivered by as many members of the staff as are in your party, to ensure everyone is served at the same time. There have been no missteps, no suggestions for improvement, and so important, no complacency. In a town where you can get away with serving the same menu from the 70s, Altius continuously impresses year after year. I will close this out with a line from my original review in August, “In a neighborhood full of places that are fine to rest on their name and laurels alone and never change their menu or push themselves (looking at you Le Mont, Tin Angel, Grandview Saloon, Isabella on Grandview, and Monterey Bay Fish Grotto) Altius is a shining oasis. I am so invigorated and inspired to see restaurants like this open up, do well, and maintain that high level of quality and consistency.”
Thank you for joining me on my trip through food in 2016. I am so excited to see what 2017 holds for all of us, not only in dining, but also in life. Thank you so much for making me a part of your day and for participating in my food blog.