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Pittsburgh’s food and restaurant scene: Simply excellent

Photo by Lynne Deliman
Haluski has been a staple in years past at the St. Mary's Ukrainian Festival in McKees Rocks, such as this one held back in 2018. 

By Tara Bailey

-Did You Know-

Did you know the popular review website Yelp ranked Pittsburgh as among the top 10 foodie cities in 2019? This did not surprise Pittsburghers who grew up eating all these delectable delights. As newer cuisines become incorporated into the local food culture, Pittsburghers still yearn for food from yesteryear. Icons we still crave include Toulas Hot Dog Shop on Federal Street in the Northside, Jenny Lee Bakery, and Candy Rama, the epicenter of sugary treats. Eating at the Tic Toc Restaurant inside Kaufman’s Department Store downtown was as natural as telling someone to “meet me under the Kaufman’s clock.”

Although these eateries have been long gone, they laid the foundation for up-and-coming restaurateurs to add to the staple of comfort foods.

Comfort foods such as:

Haluski, a cabbage and noodle dish smothered in butter, is often sold at the St. Mary’s Ukrainian Festival in McKees Rocks, Three Rivers Art Festival, and various local church fundraisers. It’s also cooked in your grandmothers’ kitchen.

• The pierogi, a savory or sweet dumpling, made its way from Poland to Pittsburgh and became the mascot of Pittsburgh foods. You can find pierogies sold in the Strip District, Bloomfield, or Oakland, but Pierogies Plus in McKees Rocks remains the upper echelon of these sometimes fried or boiled potato-filled dumplings.

For new restaurateurs to coexist with these mega-giants, they had to create cuisines fusing old-world recipes with Pittsburghese to attract foodies and down-home cooking enthusiasts. Pretentious food is not what Pittsburgh is known for; simplicity is the main ingredient for longevity.

Did you know Gus and Yiayia’s Old Fashioned Ice Balls have been a fixture in Allegheny Commons Park since 1934? This orange food cart has been the beacon on the North Side since “Your dad was a lad.” Ice balls drenched in classic flavors of cherry and blue raspberry, popcorn and peanuts are often craved by steel city natives.

Salem’s Halal Market and Grill in the Strip District also has a rich history. Salem’s started as a humble supplier of quality foods to schools and restaurants in 1983. With the guidance of a marketing-savvy younger generation, Salem’s branched out to become the latest destination for its double-decker cheeseburger. There is no greater pleasure in life than eating the juiciest double-decker cheeseburger with a side of fries.

Did you know the Huffington Post named Prantl’s Burnt Almond Torte the Best Cake in America? This slice of heaven is absent of chocolate but makes up for it with its rich custard and burnt crunchy almonds. Pittsburghers always give credit when credit is due. No other bakery claims to make a burnt almond torte better than Prantl’s, nor do they try. Instead, they specialize in what makes their bakery unique to the city. Le Petite Café and Grill on the Southside dazzle patrons with lavender cupcakes and oversized chocolate cookies and french toast obviously made with love. One can live in Pittsburgh their entire life and somehow miss the hidden gems, mostly because of the lack of desire to leave their side of town.

Did you know that to thrive in the shadow of legendary establishments is no easy feat? Trying to compete with Pamela’s, Deluca’s, Joseph Tambellini, Tessaro’s, Grandma B’s, Grand Concourse, Union Grill, LeMont, Sammy’s Pizzeria, or Hook Fish & Chicken is a recipe for being a jagoff. These are satisfaction-guaranteed restaurants. It does not matter if it is mom-and-pop or dress code and tablecloths – that is not what makes a Pittsburgh eatery. You must give the people what they desire.

Hook Fish and Chicken in McKees Rocks coats its food with mysterious seasonings that drive insane people trying to recreate them. Sammy’s hoagies are flavorful, and devouring their succulent steak hoagies will leave you scrambling for seconds. There are no words that could describe the mouthwatering Grand Concourse Brunch Buffet.

The Union Grill Devonshire has a perfect balance of fresh turkey and cheese sauce, which is up there with Greek mythology. Poseidon himself would have swum the three rivers and walked to Oakland to order one. And how heavy is the head that wears the crown for Primanti Brothers! This classic sandwich of Italian bread, grilled meat, melted provolone, tomatoes, vinegar-based coleslaw, and a flawless amount of french fries is more famous than the phrase “Your Kennywood’s open.”

Did you know Pittsburgh is home to some of the most iconic foods on the market? William Isaly founded the vanilla squared and chocolate-covered Klondike ice cream bar. For a few decades, the Isaly family only manufactured and sold this delicious confection in Pennsylvania and Ohio. In the 1970s, the Klondike Bar went national and was added to the long roster of hometown products originating in Pittsburgh that includes Heinz Ketchup, the Clark Bar, Sarris Candy, Snyder of Berlin, Arnold Palmer, Turner’s Dairy and Little Hug Fruit Barrels (Huggies).

Did you know Pittsburgh is not only about nostalgic foods? New restaurants like Tako, the Asian-Mexican fusion, or Cobra’s Japanese Wagyu will surely carve out a path in Pittsburgh’s culinary scene. Just as long as they serve Heinz Ketchup, new restaurants will do just fine.

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