Best Plates of 2018

Here’s a quick list of the best plates and meals I had while dining out in Pittsburgh and the surrounding region this year. I’m going to be publishing another list to recognize more of the restaurants that I don’t feel get the attention that they deserve. As always, please reach out through e-mail or my Facebook page with any feedback (positive or negative). I always enjoy hearing back from you, whatever your feelings on my food writing or reviews. I had a list of 30 before I cut this down to the top 10 and it was very difficult to trim down. Without any further ado, here we go.

10. Godfather Chili – Pittsburgh Food Truck Park – 10/05 – Millvale

When we visited the Food Truck Park in Millvale, the Revival Chili, Pittsburgh Smokehouse, and Steel City Chimney trucks were all set up and we took the opportunity to enjoy them all. The Revival chili itself is outstanding, very rich in flavor and full of well-seasoned meat and beans. I went with the bowl (with both rice and cornbread underneath) and found it extremely satisfying and filling on a chilly fall day. The brisket and the pulled pork from the Smokehouse truck were nicely smoked for hours until fall-apart and bound together nicely with a homemade BBQ sauce. The “chimneys” in question are actually Kürtőskalács cooked to order and covered with your choice of sweet toppings (we went with pumpkin pie spice and vanilla sugar). It’s like the outside of the cinnamon roll, but thinner and crispier, and in pull-apart strips like a croissant or crescent roll. The best part was being able to be out on a nice night, enjoy the weather and the sounds of some guy strumming along on an acoustic or whatever-the-hell, families around all enjoying the space and coming together in a community atmosphere to support these smaller businesses that don’t have a permanent location outside of the food truck park. A definite recommend for when the Food Truck Park reopens in the Spring.

9. All the Tacos – Bea Taco Town – 3/12 – Downtown

One fish taco (lightly fried cod filet) and one tinga de pollo taco (pulled chicken cooked in chipotle pepper sauce)

A regular choice for me on my lunch breaks, the tacos from Bea Taco Town are consistently delicious and unique. There are TWO on Smithfield Street so be careful making plans to meet someone. They have 11 options for protein so I like to mix it up from the spicy chicken tinga, to the mole chicken, to the carnitas or the barbacoa, and don’t sleep on that chorizo either. I like to get aggressive some days at lunch and see if they have the lengua (beef tongue) or cabeza (head meat), but they’re usually out. You can’t go wrong with any of the proteins, diced onion and cilantro, a wedge of lime, and rice or beans (optional). Their corn tortillas are sturdy enough to hold the abundance of fillings and two is usually enough to last you the rest of the day and not put you to sleep in the afternoon. Another can’t miss is the Tortilla Soup, especially on the freezing days we’re sure to have this winter.

8. Damn Hot Chicken Sandwich – Bird On the Run – 7/21 – East Liberty

(clockwise from top left) Hot Chicken Sandwich, extra hot sauce), Waffle Fries, chicken strips (untossed)

Easily the best Nashville Hot-style chicken sandwich I’ve had in Pittsburgh. This beats out Kaya’s version for me personally and I think they have sprinkled a bit of magic in their hot sauce, as I just can’t get enough of it. An excellent chicken breast brined and marinated and fried and tossed and delivered on the most perfect bun (soft and chewy but still substantial enough to hold up to all of the hot oil and juice from the chicken) with a couple of pickles. Paired with one of their frozen alcoholic cocktails and you can’t go wrong for a late night bite (open until 1 on Fri/Sat).

7. Shelly’s Traditional Pizza – Shelly Pie – 10/13 – Turtle Creek

Whole Pepperoni and 1/2 onion Pizza

Picking your favorite pizza in Pittsburgh is like picking your favorite child or favorite star in the sky. Hell, I can’t even pick my favorite pizza on this list of 10 restaurants that don’t all serve pizza. Pittsburgh is just ridiculous with good pizza and Shelly Pie is that holdover from the hard-working, real steel in the blood Pittsburgh that I hope never goes away. A true neighborhood red-sauce Italian joint, Shelly Pie is everything that was right with the Pittsburgh food scene in the 80s and will never be demolished. All the players are here (soup or salad with your entree, fresh bread, fried zucchini, chicken parm like you wouldn’t believe). But these pizzas, good lord these pizzas. These pizzas are overloaded and then some: enormous slices laid down with robust sauce, stringy mozzarella and provolone, and
with enough toppings for at least 3 or 4 more pizzas and some to spare and somehow beneath it all a crusty, crispy, yeasty crust. Huge pillows of chewy and crunchy crust surrounding this valley of the greasy damned and yet somehow below it all, the crust maintains and delivers a satisfying crunch. Get your T-ball team together and go celebrate here after a hard-earned loss.

6. Brie and Pear Toast – Bitter Ends Garden Luncheonette – 10/07 – Bloomfield

Nationally recognized for a reason, this small luncheonette in the heart of Bloomfield shows what a localvore brunch spot should be. The most delicious ingredients (farm-grown vegetables in Verona by the restaurant themselves) picked at the perfect time, cooked wonderfully, and delivered to hungry patrons to enjoy either within the cozy space or out on some picnic tables set up on Liberty Avenue. Everything’s just wonderful with the seasonal brie and pear toast really shining through, melty brie, buttery and sharp, paired with the most perfect d’anjou pears, sweet as honey while still firm and crunchy. The breakfast sandwiches and salads are great, on homemade crusty bread, and the challenge of enjoying them is far worth it as they fall into smaller and smaller pieces on your plate. Grab some extra napkins and some dessert.

5. Brisket and Wings – Spork Pit – 8/23 – Garfield

The famous Spork smoked wings that they used to feature when Spork Pit was just a backyard endeavor have survived the trip over to their new permanent location on Penn Avenue in Garfield. My 2nd favorite plates of last year (the wings and the beef on weck sandwich from Spork) have made their way onto the menu at Spork Pit and I could not be happier. Perfectly smoked, melty, fatty, rich slices of beef brisket with that outrageously good rubbed bark make that brisket some of my favorite bbq I’ve had. Smoked wings are some of my favorite foods and these are the best of the best. Long hours, hard work, dedication, and focus make Spork Pit one of my top choices for smoked BBQ in the city.

4. Chonqing Dumplings and Mala Chicken – How Lee – 5/25 – Squirrel Hill

With so many competing Sichuan restaurants in Pittsburgh and Squirrel Hill alone, it can be hard to navigate the excellent offerings from each of my favorites (Chengdu Gourmet and Sichuan Gourmet additionally and only if we’re staying hyper local). Easily my favorite Chongqing dumplings in the city can be found at How Lee. Light and slippery dumpling wrappers, surrounding a wonderfully spiced ground pork mixture, all enrobed in this spicy chili oil. My goodness this chili oil, it’s earthy and rich, spicy and tangy, but with a deep roasted flavor of garlic and fresh chives. The sauce is so addictive and perfectly complements the simple and delicious dumplings. The Mala Chicken dish is also unique to How Lee (though it may be on other menus under a different name) and provides simple pieces of white meat chicken, wok steamed with big slices of halved baby bok choy and long slices of green onion. The chicken is in a sauce that’s similar to the chili crisp with Sichuan peppercorn flavors that are traditional to Sichuan cooking, but roasted peppers and strong notes of a vinegar and fish sauce high end tanginess elevate this dish beyond simple approachable Sichuan cooking. How Lee is consistently delicious and impressive with all of the dishes I’ve tried, but I absolutely agree that as with most other authentic restaurants your mileage may vary when it comes to the American-Chinese dishes.

