Tag Archives: local

Good Morning, Strip District Saturday

I’ve written about it in the past, but I have to reiterate: One of my favorite ways to spend an early Saturday morning is strolling around the Strip District alone. I love company down there, I do. Going with other people is often the perfect way to try places and things yet to be encountered. Other people mean joyful, talkative breakfasts at DeLuca’s or Pamela’s or even Chicken Latino. Other people mean a more curious, rounded shopping experience. Other people give you someone to talk to when the line at Reyna’s is really long and you’re struggling to reach your phone while also trying to keep all your bags from falling to the floor.


But other people come with a set of shopping demands all their own. Choosing to take the trip alone is lonesome, but liberating. You can move at whatever speed you want, visit the places you want to visit, come and go at your own leisure. You can invoke the zen state of being among those in very active states of mind and become a bit more passive in doing so. Gone is the necessity for distraction in that big line. That big line becomes its own distraction.


As for the rounded shopping experience, being alone can limit you to what you already know to be available, but between the flexibility of a lone person’s schedule and the comparative ease of moving one person through a dense crowd, it can also be the best way to find the little spots and corners and crannies missed on other ventures. Feeling free to do as one likes can often lead to people performing the same patterns of behavior over and over again, but it can occasionally lead to happy surprises.


I don’t like to have a big breakfast when I’m in the Strip alone. Instead, I tend to pick up things here and there: A small pastry at Lotus, a little fried dough pocket of spicy jerk chicken, a good cup of really strong coffee, a marshmallow.


I like to eat these things while perched somewhere, preferably outside, preferably perched on a concrete wall or sitting on steps or somewhere else I can simply blend into the scenery and enjoy the passing traffic. I never eat anything that needs a fork or spoon or plate. I eat with my hands, picking apart the marshmallow that has nearly melted while resting on my coffee. I keep the brown envelope around the pocket pastry, catching the little crumbs that escape with each bite. My bag and my camera are balanced on my lap. I stop to take a picture.


The Strip District alone is a world of other people’s adventures. The things that excite them, the things that tire them out, the energy and lack thereof is all externalized to anyone bothering to watch. I am watchful and therefore, while I may be alone, I am not lonely. I am entertained, I am heartened, and, of course, I’m fed.

Good Morning, Salted Caramel Bread Pudding!


Behold last week’s treat from Sugar Cafe. Some people like to get their sweet fix early in the day, some like to get it following dinner. Me, I’ll take my sweet fix any how and any time I can get it, which is how someone like me ends us eating a donut and bread pudding in the same day (and probably some Girl Scout cookies too). It is also how someone like me will never, ever be a super slender person.

Whatever. If you and I were playing a game of “Would You Rather…” and your question was, “Would you rather be super fit and perfect looking but you could never eat any unnecessary calories, meaning no desserts, no snacks, no extras OR would your rather eat anything you like, but have to work out at least four hours a week and maintain a fairly active lifestyle to maintain even the slightest hold over your fitness?”

I’d go for the latter. In a heartbeat. What is the worth of living if I can’t eat something like salted caramel bread pudding? Isn’t this why we make and share and eat these things? Because they, in some way, contain the love that we feel for ourselves, feel for others? If cooking is an act of love that you perform for others, couldn’t eating something purely for taste and desire be considered an act of love for yourself?

Bocktown Beer and Grill

You get spoiled living in the city. Everywhere you turn there is another decent-to-great restaurant to try, each its own singular culinary voice in a crowded eater’s paradise. Consider each city neighborhood and their busiest streets. How many good restaurants, for example, are on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill? And not all of Murray Avenue, just the stretch between Forbes Avenue and where Murray hits Forward Avenue.

I suppose it depends on personal preference, but in my mind, the answer is somewhere around ten. Ten. In the span of a few blocks. And yes, that’s a Pittsburgh perspective. Someone coming out of a city like New York would laugh at that number.

“Ten decent restaurants in a few blocks?” they’d repeat. “My block alone has nearly a dozen places to eat, and that’s not counting the street vendors! That seems downright… suburban!” They would go on, but I have either tuned them out or punched them in the face, cause while they may be right that urban Pittsburgh doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) pack in the businesses like urban New York, they seem to have forgotten what being out in the suburbs is like, especially for diners.

That’s not to disparage suburban eating. Dormont is quasi-suburban, and I go on and on about how terrific it is for diners. I’m not thinking suburban neighborhoods so much as those areas that are, for lack of a better term, vacant of “charm” and abundant with “commercial.” I’m thinking of places like Robinson.

Robinson, with its myriad of big chain stores, its endless strip-mall-esque sections of businesses, it’s gigantic and labyrinth-like parking lots. When I think of Robinson the visual that pops out most readily in my mind is IKEA, emerging from the highway like a monolith tribute to shopping. Its vibrant blue and yellow call the eye’s attention like a shopping siren bringing cars into its parking harbor.

