Thursday, 6 March 2014

Epic Food Day #1: Pittsburgh (part 1)

By the end of our visit to the Strip District, John was just as cheerful as when we first met him earlier that day.
Have you ever been witness to a day when you knew it was going to be wonderfully amazing, enjoyable, and beyond any sensible reconstruction of words that just wouldn't seem to do justice to your experiences? Perhaps the term you might anticipate using at some point is "epic." I suppose from my lens epic-ness is an all-too-familiar concept applicable in my world of food, but without a doubt my trip with Brianne last weekend was nothing less than that. For reasons that will be much clearer in part 2 of this epic food day post, Brianne and I made our way over to Pittsburgh (hopefully the first of many more sites in the future), a drive that only took us about three hours to complete. She had never been, and I had visited just once prior (somehow over three years ago); still there was an interesting familiarity in the air, as if nothing has since changed. As we eventually learned from John (pictured above, making sure to have worn his "funny hat" [his words, not mine]) at the end of our trip throughout the Strip District, the main focus of this post, quite a bit has changed in terms of developing this part of the city. What has remained consistent in the past 35 years or so is the downtown foodie destination that is "The Strip," a historic conglomeration of retail produce and ethnic food stores, restaurants and coffee shops. Without a doubt, our time ahead was not to be merely epic, which in itself crams too many words and emotions into four little letters. To quote John, who has worked at the Pittsburgh Public Parking site (21st and Smallman St) for the past 35 years or so, the first half of our day in Pittsburgh was everything he'd hoped it would be for us, summarised in five (okay, technically six) letters: "a blast!"

Peace, Love & Little Donuts on Urbanspoon

During my previous visit to Pittsburgh and The Strip, one of my first stops was at a locale called Peace, Love & Little Donuts (2018 Smallman St), the location of which I associated with St. Stanislaus Church. En route to finding a parking spot (i.e., eventually at Pittsburgh Public Parking), I caught sight of the church and at that moment I knew we'd need to start out the day with fried dough. As we passed by John, cheerful as ever, I started to smell the cornucopia of flavours that awaited us a short two blocks away. Heading closer, the smells of Peace, Love & Little Donuts filled the air, the anticipation of introducing Brianne to this food scene becoming unabashedly apparent. A sign caught our eyes as we neared the tiny shop: "Featured Donut: Maple Bacon".

Well, that certainly took care of our first choice of six, as pictured above. Freshly made (and by made, I mean fried) right before customers' very eyes, these small, five- (or arguably two-) bite donuts are coated with truly appealing combinations, including but not limited to (clockwise from the maple bacon donut at 11:30-ish): Oreo, lemon strawberry, chocolate sprinkle, caramel macchiato, and cinnamon in the centre. With crisp and tasty exteriors, and airy and filling interiors, these relatively-expensive treats are all about the experience for me.

The donuts also served as a great starter course to our day of dining, the next stop of which was located just around two corners and suggested by one of my greatest foodie friends Tony (who I visited with my sister, Toni, the last time I was in Pittsburgh): Reyna Foods (2031 Penn Ave), Pittsburgh's premier Mexican grocery store (not to be confused by Casa Reyna located just next door and downstairs). Immediately, the smells of the outdoor stand just outside the store hit me, triggering a whole bunch of somethings in my lateral hypothalamus. After taking a quick stroll through the grocery selections, we went back outside and ordered some tacos for course two.

From right to left (just because), Brianne got a chicken taco, I got the pastor taco, and we split the beef barbacoa tacos. Starting with the foundation, the authentic slant of doubling up on the corn tortillas definitely added to the overall taste and texture of each taco [1,2]. They also seemed to valiantly attempt to hold the abundance of food piled on top (that, or I just couldn't figure out how to eat them quickly enough without forgetting to savour each bite). The chicken taco was moist and tender, with a subtle, almost negligible amount of heat coming from the Guajillo chiles, garlic, onion, and Mexican spices that had been used in the chicken's marinade. As for the taco al pastor, I could have probably eaten half a dozen of them in one go. The pork, paired with slices of absolutely perfect roasted pineapple, was marinaded in a combination of dried chiles and spices, the heat content of which was elaborated by the fact I bit into the seared jalapeño pepper sitting atop the barbacoa. The first bite of the pepper was manageable, but the second one took me down all the while adding to my sensitivity to the dried chiles incorporated into the tasty (though tougher) beef, along with the onion, garlic, and avocado leaves.

Finally (or at least somewhat) recovered from the jalapeño, we continued onward. After this caught my eye, we couldn't help (more so me than Brianne) but stop and go into In the Kitchen (1725 Penn Ave), Pittsburgh's specialty kitchenware store. I won't belabour this one too much except to note that I felt like a kid in a culinary candy store.