3. The Daily Specials or the KFC – Bae Bae’s Kitchen – 11/07 – Downtown

Ever since first trying Bae Bae’s back in February and multiple times since then, my meals have been excellent. Even though they offer a very small, well-curated menu. I have not had a single misstep. Their Korean Fried Chicken (KFC) is an incredibly crunchy chicken breast coated in panko and deep fried to a delicious golden brown. Served with your choice of noodles, rice, or more of their lightly-dressed salad, the KFC also comes with this heavenly wasabi honey that is ideal for their fried chicken. I always love to expand my horizons and I’ve tried nearly everything on their menu (the spicy chicken stir fry special is an aggressively spicy and delicious option) and most recently I’ve been able to enjoy their chicken meatballs and their Galbi Jjim  with their take akin more to beef stew with more Korean-inspired flavors than what you might have had grown up but with the familiar stand-by’s of carrot and potato and gravy that you would expect. Their side dishes (banchan) are all excellent from the different types of kimchi to the seaweed salad to tempura fried vegetables and everything gets served in their iconic and huge paper to-go containers. An excellent lunch or dinner spot, with options for vegetarians as well, Bae Bae’s offers a unique and neighborhood vibe for a restaurant on Liberty Avenue Downtown.

2. The Sandwiches and the Soup and the Salads and the Pizza(!) – Driftwood Oven – 11/30 – Lawrenceville

The perfect new pizza restaurant if there ever was one. From the moment you enter and get in line (because there will be a line), you feel welcomed and at home in this cozy neighborhood pizza joint.

The mortadella sandwich, with its huge portion of thin sliced ham and pistachio magical meat with this incredible garlic aioli and spicy pickled peppers all on this aggressively crispy and crunch toasted sourdough bread that makes this whole place possible. The key is in the dough and the magic is welcomed and present in nearly all of the dishes. The mushroom soup is perfectly smooth and creamy, rich and deeply earthy from the fresh mushrooms. The addition of fresh mushrooms on top adds a lovely chewy element to the excellently balanced and composed dish. The side of toast is (of course) crunchy and delicious and only further elevates the wonderful soup. The Kale Caesar salad is incredible, if only for how it deftly balances anchovies and Parmesan in a way I’ve never had on a salad before. Ridiculously rich and cheesy, the salinity of the fish and the vinegar of the dressing are complemented perfectly by the rich and salty cheese of the dressing and shaved Parmesan reggiano.

The pizza is in a class by itself, unrivaled in this city due to their incredible sourdough crust in addition to their light, balanced hand. The pizzas are perfectly cooked and composed, with hints of sweetness from the addition of honey to their white pizza and wonderfully provola cheese on their pepperoni pie. It’s new-Italian at its finest and with their front of house staff in conjunction with these incredible recipes coming out from the kitchen, the Driftwood is sure to be a standout on the Pittsburgh dining scene for years to come.

1. Plantain Chips with Chimichurri and Double Cut Pork Chop – Musa – 9/29 – Dormont

Easily the best dish I had this year was the couple cut pork chop that I had at Musa in September. Small and unassuming from the outside (you’ll drive right by it if you’re not looking out), but bursting with life on the inside. This place is an island oasis right off of Broadway Avenue in Dormont. The small, well-curated menu hits all the right notes. Musa has a few appetizers, with the star being their holy-crap-it’s-so-good-I-am-trying-not-to-eat-this-with-a-spoon garlic chimichurri served alongside crispy, not greasy, fresh fried plantain strips. The sweet long strips of plantain were substantial enough to scoop the perfect paste of parsley, cilantro, oregano, and roasted garlic magic or just to crunch on alone. I could have made a meal out of those alone. However, the best was yet to come.

The constantly-rotating menu has soups, salads, and sandwiches, in addition to their entree features. I was lucky enough when we visited to be offered the double-cut porkchop. A absolute behemoth of a cut, this pork chop towered over the entire place and was served alongside sauteed mixed greens, red beans and rice, and topped with a mixture of bacon and quick-pickled red onions. The pork chop I enjoyed at Musa rivaled that of the double-cut pork chop that we enjoyed at Toups’ Meatery in New Orleans in 2017. It was perfectly cooked, with that lardon crispiness seared on all sides, providing a salty, smokey, sweet crust that surrounded the juicy, perfectly medium-rare of the pork throughout. I devoured that chop all the way down to the bone and have been thinking about it since then. This was easily the best pork chop I’ve ever had in Pittsburgh and the talent in the kitchen truly shone through this and all of the other dishes that we enjoyed. I am very excited to tell friends all about this hidden gem in Dormont and I look forward to much more success and press for them in the coming year.

While this was my top 10 plates and bites of 2018, I’m not done yet. Look for my list of “Places You Should Visit in 2019” in the coming week, featuring many of the smaller restaurants that are out there doing some incredible work but might not be receiving the public attention or praise that I feel they deserve. In the meantime, please reach out and let me know what you thought. What did I get wrong? What did I get right? Comment below or just send me an e-mail and let me know. Here’s to many more shared meals in 2019, full of love, laughter, and good food with those most important to us.

Best of 2018 (outside of Pgh)

2018 held a lot of change and we didn’t get a chance to travel as much as we’d hoped or dine out as often. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t have some incredible meals and I hope to briefly highlight those both with this top 10 list today and a couple of lists tomorrow. The best meals outside of Pittsburgh were mostly in California (where we went for our anniversary), Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

I’d love to hear any feedback you wish to provide, so please reach out in the comments section or at DavidtheGastronome@gmail.com with any feedback at all.

10. Madonna Inn – 3/26 – San Luis Obispo, CA

No trip to San Luis Obispo (SLO) is complete without stopping into the Madonna Inn. Equal parts kitsch and majesty, this landmark castle feels like a love letter to the American Dream. The cakes are enormous and delicious. Dark, rich milk chocolate icing envelope layers of fudgey cake. Best enjoyed with a loved one way too late at night, their desserts are like something out of Willy Wonka or Matilda and served by staff just as mystifying and cheery.

9. Sqirl – 3/27 – Los Angeles, CA

LA is hip. It’s super cool and fun and hip and chic. I am none of these things. The toast at Sqirl looks like something from an Instagram post and is curated to be enjoyed as such. Beyond these simple visual pleasures so, the toast is freaking delicious. Sure it’s beautiful, but it tastes amazing and deserves to be celebrated as such. The house made toast, crispy and crunchy on the outside and soft and buttery within, topped with an excess of homemade ricotta spread so thick it feels like enough for two slices (but thank you so much for including it all on this one slice) and a wonderful tart and bright and herbaceous fruit jam topping it all off. Like the kind of snack you’d fix for yourself if you had these quality of ingredients on hand and no one to answer to. This toast is off the chain (I am not cool).

8. Franklin Fountain – 4/18 – Philadelphia, PA

Ridiculously good hard-churned ice cream served in Chinese food takeout containers. Go, get in line, bring cash, study the menu as you continue to stand in line, look through the binder/menu, stay in line, order succinctly and correctly, enjoy. If your eyes are bigger than your stomach (which is impossible because there’s always room for ice cream), you can always just seal up the container and save it for later. It won’t last long because it’s damn good ice cream.

7. Taqueria El Farolito – 3/24 – San Francisco, CA

Real Mission burritos served by real people in Mission. A huge menu full of authentic cal-mex. Delicious hot sauces and fantastic burritos. Grab your burrito and then walk down to Mission Dolores Park. Enjoy your burrito in the gorgeous weather surrounded by people enjoying nature (and the green…space). It feels like an oasis and was a wonderful break from the urban sprawl.

6. Orchard Market and Cafe – 8/03 – Baltimore, MD

Seafood Advieh with Basmati Rice topped with Persian saffron

Consider me surprised that I had to travel to a strip mall in Baltimore (Towson to be more specific) to sample some authentic Persian cuisine. A wonderful neighborhood restaurant, tucked away in an unassuming strip mall, filled with friendly staff and locals, Orchard Market was definitely a surprise. The bademjune and the hummus were outstanding appetizers and my entree was full of fresh seafood (huge shrimp, scallops, and Mahi Mahi filets) and seasoned with wonderful middle eastern spices to make an excellent cross between a curry and an Asian stew. Huge portions and a wonderfully exotic menu make me want to return as soon as possible.

