It’s been a couple of years since I did one of these lists so here we go again. The food scene has changed a lot in Pittsburgh over the last ten years or so, but it feels like it is growing and changing even faster now than before. So there are a of new things on this list. The new things don’t really replace the older things on the old list. But they deserve mention, so that the list isn’t always the same old things over and over again.
With that in mind, and in no particular order, here we go.
I am not in the habit of writing “best of” lists because I think they imply a level of objectivity and exhaustive coverage that is not practical for me to claim. That said, Cure is obviously the best restaurant in Pittsburgh right now. If you have any interest in food at all, and in cured meat in particular, you owe it to yourself to go down there and at least order a large salumi plate to share with two or three of your best friends. Aside from that obvious namesake it’s hard to single out particular items on the menu that stand out, because everything is great. Over and over again what Severino does with his food is present me with a dish that I think will be too heavy, too busy, too pretentious, or just too much until I start eating it and it’s perfect.
Here are a few things to consider.
The “Gluttony” is the perfect dish to order after the large salumi. If your goal is to spend the next six months in a meat coma.
Periodically they will do a poached or grilled fish with this lemon curd sauce that seems like it should be on your dessert, but is perfect in every way.
Really good meatballs.
They’ve done steak tartare a few different ways. Always a winner.
Finally, almost every time I go the place is blasting Talking Heads over the sound system. So what more do you need?
That Legume now qualifies as an “old favorite” is pretty much all you need to know about what has happened to food in Pittsburgh in the last few years. Legume has recently relocated from their old haunts in Regent Square to a somewhat out-of-the-way corner of North Oakland that used to be occupied by what I would have called a “blue hair” place. But these days I’m old enough for people to accuse me of turning a place into a “blue hair” place, so I’m not sure what to do.
The move has made the place bigger, added a bar, added a lunch menu, and changed and expanded some of the things they do on the dinner menu. The space is also slightly less intimate and personal than it used to be, but that might just be nostalgia for cramped tables. The food is still great. The lunch menu is really enjoyable. They make some of the best fries in town now. Finally, they still have the only good flourless chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten. And it’s still the best chocolate cake in Pittsburgh.
I have spent more than two thirds of my life wishing that there was a good noodle place in Pittsburgh. A place with fresh noodles made in the store and good soups to go with them. Everyday Noodles is finally that place, as an extra super-terrific bonus they also make Shanghai Soup Dumplings. These little sacks filled with meatballs and soup (how do they do that?) are as good as any I’ve had anywhere (although I’ve only had them in Pittsburgh, Flushing and Hong Kong). The great rice bowls with braised pork belly and the steamed egg custard buns are just icing on the cake. Go everyday until you’ve tried everything.
Dish is another perennial favorite. If you weren’t paying attention you might think that the place was standing still and never really changing. After all, what I wrote almost ten years ago still just about everything I’d ever need to say about the place. But I think such a conclusion would be misleading.
While Dish has kept its overall direction and vibe the same, it has also quietly kept up with the newer aspects of the Pittsburgh food scene. You can still get the transcendent grilled seafood and the always excellent steak and risotto. But we always go for the ever changing list of small dishes and salads. Cod fritters, the blood orange salad, the marinated olives, the grilled squid with spinach, and of course, the grilled sardines and caramelized onions. And don’t forget about the mango cake in the summer.
My buddy Pete always tells me that the pizza at Dinette is too expensive and there are too many kids there. I tell him that you don’t go for the pizza, you go for the salads. Dinette salads are always perfect. Not too big. Not too small. Just the right amount of greens vs. cheese, vs. potatoes, vs. other toppings. Never too much dressing. There is no better balanced food experience in Pittsburgh in my opinion. So go there and get a few glasses of wine, a couple of salads, the Frito Misto and the Salt Cod Toasts, if they have them. Then after that you go for the bacon and egg pizza. Because really, bacon and egg pizza.
How Lee joins Rose Tea, Everyday Noodles and Ka Mei as the pillars of great regional Chinese Food in Squirrel Hill. It’s appropriate that they would be in the main Jewish neighborhood in town since as we all know, the Jews and the Chinese are the same people.
Go for the Ma Po Tofu that is strong enough to peel your face off. Stay for the Tea Smoke Duck, the Chongqing Fire Chicken(tm), the twice cooked Pork Belly and the Dry Fried Green Beans. All great stuff. The only possible complaint is that the food is a bit oily. But that’s what you sign up for when you want to get blasted by weapons grade Szechuan peppercorn sauce.
This place used to be in Bloomfield but recently moved to the South Side. They make straightforward Italian food in medium to large portions. The thing to stand in line for is their house made fresh Mozzarella. Served with balsamic vinegar and various things on the side, it’s actually almost big enough for two people to eat as a meal. But you’ll be a sucker and order other things too. And then you’ll waddle home. I also like the olive oil cake.
For Easter this year they also made this crazy “Le Virtu” with 49 ingredients. If they do this again you should go.
I’m going to claim, without evidence, that Spoon marked in the inflection point after which all new restaurants in Pittsburgh could only have one word in their name. It’s more likely that this is Big Burrito’s fault (Kaya, Casbah, Eleven, Soba, Umi), but I like the Spoon story better.
We go to Spoon for two specific things, but they always give us another reason to be there once we are in the door. First, the cheese biscuits in their bread basket. There are probably people who would come to blows over those things. Second is the gorgonzola cheese soufflé appetizer. I also like the Spoon burger and fries more than their BRGR counterparts. Finally, I hear the bar is good, but would not know about those things.
When Smoke opened Pittsburgh finally got a good BBQ joint. The fact that the awesome smoked meat is wrapped up in neatly creative tacos, or dumped on top of mac and cheese, or fed to you for breakfast is an extra bonus. The ultimate compliment that I can pay to Smoke is that when I get a craving for what they do there is nowhere else on Earth that the craving can be satisfied. What they do is not fancy. It is not the most technical food. You do not need advanced degrees in food physics to understand how to do it. But they do it better than anyone else, so after you go once or twice you’ll be back for more. It is impossible to resist.
Penn Avenue Fish Company
The existence of a place like Penn Avenue in is something of a minor miracle. It should not be possible to get fish this good on a regular basis in this land locked mid-western city. But the place is there and we are better for it.
As for their other food, all you need to know is this. Most weeks of the year we get a Saturday breakfast there consisting of one of the soups (Gumbo!), maybe some sushi, a sandwich, or one of the big salads. When the time is right we’ll splurge on oysters. At last count we have probably done this a couple of hundred times. But we’ll be back next week to do it again.
You can’t really fit everything into only ten items. So here are a few more. You still have to go to Rose Tea for the Rose Tea things. The Golden Pig is far away in the wilds of Cecil township, but you should go there anyway. Fukuda is a place to go for creative sushi and other Japanese things. Notion is a place that did not make the main list because I’ve just not been there enough. You should go and then tell me that I’m stupid for not getting there. Tamari is also a strong place that we don’t get to enough. It has the distinction of being the only really good restaurant on the route 19 North corridor of the suburban hell hole that I live in. Finally, I really like Primanti’s and the O, so there. Don’t let the haters keep you away.