Part 3 of my guide to Pittsburgh. Here I’ll cover some of the more unique restaurants I found in Pittsburgh, plus some of restaurants in western Pennsylvania I came across while touring the countryside nearby.
The other parts to this series were on ethnic food and on comfort food.
Only in Pittsburgh
I dined at several restaurants in Pittsburgh that I found so unique I want to highlight them here. I had intended to include Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop in this post, but I accidentally put it in my last post, in the soda section. It certainly meets the criteria of being unique, so check it out if you missed it.
On the main street in Lawrenceville, there is a popular barbecue spot called Smoke. Or is it a taqueria? It actually is both. It is a fusion restaurant, combining the two cuisines. Looking at the taco menu, you would think that you were at bbq joint: brisket, pork, rib, or even burnt ends! All are served on a flour tortilla, made fresh daily. You can also find more traditional tacos in offerings such as the gringo, or more interesting combinations such as chicken and apple or BLT. It is the unique flavor combinations, perfectly balanced, that make this place worth visiting. Otherwise, you can find good tacos cheaper elsewhere. I ended up getting the chicken and apple, along with the brisket. Both were delicious. In addition to the barbeque, they also have a great selection of mixed drinks. I got the smoked horchatta. (Horchatta is a Salvadoran drink made from sweetened rice milk.)
Smoke is not the only restaurant in Pittsburgh the serves tacos. For another, travel to the Cultural District and a place called Tako. That is not a misspelling. As my friends from Japan know, Tako is the Japanese word for octopus. So Tako serves tako tacos! This theme is prevalent through out the atmosphere of the place, as even the door knobs are shaped like octopus tentacles. This place is very popular, though. I attempted three times before I finally got a sitting. But it was worth the effort! I’ve had octopus all over the world, and this place had some of the best! They also have other kinds of tacos, but you are missing out if you don’t try tako.
There is an unique restaurant in the Strip District that takes its inspiration from a ship’s galley. It is located on Smallman street, hence the name Smallman Galley. The concept, as stated by the owners is thus:
The Smallman Galley concept was envisioned at sea by two U.S. Navy Lieutenants. [ … ] On a warship, meals are at the center of daily life – this is the time when the crew can relax and unwind from the rigors of life at sea. The “Galley” is the place where the food for the entire crew is cooked and served. It symbolizes a tight community of hard-working people striving toward a common goal.
The Smallman Galley is a food incubator, a place where Chef’s can try out their concepts and hone their craft while starting a restaurant business. So the Galley not only offers space for new restaurants, but also training as well. They host four restaurants at a time and periodically rotate new ones in. As it turned out, I was there the first night that a new batch of start ups were opening: Iron Born, Colonia, Bahnmilicious, and Brunoise. The mix is purposely eclectic. Iron Born is a pizza parlor; Bahnmilicious serves the Vietnamese sandwiches for which it is named: Bahn Mi ; Colonia’s focus is on Latin and South American food, and at Brunoise you will find good old fashioned American food, although spruced up a bit.
You can think of the place as an upscale food court, but that description does not do it justice. The food is much, much better than you will find in any food court. And the setting much more intimate with dark lighting and long, sturdy wood tables. I had a delightful conversation with the other group at my table. Not only did I get a review of the food they had ordered, I also got good a recommendation for an ice cream place to try. After I got my pizza, made from fresh local ingredients, my table mates ordered one for themselves. The opportunity of this type of interactions is the real joy of the Smallman Galley!
In a plain looking building on Route 8 in Forest Hills, there is an old style pizza parlor. Vinnie’s Pizza is a bit of a local institution. It is a small, family owned business that has been there for decades. Vinnie is no longer making the pizza, but his son still is. Hand crafted to greasy perfection, this is a heavy meal that you will want to bring a group for. Thanks to my friend Paul for taking me to this place.
Hidden away in the hills above and behind the Monroeville Mall, along a ridge, is a most unusual restaurant. If you did not know it was there, you would never find it. A local had recommended the place to me, but wasn’t even sure it was still open. If you follow along the road the goes along the ridge, you’ll eventually come to a small, dark building decorated seasonally and overlooking Monroevile. This building houses The Overlook bar. You won’t find craft beer or fancy cocktails at this place. But what you will find is a small, cozy place, filled with memorabilia from decades. A place where everyone really does knows your name. It is quite special.
During my time in Pittsburgh, I took the opportunity to travel the country side and enjoy local festivals, such as the Pennsylvania Maple Festival and the Chickentown Gas and Steam, and hike some of the state parks. Here are some of the places I found during these excursions.
Slippery Rock is a small town about 50 miles north of Pittsburgh. It is perhaps most famous for its university. The campus is quite beautiful. But that is not why I was there. While doing some hiking at the Jennings Environmental Education Center , a local referred me to the North Country Brewing Company. This is a small brewery known not only for its craft beers, but also for its food. The atmosphere feels like a country barn, with open wood beams and oak tables giving the place a log cabin feel. They serve classic comfort food such burgers, steak, and sandwiches of all kinds. I had the brisket sandwich, slow cooked in their Buck Snort Stout and served open faced. and a slice of peanut butter pie for dessert. North Country has top notch food.
Between Pittsburgh and Meyersdale, in the tiny hamlet of Rockwood, lies a fun little restaurant called the Dough Girls. It is a Mom and Pop (mother/ daughter? two sisters?) pizza parlor run by two women. I’ve no idea their relationship is, but the service was friendly and the food was great. I don’t recall if they had dishes other than pizza, as I focused on that. They have quite a selection. I went with one of their original creations, a jalapeno popper pizza made peppers with ricotta cheese. You can tell that the chefs here are not afraid to take risks with their recipes, as the menu features creations that you will not find anywhere else. This risk taking pays off, as the results are quite spectacular.
But my favorite place in the Pittsburgh country side lies in the heart of Somerset PA. Somerset is 60 miles to the south east of Pittsburgh. In it is an old fashioned ice cream parlor called Bellas. If you are anywhere nearby, you have to visit this place. There you will find not only good food and great desserts, but also the kind of hospitality that you can only find in small town America. When I went in the place had been officially closed for a couple of hours, but the person there had kept it open and serving a group of college kids travelling back to Ohio from their Spring Break). Having just come from a festival, I was quite full so I ordered a freshly made fountain soda. A glance at the wall shows you the dozens of flavors available. I also bought a few cream puffs for the road. When I finally got to them, they were delicious. The students had full meals, classic diner food, which they heartily approved of. I certainly plan on going back here the next time I am in the area.