5. Abe Fisher – 4/20 – Philadelphia, PA

Easily the finest, modern Jewish dining experience I’ve had. Every single course (chicken liver mousse, borscht tartare, roasted pastrami-spiced salmon) was incredible. The service was outstanding. We were in a large group and missed out on the Montreal Style Smoked Short Ribs (served alongside house-made rye with pickles and mustard) so the waitress made up 4 half-sandwiches for us out of some from the back. This was an incredible experience from start to finish so if you find yourself missing the tastes of the old world and want something fancy and elevated, schlep across the state to Abe Fisher. It’s worth it.

4. Madera – 3/24 – Palo Alto, CA

An exquisite fine-dining experience located on the grounds of the Rosewood Sand Hill Resort, Madera is curated and elevated cuisine in a gorgeous rustic setting. It feels like you’re eating within a gigantic log cabin, but the tables and spaces are separated far enough apart to make each table feel intimate and special. A wonderful staff with outstanding somelliers, they worked tirelessly from beginning to end to create a special meal. Excellent execution and gorgeous food, a real treat in Menlo Park.

3. Koi Palace – 3/23 – Daly City, CA

Best dim sum I’ve ever had in my life. A palatial dining room, full of bridges across multiple koi ponds, with elevated tables on high rising crests and other tables next to functioning fountains. Everywhere movement and noise and carts and food and people sharing an incredible dining experiences. I can only suggest that you have a gameplan going in or you might be severely overwhelmed (and order way too much). We enjoyed the chiu chow dumplings, steamed bbq pork bun, bean curd skin rolls, shanghai dumpings, and the incredibly special Suckling Pig (as soon above) with crispy skin and perfectly roasted fatty meat served over natto.

2. Kin Khao – 3/24 – San Francisco, CA

Michelin-starred for a reason, this unassuming Thai Eatery located on the first floor of the uber-chic Parc 55 hotel took all of my expectations and obliterated them. We were running late and time was short before the kitchen was closing, so we turned our options over to the waiter. We knew we wanted the pork belly, but he helped guide us towards the salted duck egg to go alongside it, as well as the Mushroom Hor Mok (mousse with crisp rice cakes) and the Laab Kua (a spicy crispy onion pork salad) to start with. Along with the Pork Belly (which was like melty, buttery pork magic), we enjoyed the Holy Basil and Snow Jasmine cocktails, all for less than $100. A ridiculous steal in any city, a magical gem in the heart of metropolitan San Francisco.

1. The Bazaar – 3/28 – Beverly Hills, CA

I could write for days on the hours we spent dining at Jose Andres’ restaurant in Beverly Hills. From the table adorned with rose petals, the hand-written card welcoming us to our dining experience, the staff who waited on us tirelessly, each acting in perfect unity, being supportive and attentive without being overbearing, timing the courses to perfection and ensuring our wants were met at every turn. The food was outrageously good. Highlights easily include the croquetas served in a clear plastic shoe and their world famous Foiffle (which is a foie espuma with peanut butter and honey served on a lighter than air waffle). Further baffling the mind was that after the dinner service was over, we were invited to cross the enormous floor of the dining area to a SECOND separately contained dining room to enjoy their dessert offerings. A once-in-a-lifetime meal whose memories will always stay with me and show me what a lavish and extravagant dining experience can be. The height of extravagance and worth every penny.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read through my pick of  restaurants not in Pittsburgh. Stay tuned for further (local) lists on the 31st!

9-29-18 / Musa / Pittsburgh, PA (Beechview)

Saturday around noon, I went with my wife and met a friend at a place that I’ve been wanting to visit for quite a while. In the interest of pure transparency, I have to admit that Musa is owned and run by friends of ours, but anyone who knows me knows that I am honest and fair. I am so proud and so excited to report that Musa has a well-cultivated menu and delivers on everything I would hope for and more. They surpassed my already-high expectations and I cannot wait to return and try every single thing that they have to offer.

 

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We started with the plantain chips, which are a must-order. Long strips of plantain, starchy and lightly crisped, with not a hint of the oil they were fried in, tossed in simple sea salt and served along this so-good-I-wanted-to-buy-a-gallon garlic chimichurri. Just looking at it brings to mind herbaceous and light notes, but the true star is the roasted garlic just exploding out with a perfectly rounded flavor. Wonderfully acidic and earthy, it was the perfect pairing to the fried chips. You’d still be doing it right if you did nothing but sit at their bar, order drafts, and eat bowl after bowl of these incredible chips.

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The fried avocado was another wonderfully simple dish, enhanced by pure skill and technique in preparation. The avocado chunks were pure, freshly deep fried and coated in crunchy plantain crumbs, melting into that wonderful texture you get from a well-roasted root vegetable. The light and creamy Caribe dipping sauce was as if the best parts of a ranch dipping sauce and a vinaigrette or aioli meet and combine. It was still smooth and creamy, with a wonderful light acidity to it, but was rounded out with deep earthy notes as well. Paired with the rich chunks of avocado, it was another masterful pairing.

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The chicken curry was wonderful, with a tomato-based curry sauce, potatoes, carrots, peas and rice. The big chunks of chicken absorbed all of those wonderful flavors and were delicious with the spicy, well-balanced and delicious sauce. The incredible support from the paratha roti (the bread) was a new experience for me. I was expecting a bready and soft naan-like bread, but instead was treated to something far closer to a croissant or a crepe, with layer after layer of flaky and sweet bread. The sauce was sucked up into the many layers and crevices of the roti like a sponge, providing a wonderful dining experience and insuring that no drop was left behind.

The biggest surprise of the entire meal for me had to have been the pork chop. This thing was massive. I’m talking at least 2 inches thick with just the slightest rivulet of bone running alongside the back of the chop. This thing was a prize. This is what the butcher cuts for himself to take home to cook. The true beauty of this dish was that this piece of meat was honored, it was raised up on high, it was treated with care and aplomb, this is in the top 3 pork chops I have eaten in my entire life. It was impeccably prepared, with an outrageously good crust around the entire chop that was everything good carnitas and good pork chops and good chicharrons aspire to have. The perfect porkiness of that crunch, that crust, that enveloped and protected every slice of this gorgeously prepared pork, a perfect medium that was as moist as you could ever want. If I had just been served this behemoth, masterfully cut, spectacularly cooked porkchop on a plate, I would have been more than happy but the sides were something to behold as well. The bacon and onion reduction on top was every part smoky crunchy bacony and sweet earthy oniony that you’d want in a pork dish. It was so balanced and mellow, the gastrique just melted into the delicious greens. The red beans and jasmine rice had special care, with barely broken beans, and fragrant rice, soaking up all of the incredible juices that intermixed on this plate like a symphony. The sauce wasn’t even needed, there was so much flavor and incredible tastes from the still-crunchy greens, the red beans and rice, and the pork. Oh man that pork. I am going to be thinking about that pork chop for a long, long time.

 

It’s one thing to visit a good restaurant. It’s another to support a friend. When you can do both and be treated to a spectacular meal and experience, there really is nothing better in life. I love that my friends can be successful and live their dreams and their passion and to see all of their hard work being rewarded and paying off. It means so much to me when you (as a reader) write to me and tell me you’ve taken one of my recommendations and had a good meal as a result of it. Please continue supporting local restaurants, encouraging this thriving local food scene that we’re cultivating. More than anything, please keep going out there and trying new things, exploring neighborhoods you’ve never been to before, trying cuisines you’ve never had, meeting new people, and making new friends in the most unexpected places. Maybe even an unassuming block on the T-line, right between Dormont and Beechview, in a place whose doors are bursting out with charm and character, a little sample of Caribbean comfort and relaxation, and so much love and fiery passion that the plate can barely contain it all.