It may say something about my own particular Robinson experiences that the only place I recall eating in the area is the cafeteria at IKEA. (Oh, I could totally go for some Lingonberry soda right about now. I’ll pass on the Swedish meatballs, however.) Most of the nearby restaurants don’t really offer much competition. For most people in and out of Robinson, food is a secondary notion, to be eaten immediately before or immediately following the grander purpose of shopping. Why do malls have food courts and only a few full-restaurant options? Because most shoppers are in a retail-heavy area to shop.

Fortunately, someone was bound to challenge the status quo of the eateries in Robinson. Before the newly formed Settlers Ridge started bringing in restaurants that would be unique to the immediate area, Bocktown Beer and Grill was the first strike against the mediocre and mundane that comprised most of the Robinson dining options.

Bocktown’s Robinson location is in a strip mall segment across a vast lot from the Target. Its long, narrow interior is brightly lit and lined on one side by a bar area and the other side by booth and table seating, eventually leading back to an outside beer garden area. The inside is a surprise – warmly painted and lit, tasteful decor, and comfortable seating – compared to its mostly staid exterior, although the hand-drawn chalkboards advertising specials, events, and the various online locations for Bocktown was a nice touch, livening up a dimly lit concrete sidewalk.

The staff is dressed supremely casual, but move with quickness and efficiency. We were assured of a short wait, then quickly sat in a corner near the front,  slightly isolated from the rest of the dining area. A few moments to peruse the beer list, then our server, James, introduced himself and took our drink and appetizer order.

Bocktown Beer and Grill on Urbanspoon

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This Week on Dormont-Brookline Patch: Quality Beers for Quality Drinking on St. Patrick’s Day


This week’s Local Table column focuses on that time-honored tradition of getting shit faced on St. Patrick’s Day. Every good Irishman will tell you that him and his fellow countrymen don’t exactly need a national holiday to drink themselves  under the table. Drinking in of itself is a celebration, so why the excuse of a holiday to do it?

The holiday of St. Patrick’s Day commemorates the man who brought Christianity to Ireland. Many of the traditional images of the holiday stem from religious purposes. For example, the shamrock thing is said to have come from Patrick’s practice of teaching the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish via the three leaves of the plant. In America, the holiday is less about Christianity and more about basic Irish-American pride, a pride that is firmly established by parades, festivals, concerts, more parades, dance performances, art, poetry, and…. drinking. Loads and loads and loads of drinking.

Who am I to challenge a longstanding tradition of insane public drunkenness? I only seek to make things a tad more civilized by suggesting a few – or seventeen – beers that will make your St. Patrick’s Day drinking a little tastier, maybe a little more satisfying, but won’t get in the way of the whole getting-wasted-out-of-your-mind endeavor. Given the alcohol content of many of these great beers, they will only serve to enable drunkenness even more.

Drink well. Drink responsibly. Slainte!

Take Out Tacos from Cocina Mendoza


It’s Lenten time once again! I don’t know what this time of year is like in other cities, but in Pittsburgh, even if you’re not remotely religious, you’re bound to notice when Lent comes around. All of a sudden fish is available in every size and preparation, from church-held Friday night fish fries to fish and mac’n’cheese specials at  nearly every bar and restaurant in the area.

One of my most frequented Mexican restaurants, Cocina Mendoza, is serving up my favorite of the Friday fish specials: Fish tacos. I didn’t have the chance to try the tacos last Spring, but struck by a need to get in on the fish fun this past Friday, the first Friday of Lent, I wandered over to the restaurant on my lunch break and grabbed a lunch special to-go.

Cocina Mendoza is tucked away inconspicuously in the Mt. Lebanon Shops. It’s not my favorite place to grab a taco – that would be Las Palmas in Brookline – but it’s still pretty terrific: fresh, authentic Mexican cuisine at decent prices for good portions. I’ve mostly taken advantage of the lunch specials, which for five or six dollars a piece resemble a full dinner portion more than a light lunch option. As I have trying in the last few months to a) save money and b) eat healthier and lighter options for lunch and dinner, I’ve not walked down to the restaurant nearly as much.

I’m glad I did this past Friday. The tacos were delicious. They were two flour tortillas wrapped around several thick slices of fish that were dressed by a fresh salsa. The whitefish was lightly floured and seasoned and fried, a thin, crisp skin giving it prominence even as it was buried under a mound of Pico de Gallo. The bite of the tomato and onion against the mildness of the fish was refreshing, as was the lack of heavier additions, such as cheese or jalapeno or beans. A completely satisfying meal, but far lighter than any of the other lunch options at Cocina Mendoza.

Like many fish specials, it was the sort of thing I wished was around all year. Then again, I suppose I’d take it for granted eventually, when the novelty and anticipation wore off completely. Better to have it contained to just this time of year, when I can look forward to that special every Friday, making this March and April trudge toward a reluctant Spring a little more joyful.

Cocina Mendoza on Urbanspoon

Good Morning, Vegan Pierogi!


Pierogi. Pierogie. Perogi. Pyrogi. Pyrohi. Doesn’t matter how you spell it, this staple of European cuisine satisfies hunger in a way few other dumplings can. What is it about the wondrous pierogi that makes it such a favorite? Could it be the thin dough, crispy and golden when fried? Could it be the filling, flavorful and bold against the neutral flavor of the dough? Could it be the handiness of the little savory pocket, or how easy they are to make, with cheap, accessible ingredients and easy preparation?