S & D Polish Deli on Urbanspoon

Passing by pastry stand upon pastry stand, and following our quick walkthrough of Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. (2010 Penn Ave), Poland's flag caught my eye, proceeded once again by my stomach and the hope that there were pączki being sold at S&D Polish Deli (2204 Penn Ave).

While we didn't eat a full meal here (and believe me I was tempted, especially given that Brianne has never had a pączek nor pierogi), I still think it's worth highlighting here (and linked via Urbanspoon). That said, we did happen to get there in time to pick up the last pączek, one filled with a deep-flavoured plum compote. Light, yet unquestionably rich (though slightly dry, but mainly because it was out for a while), the taste brought me back home to metro Detroit, where pączki are apparently much more well known and celebrated [1,2,3,4].

As we stepped back outside, the realisation that springtime was soon on its way became extremely apparent as some of the best weather in relatively recent memory shone throughout the Strip District. Into the sunlight and cool breeze, a literal candy store appeared, into which Brianne and I most certainly needed to venture. Grandpa Joe's Candy Shop (2124 Penn Ave) serves an eclectic mix of vintage and contemporary candies, has a section for just bacon-flavoured confections, and features a Pittsburgh Candy Buffet wall, in which a box full of your choice of candies is a mere $5.00. As if this wasn't enough, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is on constant loop in a special area toward the back dedicated to the brand, and the second floor has items bagged in bulk.

Mon Aimee Chocolat on Urbanspoon

Somehow I made it out of there without buying anything, but only because I was saving up for our second to last stop (can you tell Brianne and I really love multi-course desserts?), Mon Aimee Chocolat (2101 Penn Ave). I'm not entirely sure where the name comes from (cue the synapses all over my brain as my French training went to work), though for the time being, I'm going to assume this is a play on owner Amy Rosenfield's name. Upon entry into the store, the first thing that caught my eye (and will most likely catch yours) is the chocolate. In any given direction, on chairs, tables, bookshelves. and from the wrapped and imported to the locally packaged and labeled, chocolates sourced from all over the world had been gathered into this corner shop on 21st & Penn. Brianne ended up getting a chocolate bar with orange peel, as well as a small set of truffles, while I limited myself to a small scoop each of panned confections manufactured by NYC-based Koppers Chocolate: dark chocolate orange peel and orange blossom chocolate savouries. [As an aside: photos are not allowed inside the store, ergo my pictorial lack of chocolate temptations.]

Earlier in the day, a sign for free wine tastings caught our eyes. And with a bit of time before our evening voyage in Pittsburgh, we concluded our tour of The Strip at a family urban winery known simply as R Wine Cellar (2014 Smallman St), which opened barely two years ago. Lo, and behold, this tasting brought us back to the start, just a few doors down from Peace, Love & Little Donuts. As we walked in, a couple on their way out joked at the fact they left with far more than they intended to purchase.

Above photo courtesy of Kathy Russell
 The natural charm of Kathy and Steve Russell (co-owners of R, along with the support of their kids, Connor, Fiona, Margaret, and Thomas) are infectious and honest, clearly knowledgeable of wine palates and seemingly confident in their ability to match taste preferences just as much as they're excited to share their own. Inspired by their travels in Germany, the selection of wines they produce are unique and full of character, in the end attributes which add to the complexity and difficulty in making a selection or two (or more).

We began our tasting with a few of the white wines, including the springy cousin to German Gewurztraminer, the Lake Erie Traminette (a comforting taste to my own Midwestern upbringing); two wines named after their daughters the Fiona Peach Chardonnay (which I ended up getting) and the Margaret Apple, Spice, and Everything Nice (served warm, and which tasted like a liquid apple pie); and out of my own personal affinity toward Sauvignon Blanc, their take on this wine which typically starts off crisp and ends with a rather dry, elusive, ephemeral finish. The second half of our tasting focused on their reds, including the ever-so-slightly-sweet Lake Erie Red made with Pennsylvania's Concord grape (which Brianne chose); a warmed, red spice wine known in Germany as Glühwein [1,2] (or here in the States, mulled wine); and, if not mistaken, the Sangiovese, Tuscany's trademark wine. And with that, the selection process was necessarily swift; following our respective wine purchases and farewells with the Russells, we headed out to drive through a bit more of Pittsburgh.

All in all, this was the perfect end to a perfect afternoon, which set the stage for the dinner that brought us to Pittsburgh last Saturday in the first place. For these, and other photos from our entire day in Pittsburgh, click here. (The link to the second half of our first epic food day will be linked here in the near future. But hopefully sooner than that!)

1 comment:

  1. YAY!!!! You got your Pączki!!!
    A true Great Lakes Native, you are!
    Now...How quickly can I get to Cleveland for the treat at Great Scott's Bakery in Rocky River?
    Gosh, I miss the North Coast...