Spork Pit BBQ / August 23, 2018 / Garfield

I started this write up over on Instagram (where I’ve been posting for the most part for the better part of a year) but I ran out of text space! I really should be utilizing the whole “article” concept of this site that I loved so much when I started this site, but Instagram is truly the easier solution.

Birthday dinner last night at Spork Pit in Garfield right off of Penn Avenue. You grab a sheet of paper off the wall with all of the meat options (ribs, chicken, pulled pork, brisket, sausage) and what size (quarter pound, half pound, pound) or 8 wings. Sides are all separated out and ordered in whole quantities. There’s also a dessert option (banana pudding when we were there).

Of course we ordered the entire menu (minus the dessert and entire cocktail list) and I’m proud to report it is as outstanding as I’d hoped. The frozen cocktails were excellent, as well as their tasty selection of local drafts.

When they were running their proof of concept out of the backyard of Spork, I was in love with their smoked wings and I’m so happy to report they’ve kept the same recipe and even kicked up the spice in the rub.

The brisket is their contender for best in the city, with incredible melty juicy fat intertwined between tender and flavorful meat. the bark was retained and the 10 hour cooking time was evident in the final product.

Jerk chicken was a chunked and de-boned, but lost some of the flavor of the rub due to the prep. Still tasty, smoky, and juicy chicken.

The ribs were slow-cooked and fell right off the bone, with three ribs per quarter pound. A nice light rub provided a good base flavor for the meaty pork to enhance, really well-trimmed and prepped.

The sausage was homemade and the fine grind was held together nicely with studs of cheddar cheese and a nice snap on the casing. It was lighter than a loose grind might have been and was definitely elevated by the strong hand of garlic and paprika in the meat mixture. Not too spicy or overpowering, it played nicely with the other meats.

The pulled pork was good, although a little dry and slightly over-shredded but still held it’s own and was greatly enhanced by their sauce options.

They had a thick and sweet coffee BBQ, a Texas style thinner sauce, and a vinegar sauce for the pulled pork. All of the sauces were tasty and helped enhance the natural flavors of the meats without overpowering them.

The sides were all large enough for sharing and fairly generous in their portioning. 1 is definitely enough for 2 to 3 people.

The mac and cheese is a must order, ridiculously cheesy creamy magic. The shells were still substantial, but this beast was like 50% cheese. Perfect bite and sharpness and velvety smooth. The perfect mac and cheese. The black beans and rice as well were amongst some of the best I’ve had in recent memory, with strong herbs and wonderful seasoning on the black beans. There were strong undertones of either sage or rosemary that made them pair exquisitely with the pork. The beans were still toothsome and the rice still had body to it, which is tough to maintain with a BBQ side like that which can be warming all day. They weren’t overly spiced which was deeply appreciated in the substantial side.

The potato salad again was top tier (if you like mustard), as their base was more dijionnaise than straight mayo and really nicely seasoned. Big chunks of soft potato and crunchy veggies provided a nice cold respite from the fatty and rich meats.

The collard greens had a good depth of flavor from both the broth and added proteins. The greens themselves were a little too big and on the soft side, which is very tough to avoid, but delicious just the same. The Cole slaw was good, a cheesy vinaigrette with crunchy slices of both red and green cabbage. But unremarkable overall.

The one major misstep was the bread option. It was a flat focaccia which was quite hard and crispy on the exterior. I think a lighter and fluffier focaccia would have faired better to sop up the bits of meat and sauce left on the trays. I do applaud their alternative approach to the standard corn bread, but I feel like the greatest ground can be made up with their complimentary bread (which speaks volumes to the initial quality and foundational perfection they’ve already achieved).

I’m all for the family style sharing approach to BBQ, but providing side plates (like Smallman and Federal galley provide) would have been more preferable. They do seem to have no flatware with plastic forks and knives, as well as drinks served in plastic cups.

There also isn’t a tap water option (again, the Galleys nail this with big glass bottles of tap) and we had to order a big Fiji water to split amongst us. Again, no deal breakers but still places to work from. Operating with a bare-bones staff (I counted 3 front of house, the chef, and another runner) they run the large operation seamlessly. We were greeted and run through the entire meal helping to provide assistance with whatever you need.

I highly recommend Spork Pit for some of the best brisket and mac and cheese you’ll ever have! Go on a gorgeous Pittsburgh day, sip some cocktails (frozen or otherwise) and enjoy the backyard BBQ you always wanted right on Penn Avenue.

Best of Pittsburgh (2017)

Another year down, another amazing series of meals in this lovely city of Pittsburgh. We continue to thrive as a community and move forward in both economic and societal successes. Let’s all support each other and make sure to especially support those small, neighborhood restaurants that you really enjoy! I was very disappointed to see both El Milagro and Casellulla go out of business this year, but as to what the entire story is, I cannot say. I can only hope through supportive patronage and spreading the word to our friends and family, we won’t lose any of those on this list. Also, please note while I may have visited these places many more times throughout the year, the dates given were when these pictures were taken and these experiences were had. All that being said, may I present the 15 most enjoyable bites I had this year within the City of Pittsburgh.

 

15. The Cafe Carnegie / 5-14-17 / Oakland

It’s very rare that someone might highlight the food at a museum as being the reason to make a visit, but the Cafe at the Carnegie Museum of Art has definitely made itself a destination restaurant for me. Chef Sonja Finn has established a gorgeous dining room, a technically impressive menu, and a truly wonderful dining experience overall. Great service throughout (we visited on Mother’s Day for brunch) seemed to be part and parcel with how the cafe operates. The soft boiled egg dish was served with prosciutto and delicious bitter greens, open-faced over a piece of toast, providing a nice and rich dish. The egg in the hole sandwich had fresh toasted wheat bread with that wonderful fried egg and spicy meats throughout. The lightly dressed salad was a welcoming accompaniment of vinegar to cut through the richness of the yolk and meats. The dining room, the ever-changing menu, and the wonderful service while even completely full ensures I’ll be returning for many a refined brunch at the art museum.

 

14. Kaya / 7-13-17 / Strip District

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File this under the “things that may only have been a secret to me” but Kaya has ridiculously delicious fried chicken. Every Thursday night they offer up a half of a chicken, tortillas, and a seasonal assortment of sides/sauces. I’m always hankering for some delicious fried chicken (I’d love to know some of your favorites) so I decided to head out to check it out with my Dad back in July. I was very impressed to say the least. The buttermilk marinade is evident front and center with that impossibly juicy chicken underneath the crags and mountains of beautifully seasoned and crunchy coating. I went with the Nashville hot preparation, which kicked the spice up quite a bit, but it was balanced with precision by the cucumber ranch dipping sauce, fresh vinegar coleslaw, and huge slices of salted watermelon. Pulling the meat off of the thigh and loading that up into the tortilla with some of the ranch and a sprinkling of coleslaw was like some Dr. Frankenstein Southern taco abomination, but it tasted outstanding all the same. Take the time and join the club one of these upcoming Thursdays or check out Kaya any other day of the week for some of the best Island cuisine in the Strip.

 

13. Ting’s Kitchen / 3-10-17 / North Hills

13 ting's kitchen spicy pork ribs

One doesn’t normally equate “McIntyre Square Strip Mall” with “delicious and authentic Szechuan cuisine” but that’s exactly what Ting’s Kitchen achieves. Previously known as China Star (not that China Star), but with a new management and the same kitchen staff. This authentic Chinese restaurant is a wonderful oasis in a shopping center not known for its destination cuisine. I’ve had their variations on double-cooked pork belly with garlic greens, as well as their Chongqing chicken and shell-on wok-fried salt and pepper shrimp and all have been delicious. Pictured here are the spicy pork ribs and leeks. The bone is trimmed and cut, so you have to remove the meat from the bone and discard the bone separately, but the meat is cooked long enough to completely fall right off the bone. These are not ribs in the traditional American sense, but more of a nugget of pork chop surrounding a small piece of bone for bite-sized portions. The chili broth permeates the celery, scallions, and mushrooms nicely, so as to create a wonderful stewed flavor throughout. They also do some of the best red chili oil dumplings I’ve had. While you may have only been aware of Taj Mahal for incredible authentic cuisine off of McKnight Road, check out Ting’s Kitchen if you’re out that way (and Chengdu Gourmet or How Lee or Sichuan Gourmet if you’re near Squirrel Hill).

