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!