Given the cultural demographics of Pittsburgh, the pierogi is a staple of this city’s cuisine. Spend enough time on Urbanspoon, and you’ll find users more than ready to complain about this fact. Their point is not entirely ill-informed, but I think it comes from a place of overexposure, rather than a straight forward dislike of the dish itself. I don’t know the actual statistics, but I’d wager a bet that the majority of local restaurants ( those of unspecified ethnic cuisine, of course) offer pierogi. But don’t go judging a dish by its commonly mediocre preparation. Having pierogi on your menu because you’re expected to doesn’t exactly yield the best tasting versions. Many places are serving the same tired, frozen versions that you can buy in the supermarket. This is pierogi, sort of, but it’s about as satisfying as any frozen food can be.

What I say to these pierogi naysayers is to not hate on a dish until you’ve had it properly served to you, meaning homemade, either from some restaurant’s own kitchen or someone’s own home. Take a recommendation from those who LOVE the pierogi before ordering it at a random restaurant. Some good places to start:
S&D Polish Deli
Bloomfield Bridge Tavern
Rosie’s Pierogies
Gosia’s Pierogies (available at several locations, including the Pittsburgh Public Market)
St. John the Baptist Ukranian Catholic Church (they sell traditional Ukranian pyrohy starting in Fall and going until around the end of May)

Or you could eat some quality pierogi by getting into the action yourself. Making pierogi is easy, even if you have never made dumplings before. The dough can be kind of dry, making it tricky to knead and spread out the dough circles. I’ve been able to keep it workable by keeping my fingers wet. You want them to be damp enough to keep the dough from drying out, but not so wet as to make the dough slimy.

One of the best things about pierogi is how easy they are to make vegan. The dough itself can be made with butter, shortening, etc, but is usually best when it is made with simple vegetable oil. The filling is really up to the maker. For my Saturday evening vegan pierogi, I went with an easy potato and onion filling, that yielded far more than I needed. Darn, looks like I’m going to have to make another batch….

Everybody Polka for Some
Simple Vegan Pierogi!

Ingredients for filling:
– 2 medium potatoes, chopped (I used two larger than my fist and ended up with way more potato than I needed. So about fist sized should do it.)
– 1 medium onion, chopped
– 2 tsp garlic-pepper seasoning
– 1/2 tsp cayenne
– 1 tsp vegan margarine (I actually forgot to add this and the filling was still delicious, so it is optional)
– 1/2 cup of unsweetened non-dairy milk

Ingredients for dough:
– 1 cup all-purpose flour
– 1/4 cup water (and extra on hand, as needed)
– 1 1/2 tsp oil

For the filling: Boil the potatoes until tender. While potatoes are boiling, saute the onions until translucent, then set aside. Drain the water, add the onions (with the leftover oil), seasonings, margarine, and “milk” to the potatoes, and whip everything until smooth. You want to get it nice and creamy, so try to work out all the big lumps.

For the dough: Stir together flour, water, and oil until you get a workable dough. Knead for about three minutes, keeping your fingers wet to keep the dough from drying out. Divide the dough into eight equal chunks.

Assemble your pierogi: For each of the eight chunks of dough, roll into a ball and then flatten into a disk. The dough should be spread thin but sturdy enough to maintain without ripping. Take about tablespoon of the filling and place it into the center of the dough. Fold and pinch closed, then using the tines of a fork, seal the sides of the pierogi. Set each one aside until you have all completed.

Cook your pierogi: Boil a pot of water, then add the pierogi. Boil for about five minutes, or until each pierogi floats to the surface of the water. Scoop out and gently dry, then either freeze them for later use or cook them, either by frying (as I generally do, cause I love me some fresh fried pierogi) or baking in the oven.

Serve with vegan sour cream, a little smoked paprika, and fried onions, if desired. I know that’s how I like ’em.

(Recipe adapted from this recipe on Vegweb.com)

Thai Cuisine


Thai Cuisine would be completely inconspicuous if it weren’t for its bright yellow exterior. Even the name, as suitable as it is, is laughably generic. In fact, it seems tailor-made for one of those “Who’s on First?” type of scenarios:

“Where are you going for dinner?”
“Thai Cuisine.”
“Oh, I love Thai food. Which restaurant are you going to?”
“Thai Cuisine.”
“I understand. Which Thai place are you going to?”
“Thai Cuisine.”

Its cheery yellow front makes it a standout on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield, a strip already busting at the seams with decent places to dine. As generic as the name is, the experience dining there is anything but. In full disclosure, I’ve eaten Thai Cuisine numerous times, including dining in and ordering to-go, and I’ve never had a bad meal there. Ever.

My partner’s parents were in town and kindly took us to dinner. Now my partner has a few favorites in this town, all of which he sticks to with a fierce loyalty that echoes the devotion he has to his favorite sports teams. Knowing Thai Cuisine as well as I do, I understand completely why he’s always eager to go there. Luckily for us, his parents don’t seem to disagree.

Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon

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