 

12. Huszar / 9-27-17 / North Side

12 Huszar steak

Even though we only just visited back in September, I’m already planning on ordering those potato pancakes when we return to Huszar. I had such an enjoyable meal meeting the staff and learning the history of this bar and how it became a restaurant. While the wonderful stories would have been enough to make this an unforgettable meal, the food really knocked it out of the park. Perfect food for the kind of weather we’ve been having, Hungarian cuisine helps keep you warm both inside and out. The aforementioned potato pancakes were some of the best I’ve ever had (not to be confused with the outstanding hash-brown-adjacent latkes that my mother cooks up for Hanukkah) these are light and fluffy and wonderfully toasted and crispy. The paprikash was amazing, the eye of round steak with a mountain of onions that I ordered was wonderful, the desserts were out of this world, with service and a guide through it all that was second-to-none. Few neighborhood restaurants make you feel as welcome or as at home as Huszar and I can’t wait until you feel like part of the family, as well.

11. Butterwood Bake Consortium / 8-26-17 / Lawrenceville

11 Butterwood bake consortium brownie

A wonderful gem in the ever-expanding Lawrenceville, located just a couple of doors down from my favorite vegan restaurant in the city (B52), this Bakery has really knocked it out of the park. With only a few offerings every day (but a near-consistent supply of brownies), your mileage may vary with your visit but we’ve sampled many a vegan and environmentally-consciously-sourced baked good and they all have been excellent. Their brownies, heated up, are like hot fudge at the center with a crunchy and crispy exterior, rich and chocolatey and as dense as a black hole. Luckily, their coffee is outstanding as well and works well to bring you back down to Earth before drifting too far into the core of chocolate nirvana. Lighter fare is usually available and desserts with rose water or honeysuckle or a light misting of lavender could be available and should be sampled. The best part of Butterwood is that they’re open until 11pm Monday through Saturday and 9pm on Sundays to ensure whenever you want that perfect slice of cake, you won’t have to sacrifice quality for convenience.

10. Pallantia / 5-13-17 / Shadyside

10 pallantia meat fiesta

There are a couple of notable Spanish restaurants around the city (the legendary Mallorca, last year’s list-maker Morcilla ) and I had a truly delicious meal dining at one I hadn’t previously visited back in May. They have quite a sizeable menu and I was especially impressed at their wide breadth of protein offerings (from all sorts of seafood, chicken, pork, beef, chorizo, etc). We ordered what we lovingly referred to as the “meat fiesta”, which came with chorizo, chicken, pork, and steak, with potatoes and saffron. It was a behemoth. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but this is an enormous paella pan, used to serve up a true meat party from all across the barnyard. The homemade chorizo was a standout for me, densely ground, black on the outside and a deep dark red within, with strong flavors of cumin, garlic, ancho chili, and paprika. I’m a sucker for a good sampler platter and this was easily one of the best that I was able to share and enjoy with friends this year.

 

9. Tan Lac Vien / 2-5-17 / Squirrel Hill

9 tan lac vien chicken rice noodle thing

Easily my favorite Vietnamese in the city right now is in Squirrel Hill at Tan Lac Vien. They have such a nice amount of options from the broken rice bowls to pho to the noodle bowls (bun vermicelli) to these, the vermicelli lettuce wraps (banh hoi). Not pictured are the hard shiny discs of dried vermicelli (think the translucent wrapper around a fresh summer roll). You slowly rotate those discs in the hot water they provide until it becomes soft and pliable, almost like a thick sheet of gelatin. Then, it’s up to you to stuff it with whatever protein you’ve ordered (in this case the lemongrass marinated pork), as well as pickled vegetables, fresh cilantro or basil, and any amount of vinegar fish sauce, or plum sauce, or sriracha. You roll it all up into your own kind of fresh roll and chow down. The pork is wonderfully charred and crunchy from the sweet glaze and crushed peanuts, and leaves a delicious smokey sauce on the bed of tightly wound rice noodles that it lays on. I’ve been consistently impressed with Tan Lac Vien and I look forward to more authentic cuisines taking the forefront as Sichuan cooking has in recent months.

 

8. Scratch / 5-20-17 / Troy Hill

I first discovered Scratch for myself back in 2016, and I have to admit it’s only gotten better. This year we were able to sample their offerings for brunch with some friends and it was an outstanding meal from start to finish. Their chicken and biscuits were incredible, with the hot and spicy breading breaking down into the english muffin and covered with a wonderful relish dressing, like a deconstructed fried chicken sandwich. The star was truly the pork belly and eggs with perfectly crispy and fatty thick cut pork belly under a sunny-side-up egg so when the yolk was burst, it allowed the entire dish to bathe in its rich sauce. A beautiful space when the walls can be opened and the entire restaurant becomes like eating outside, with excellent food and service to match. I look forward to returning to Troy Hill soon. I’ve also been buzzed about Pear and the Pickle, just a couple of streets away, so it looks like a trip is soon in order.

 

7. Streets on Carson / 2-16-17 / Southside

7 streets on carson philly sammy

When I was in Philadelphia last year, I had the pleasure to stop by the Reading Terminal Market and enjoy the epic DiNic’s Roast Pork Sandwich. A big crusty italian roll sliced horizonally and layered with huge slices of fresh roast pork, topped with shaved sharp provolone, and topped with garlicky broccoli rabe. It’s one of the most magnificent sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life and you owe it to yourself to try one if you’re ever in the Reading Terminal Market and hungry for a pork sandwich. The Roast Pork Broccoli Rabe at Streets on Carson is not that sandwich. It’s a wonderful and beautifully executed tribute. It takes the large slices of pork and replaces it with slow cooked, wonderfully seasoned roast pulled pork, takes the rabe and adds far more stalk and crunch, takes the chunks of sharp provolone and brings it down far more mild into deli slices, and brings the hoagie bun down to more manageable and softer territory. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an outstanding sandwich on its own and it does a wonderful homage to its predecessor. Where they win at Streets is with their house french fries. My goodness these fries. Perfectly cooked, slathered in garlic and herbs and cheese, these fries threaten to outshine some of the sandwiches. Easily my favorite thing at Streets are the Confit Chicken Wings. Cooked to perfect consistency and temperature, the meat is held onto the bone with only the most tenuous of ties, threatening to leap off and into your mouth at a moment’s notice. They’re seasoned with a wonderful combination of garlic and jalapeno and finished with lemon for a beautiful citrus acidic bite to help elevate the roasty toasted garlic and onion flavors. It’s a beautiful preparation and I only wish more places offered confit wings. Streets on Carson does its part to elevate Southside cuisine (along with Carmella’s, Stagioni, and a few others) and I want to recognize that achievement.

 

6. Teppanyaki Kyoto / 1-21-17 / Highland Park

Making its way back onto the list from 2016, I had to recognize Teppanyaki Kyoto once again. Subsequent visits have allowed me to enjoy nearly the entire menu and there really isn’t a bad dish in the bunch. The takoyaki are easily one of my favorite dishes in the entire city and no one else does them as well as Teppanyaki Kyoto does. Wonderfully light batter, studded with sweet and slightly chewy octopus, deep fried and topped with kewpie mayo, green onion, and the star of the dish (as far as I’m concerned) the dried bonito shavings. Beyond the snacks, their whole grilled teriyaki eel is all of the best parts of Unagi without the rice getting in the way. Incredibly sweet and smooth fish, wonderful oceanic saltiness and just the ever so slight bitterness of the skin and deep caramel of the sauce, it’s a wonderful seafood experience. Every course, all of the pacing, all of the plates and preparations and organization is executed wonderfully. Time and again, Teppanyaki Kyoto never fails to impress with their wide array of offerings and continual success plate after plate. I could eat those takoyaki every single day and never get tired of them.

5. DiAnoia’s Eatery / 9-17-17 / Strip District

5 Dianoia's benedict

We dined with them for the first time last year for New Year’s Eve and have visited multiple times both just as a couple and with friends. Consistently, time and again they have provided outstanding food, exceptional drinks, and exemplary service. For dinner, their cacio e pepe was second to none, perfect housemade noodles, beautifully balanced seasoning, gorgeous and velvety creamy cheese sauce. We’ve had so many of their breakfast offerings, but my favorite is the Prosciutto Eggs Benedict pictured above. The true definition of eggs benedict, with hollandaise and a poached egg, but a wonderful twist of creamed spinach and prosciutto. They don’t go for fancy or challenging food. It’s all delicious, it’s all straightforward and approachable and above all, consumable. A friendly place with a wonderful open floor plan, beautiful fixtures, and a true homey cafe feel, I cannot recommend DiAnoia’s enough for a simple and elegant Italian meal.

4. The Vandal / 6-3-17 / Lawrenceville

My favorite inventive and adventurous meal this year was enjoyed with another lovely couple back in June at The Vandal. A comically small restaurant (I think there were 6 tables?), each course feels like it’s being personally prepared and delivered by the chef herself. Though the menu has changed multiple times over, there are still hints of the dishes we enjoyed. The smoked fish crepes was an outstanding explosion of salty, smoked whitefish with the salty roe, light and fluffy crepes, and crunch scallions. I still think about that smoked fish. The take on fish and chips, raw thin slices of red snapper, crispy translucent slices of radish, crunchy fried potatoes, a drizzling of citrus and olive oil. It was the perfect crudo and the mild beauty seemed a world away from the boldness of the smoked fish. The carpaccio was easily some of the best I’ve ever had, with pickled vegetables, bright and vibrant olive oil and sea salt. The most basic of additions to help isolate and elevate the natural and raw flavors of the protein. The Executive Chef, Csilla Thackray is one of the best in the city and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

3. Gaucho Parilla Argentina / 4-27-17 / Strip District (Downtown)

I am an unapologetic carnivore and no place in the city makes me face that fact head on like Gaucho does. Not only do they butcher, prepare, and masterfully cook their meats over a wood-fire unlike anyone else, but they’ve created these dipping sauces that you can enjoy, ad infinitum with said meats. The chorizo (both hot and mild) is stunning in its simplicity: the perfect snap, smooth and rich ground sausage throughout, but with their garlic ajo or chimichurri, it’s another level. You’ll wish for a whole loaf of their toasted bread to go with the sauces, blistered peppers and onions that come with the meats.. Their chicken is next level, with that incredible spice rub of  garlic, scallions, lemon, lime, jalapenos, and even more incredible flavor  from the slow wood-fire barbecuing that they receive. The chicken is only slightly crispy on the outside, where the rub has started to char and burn into the skin perfectly, with that explosive smoked chicken meat within. It’s a salacious, carnivorous mess, but one which you’ll come back for time and time again.

 

2. Spork / 4-14, 8-26-17 / Garfield

Also returning for the second year in a row is Spork, the magical small-plates restaurant helmed by Christian Frangiadis. This year, they added Spork Pit right next door in the empty lot. It’s a small BBQ operation, but the best part is that some of the items made their way onto the regular menu inside at Spork. The gorgeous BBQ chicken wings were perfectly smoked, with that unbelievably crunchy lacquer on the outside and beautifully pink smoked meat within. I was so impressed with these chicken wings and I cannot wait to try more from Spork (and Spork Pit) next season. Even greater than the wings (can you imagine that?) is the smoked brisket weck. Their take on the beef on weck, with perfectly smoked beef brisket, cooked so low and slow that most of that connective tissue had broken down to barely hold the meat slices together, but still with enough chew to keep it as a cohesive sandwich, topped with pickled onion, Dijon mustard and horseradish, all on the perfect salt encrusted hard-roll. This was easily the best sandwich I had all year and I look forward to returning and enjoying it yet again with one of their delicious house-made cocktails.

1. Honest John’s / 9-30, 12-3, 12-16-17 / Homestead

What makes a good restaurant? I’d argue that it’s good service, good food, in an appropriate setting, all at an appropriate price point. I know that’s one of the most subjective sentences that could ever possibly be, but follow me here for a second. Honest John’s is located off of the madness that is the Waterfront on 8th avenue (across the street from where Smoke used to be and right down from Dorothy 6). So for me, it’s a neighborhood restaurant, check. Walking in, they’ve got a nice breathable space with a couple of side rooms with a few tables and a main dining room with a full bar and 4 four tops set up and spread out. For me, that’s a nice amount of room to spread out and not feel like the couple next to you is sitting right on top of you. Appropriate setting, check. The menu is only one page long (with a huge $8-$10 cocktail list on the back) with all items ranging from $5 for bread with oil/rosemary honey butter to $29 for the steak, so check and double check. The entire staff is wonderful, friendly, willing to have a conversation even if they’re swamped, and gracious throughout, so check. I could belabor the point, but I think Honest John’s has cracked the secret formula: make good food and don’t be shitty and you’ve got a winning restaurant. My favorite item that I’ve ordered for lunch so far has been the smoked blue cheese wedge with homemade smoked blue cheese dressing, enormous lardons of bacon and strips of acidic green apple to help cut through that incredible richness of the fatty pork and dressing. Just a note, I added some of their grilled chicken to the entree and it as perfectly filling and a very generous portion. I’ve had their fish specials twice and each time the fish was perfectly cooked, fresh-tasting and wonderfully balanced in seasoning. I’ve had filets pan seared with that excellent crunchy layer on the outside and that melty soft and beautiful flake of a fresh fish within. The pimento mac and cheese is another grandslam, an enormous portion of noodles with the perfect zing of ancho chili and all topped with toasted garlic bread crumbs. I’ve also enjoyed the black bean soup, which is a meal in and of itself, an enormous bowl of creamy pureed black beans, wonderfully seasoned with a light hand as to not make it too salty, but still bring it out of a drab bowl of beans, and a beautiful dollop of sour cream on top. All of the best parts of black bean dip, with a spoon. I’m consistently impressed by the quality of the offerings from the kitchen from Honest John’s and I hope to see them thrive for years and years to come.

 

So another year has come and gone and while my updates haven’t been as consistent, that doesn’t make the food scene in Pittsburgh any more thriving. I am so lucky to be a part of this growing community. I hope we can all embrace the changes and help support those local restaurants that we all love so much.

I’ve attempted to keep my records accurate and as I remember them, but please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at DavidTheGastronome@gmail.com in case you’d like to discuss any of my list with me, also be sure to follow my Instagram and Like my page on Facebook. I would not exist without you, so please let me know what I can do to make this blog a more enjoyable experience. Thank you so much!

8-23 and 10-03-17 / Casellula @ Alphabet City / Pittsburgh, PA (North Side)

Blue, Pressed & Cooked, Washed, Bloomy / Soft-Ripened, Fresh cheeses

Over on the Unplanned Comedy Podcast “Food Weirdos” you can listen to me chat about cuisine with hosts Steve and Josie. It was a wonderfully fun time and I reference this very review in it. I wanted to get it up before the podcast went live, but it was their diligence and my busy schedule that resulted in the situation ending up like it did.

I chose to go to Casellula this year for my birthday as I’d read a lot about it’s fascinating background and also the story behind Alphabet City. I wasn’t too concerned with making a meal out of cheese, but I quickly found myself enthralled with their incredible small plates and cocktail offerings. Our waitress and their in-house fromagier (like a sommelier but for cheese) both provided top-notch service during a wonderful meal enjoyed in a socially-conscious and modern respite on the border of the Mexican War Streets on the North Side.

Rose Colored Glasses
ROSE COLORED GLASSES – GIN, APEROL, ST. GERMAIN, LIME, CIDER, ABSINTHE, LEMON

Casellula has a great cocktail menu, with very inventive modern twists on classic cocktails. We enjoyed a few, but I only captured two of them. Front and center was my second cocktail, the Rose Colored Glasses. Made with Gin, Aperol, St. Germain, Lime, Cider, Absinthe, and Lemon this was the perfect summer spritz with a delicious sharp citrus bite and sweet finish from the Cider. I also had the Death Will Tremble, which was Bourbon, Ancho Reyes, Lime, Basil, and Celery. It had a wonderful smoke and earth notes from the basil and celery without being too strong or heavy-handed on the balance of bourbon and smoke from the chili. My wife enjoyed the Longhand which was Vodka, Ginger, Lime, and Lustau Sherry. It was also delicious, as were all of the cocktails, a wonderful balance between flavors of the herbs and fruit additions as well as the natural complexities of the liquors themselves.

With our cheeses, we ordered the assorted olives as well as the housemade pickled vegetable of the season (dilly beans). The olives were a nice mix of my personal favorite Castelvetrano (the huge meaty green ones), Kalamata, and various others. The dilly beans were super fresh, really crisp and with a wonderful vinegary tang to cut through the rich and creamy cheeses. Speaking of which…

The cheeses. Goodness me the cheeses. If you haven’t already, take a quick gander at what they’re currently offering. It’s a (positively) overwhelming list of ~30 rotating cheeses, the likes of which I haven’t seen anything close in Pittsburgh. They separate the cheeses out into 5 distinct categories: Fresh, Bloomy/Soft-Ripened, Washed, Pressed & Cooked, and Blue. The list, as well as how they were served (from right to left) is in order of complexity and depth of aging and flavors. We left it up to the fromagier to choose one cheese from each category and expected a delivery of five cheeses. A wonderful and dear friend knew that we were planning on dining there for my birthday and paid for one of our cheeses ahead of time so we enjoyed 6, with two from the Bloomy/Soft-Ripened list. It is with deep sadness that I can’t recall (and foolishly didn’t record) which cheeses they were, so the best I can do is talk about their paired side and the general flavors of what we enjoyed.

The far right was a fresh cheese, smooth and creamy-rich, with a sweet carrot puree. The earthiness of the sweet carrots was a nice low note to the high end of the heavy mouth feel of the creamy fresh cheese. Next was another wonderfully creamy milky cheese, with a beautiful gooey rind served with a strawberry jam and a gorgeous soft-ripened brie with sweet pickled red onions. Only slightly funky, with a wonderful gooey mouthfeel, the sweet and sour pairings helped bring them down to a beautiful creamy/acidic balance. The washed (rind) cheese was similar to a piave with a nice soapiness and good hard bite similar to a good cheddar. The pairing was an incredible pesto with powerful garlic and basil notes, joining together with its paired cheese to create the ultimate flavor (garlic bread, of course). Moving further left and deeper into the aged cheese category, the magically funky and melty-gooey Pressed category cheese were served with a far more vinegary and pickled onion, crunchy and bold enough to cut through that deep funk of a good aged pressed cheese. Finally, the blue was a jump-in-the-air-and-roundhouse-kick-you-in-the-face bold. Enormous veins of that outstanding bleu mold intertwined this incredible pile of cheese so creamy and crumbly and impossibly old that it couldn’t be properly sliced or hold any shape. It was served with house-made caramels and was so incredibly bold and rich, I was ready to be done right there. That would have been foolish, however as we hadn’t even received our main courses!

It’s very safe bet that when you see a menu that features something as half of the menu (be it small plates, sushi, steak, or in this case cheese) that the other half is probably going to be just alright. No one is going to Capital Grill for their Fish if they’re looking for good fish. That all being said, if you’re looking for amazing pasta and incredible large plates, Casellula hits the grand slam with that one. The mac and cheese (an easy no-brainer at a restaurant that can do the sauce with expert precision) was outstanding. Studded with large chunks of pork lardon and baked in a cast-iron skillet, the incredibly creamy and cheesy sauce was filled with fresh-made gigli (bell-shaped) pasta. Wonderfully al-dente, the corn ravioli was equally outstanding. The sweet corn both outside and within the ricotta filling of the ravioli perfectly matched with the savory herbs and broth. The roasted grape tomatoes and the clams in the spaghettini elevated the rich and complex lightly salty seafood broth, definitely enjoyable as the ravioli was with both fork and spoon. Finally, the Pig’s Ass was bold in both nomenclature and flavor. A wonderful take on the classic cuban with pork loin, gooey melty emmentaler and cheddar cheeses, bread and butter pickles, and a chipotle aioli (on the side in case it was too spicy). The aioli was wonderfully creamy with heavy notes of garlic and smoky chipotle pepper without much of the spice from their seeds. All in all, four outstanding entrees from a restaurant that had already proven itself so much in their cheese selections.

The stunning selection of cheeses and pairings from that day. It was a marvel just to behold and I knew we’d have to return soon.

In October, my wife and I returned for an American Cheese tasting class. It was a treasured experience and led by an extremely intelligent graduate student. We learned about the history of cheese and how the American cheese movement started and grew through the exploration of 5 modern cheeses.

The cheeses were introduced and plated in order of age/complexity from left to right. We started with the Chevre from the Vermont Creamery in Vermont (naturally). A young cheese (aged only 2 weeks to up to 6 weeks), this chevre is one of the finest goat cheeses available. The perfectly light and milky, grassy flavors fall away to a wonderful richness and just the slightest almond end-notes. Aged around 6 weeks, the much bolder Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont was wonderfully stinky, but gooey and salty as a good soft-ripened cow’s milk should be. While the rind was edible, there were pieces that had spruce bark still connected to it which were very fibrous and woody. Up next, the wonderful triangle of Dirty Girl from Prodigal Farm in North Carolina. It was a goat’s milk washed-rind cheese, with a soft buttery texture and flavor. Still less than a year aged, it wasn’t very strong or pungent at all, very mellow and similar to a good havarti. The Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Creamery in Wisconsin is one of my favorite cheeses of all time. Not surprisingly, it’s the most awarded American artisan cheese currently available. Wonderfully aged, crumbly, salty and sharp in its crystallization, deep and rich, and tastes like an 14-20 months aged raw cow’s milk should. Finally, the Big Woods Blue from Shepherd’s Way Farm in Minnesota rounded out the plate. Powerfully sharp with complex notes of barnyard, grass, wet hay, and a deep saltiness, it’s the dictionary-perfect blue cheese. The mold in the Big Woods Blue was modeled after the original blue cheese Roquefort, so it’s not surprising the tastes are so similar.

The wines and beer were good, but nothing I would seek out on my own. The Matchbook Tino Rey (red) was a mix of Tempranillo, Syrah, and Cab from Lake County in California. It was dry but had a good balance due to the firm tannins. The Cave Spring (white) was a Riesling from Beamsville Bench in Ontario and had a nice balance of citrus and minerals due to the limestone clay soil that it’s grown in. The beer was a Troeges Solid Sender from the Troegs Brewing Company in Hershey. Made with mosaic and cascade hops, the IPA was perfectly fine, but I wasn’t crazy about the dry finish or heavy caramel hop flavor.

It was fascinating to learn that while other countries may have specific varietals of cheese protected by AOC or DOC (Parmigiano Reggiano, Camembert, Roquefort, etc) we can name our American cheeses pretty much whatever we want due to lab-created cultures and different affinages. Hence cheeses with names like “Dirty Girl” and “Rowdy Gentleman” from Prodigal Farms. I was so happy to have the opportunity to spend the time after class was over talking with the instructor and learning even more. If you’re a cheese lover, go subscribe to their newsletter  to find out when their next classes will be offered. You may not love your classmates, but I bet you’ll love the samplings and the instructor.

Whether for dinner, a quick drink, an informative class, or enough cheese to sink a small shipping vessel, make it a priority to get down to Alphabet City over on the North Side and check out Casellula.

 

 

9-27-17 / Huszar / Pittsburgh, PA (North Side)

Hagymás Rostélyos

I apologize for not posting since March, but things have been quite hectic and I just honestly haven’t made the time to write up my meals. I’ve been posting pictures and quick reviews over on my Instagram, but it’s been too long since I’ve done a full write-up.

On Wednesday, we met some friends for dinner over on the North Side for some authentic Hungarian at Huszar. We were greeted by the owner Judy, who was an outstanding and patient guide to their menu and the cuisine that her husband cooks up in the kitchen. Judy opened up the restaurant after her Hungarian father (who owned the bar that was there previously) passed away and named it after the branch of the Hungarian military that her father had served in. Judy was wonderfully passionate and heartfelt about all of the elements of the restaurant and

The meal was extremely special, hearing the insight on each of the dishes and how they ended up on this very straightforward and authentic menu. This is real Hungarian cuisine, which the city is severely lacking. Do yourself a favor and make the voyage to the very corner of the North Side and get some stick-to-your-ribs comfort food.

Taste of Husvar
Taste of Husvar Cheese and Meat Sampler

As a sign it’s been far too long since I did a proper update, I only got a picture of one of the three appetizers that the table shared. The Taste of Husvar is their take on the universal meat and cheese board that’s found its way into every higher-end Pittsburgh restaurant. The meats were a selection of a soft dry-cured salami, hard scout sausage, and smokey kielbasa. Directly next to the meats, easily confused with ketchup was their homemade “special sauce”, a wonderfully salty red pepper paste that complimented the rich and fatty meats and cheeses beautifully. The cheeses were two types of standard imported and fresh sliced, nothing to write home about and clearly not the star of the dish. The hardboiled egg was perfectly cooked with that luminescent yolk and a beautiful smooth richness throughout. The challah was a unique addition, as were the grapes and grape tomatoes, and dill-seasoned fresh vegetables, but the plate worked overall as a nice shareable and knosh-able plate.

The two unpictured appetizers fared FAR better. The Fried Cheese (Rántott Sajt) was lightly coated and perfectly fried to a rich and deep golden brown, allowing the wonderful cheese within to ooze out. Served with a sweet Hungarian style tartar dressing and white rice (trust me it works), the whole dish was delicious. Salty and aged notes from the cheese, fatty oil and crunch from the fried coating, and sweet and sour from the tartar with the earthiness and root of the white rice. A really well-composed and tasty appetizer.

The must-order and stand-out of the appetizer selections are the potato pancakes (Tocsi). A plate-sized disc of finely-shredded potato, crisped to an outstanding golden brown, seasoned perfectly with salt, pepper, and garlic, topped with meted shredded cheese and sour cream. Crunchy layers gave way to smooth and earth insides which practically melted together with the cheese and sour cream. A light hand with the salt went a long way to keep us going back more and more. We had to order two, they were that good.

With the protein-heavy and deeply rich entrees that we ordered, we had to do a few sides of their house salads. The red cabbage salad (Káposztasaláta) was outstandingly fresh and crunchy, with wonderful herbs and seasonings like toasted caraway seed throughout. The sour vinegar punch worked ideally in between bites of my steak to break through the heaviness of the garlicky meat and mountain of fried onions (more on that later). The cucumber salad with sour cream (Uborkasaláta) was equally delicious with the sour cream becoming more of a dressing/sauce over the pickled and thinly sliced cucumbers. The nice light crisp of the cucumbers in the velvety sour cream sauce were wonderfully salty and sweet and also provided that much-needed respite from the main courses.

Talking with Judy the owner as we sat there, she walked us through each of the entree options and answered our multitude of questions with a wonderful zeal and evident passion. I would have been happy ordering any of the entrees, but ultimately I decided on her favorite dish, the steak smothered in fried onions (Hagymás Rostélyos) She says that she tries to order it everywhere she goes when she’s in Hungary and I can see why. Pounded out thin and marinated in garlic, herbs, and heavily spiced with pepper, the steak was a flavor explosion. The generous cut was cooked to a wonderful medium, the meat was tender and juicy, and it was well-butchered without a hint of gristle or fat. The co-star was the 50 pounds of impossibly thinly sliced and flash-fried onion rings covering the steak and most of the plate. Again, perfect restraint was shown in over-seasoning or salting the onions as the steak provided enough of a flavor bomb for both of them. The onion rings weren’t greasy but the crunchy fry served perfectly to elevate the already explosive steak while balancing out the flavors. The wedge fried potatoes (which were also the side with the pork loin) were excellent. Crunchy and crispy on the outside, with soft pillowy mashed potato insides. You could tell great care had been taken with the fried potatoes and they weren’t some throwaway side that came with the plate. The fresh vegetables that appeared again and again were a nice break from the heavy steak and potatoes, but I could have done without the strong red onion; the cucumbers and red pepper did the job just as well on their own.

The pork loin with bacon strip (Cigány Pecseny) that my wife ordered was also very tasty. Pounded out thin and lightly pan fried, topped with a gorgeous thick cut slab of bacon, it had wonderful flavor throughout and was also served with those amazing fried potato wedges. I had to take a picture of the Chicken Paprikas because it was too pretty not to. The cornerstone of the Hungarian “meat and dumplings” dishes, it was a generous portion of chicken and house-made dumplings (nokedli) covered in their delicious paprika cream sauce. I will definitely be back to get an order in these upcoming months as the weather turns colder.

We couldn’t leave such a sweet host without having a sampling of their authentic desserts. The chocolate torte was lovely but standard, with a nice dry crumb and rich buttercream icing and having that good European balance of not being too sweet and using mostly dark (and not milk) chocolate. The palcsinta (of which you can choose apricot, strawberry, nutella, cottage cheese, or apricot and ground walnut paste) was a wonderful crepe extremely similar to a blintz. The crepe itself was eggy and soft, with that wonderful sweet light sponge texture, it enveloped the filling in a harmonious balance. We opted for both the nutella and house-special Gundel (apricot jam, ground walnuts, and rum) and both were delicious. The nutella was by far the richer and more decadent of the two, with the traditional jam and nut paste reminding me of a Kifli, or traditional Hungarian walnut cookie. The standout for me was the Kremes, the Hungarian version of a Napoleon with crispy and flaky puff pastry under a layer of powdered sugar, barely containing a tall layer of fresh whipped cream and vanilla custard. The fresh pastry flaked apart wonderfully, painfully fresh and light as air daring to float away with clouds of whipped cream, were it not kept down by the smooth and velvety custard.

 

There is hardly a better feeling than walking into a restaurant and instantly feeling like a regular, like you’re welcomed, and like you belong. From the very first smile from Judy and the earnest and attentive service from Mike (our waiter), to settling up the bill and walking back to our cars, it was a wonderful and personal experience. So often you can feel like just another table, serviced as quick as possible to turn into another faceless and nameless party, throwing your money into an abyss towards who knows what. Having that personal touch and feeling not only welcomed, but invited and guided through the meal is something that you just cannot get at a larger, more commercial restaurant. Please go see Judy at Huszar, get some potato pancakes to start, a big ole honkin plate of meat and carbs for your entree, and some Kremes for dessert. I guarantee it won’t be your last trip.