Beer, New Kensington, Nontraditional

House of 1,000 Beers.

Right off, there’s something dishonest about Dave Sagrati’s place in New Kensington. In the best possible way.

He doesn’t sell a thousand beers. It’s at least a hundred more than that.

With 36 years in the beer-selling business, Dave is a connoisseur. Says so there on his business card: “Owner/Beer Connoisseur.” His favorites are Belgians — has more than 200 of those, one of which is named after him. He loves beer. Wants people to drink good beer.

Which not everyone does.

“I try not to stock garbage,” he said. “Like the new Duquesne. It’s horrible. But I had to stock it because of the demand.”

Sure, there are the neighborhood folks who come in, buy two cans of IC Light off the shelf, maybe a small bag of Utz Ripple Cut, and head out the door. Nothing against that, but it’s not for Dave.

“I would not drink a Coors Light if I was lost in a desert dying of thirst,” he said.

He would rather you stay a while at his 32-tap bar in the back and learn something, samples on him.

“Once we get you,” he said, “you’re not going back to Budweiser.”

Grab a seat and sign up for his bottle club — buying bottles in the store to drink at the bar. Strike up a conversation with a regular like Mike or Scott the bartender.

“I have come a long way,” Mike said. “Dave was my tutor. Opened up a whole new world to me.”

Dave finds things. He travels. Want last year’s Mad Elf? Dave has it on tap. He knows things like which are the only two wheat Oktoberfests available in this country. A small-batch regional brew native to the Pacific Northwest — one hardly anyone anywhere carries — and he has it.

Yeah. Like this one.

One guy found Dave’s new website, called and reserved about $600 worth, then drove up from his home in Baltimore to pick them up. That was last Sunday.

“He said he couldn’t get that stuff at home,” Dave said.

Not everything is exactly how Dave would like.

He’s outgrowing his space. The taps at the bar pour beer at 34 degrees. Too cold for Dave’s taste, but the way it is.

“You have to learn to hold it in your hands a while, let it warm up to the right temperature,” he said. “Let it open up. Let the flavor really come out. Then enjoy it.”

To find Dave involves a trip north from the city on Route 28. Construction, random speed-limit changes, inevitable traffic. How many roads around here have their own “I Hate” bumper stickers like Route 28 does? (Does it help that it rhymes?)

He took over a beer store for the first time years ago not far from where he is now on Freeport Street. PennDot claimed eminent domain and took it, so Dave built this place.

He has no desire to move into Pittsburgh and to go farther out would put him in an area he said was too economically depressed to be good business.

Maybe it’s not convenient for you. No big deal. It just has to work for him.

What Dave built is a place to sip. To appreciate what you drink.

There are plenty of places to buy beer.

Just not from a guy like Dave.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Oakland

Leena’s.

This is about the genius of the accidental.

In Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, right near Pitt, is one of the unlikeliest places to get an incredible falafel sandwich. The sign above the little door on Oakland Street says “Leena’s Food.” The place has old tables, old chairs, an old poster of Jerusalem tacked to a wall. It’s tiny, maybe room for 20 people to sit.

And then there is Mohammed. He runs the place. Wiry and Fu Manchu’d, he crushes his own chickpeas for the falafel and seasons them his own way. He doesn’t ignore the usual: cumin, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, etc.

But there’s something else, too.

“Cardamom,” he said. “Nobody uses it much because of the price.”

What he gets costs about $30 a pound these days. And he uses a lot.

“It’s on accident,” he said. “I was in a hurry making a big batch one day and my son brought over all the spices. I just wasn’t paying attention and put in too much. I didn’t even realize.”

Then he made his son a falafel sandwich.

“He said, ‘Dad, what did you do?’ and I said to him, ‘Oh no, is it bad?'” Mohammed said. “He said, ‘No, Dad, this is awesome.'”

It really is. Distinctive, too.

The sandwich isn’t perfect. The falafel itself was a bit mushy and the shredded iceberg lettuce is bland, but in a way that almost works as a needed counterpoint to the earthy spices in the falafel and the hot pepper Mohammed adds to the sandwich.

Sorry. Needed a couple bites first. What's the point in writing about food if you're not hungry?

Still. This isn’t about perfection. Only serendipity.

Accidents abound in making food great. An extra anchovy that slipped into the oil. Grating the wrong cheese. Running out of celery and using fennel.

Little things.

There’s a farmer’s market in Arkansas where a woman sells the best pickled jalapenos on the planet. She first made them by accident. She was going to pickle a batch of okra and then some jalapenos using different spices. She screwed up, putting jalapenos in an okra-spiced jar.

She told me she was afraid even to try them. Maybe if she just gave them to friends, no one would notice much.

She ate one. Loved it. She likes to slice them open and slather in a little cream cheese with crushed pecans.

Her secret? Dill. Dill and jalapenos.

Maybe it shouldn’t work. Yet it does. Because — sure, why not.

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Meta

Omnivore. No dilemma.

I can’t say I will eat just about anything. I am, however, willing to eat just about anything.

So many of the issues other eaters have I don’t. Texture: Food could be jellied, slippery or grainy. No big thing if it tastes good enough. The smells of funky — Maceo Parker funky, OK? — almost-overripe cheeses don’t bother me. Gamy meats I have no problem with. I don’t care if it still has eyes or a head or feet.

If it tastes good.

Oxtails, dried whole shrimp, cactus, okra, chicken livers. The wrong cook can torture each of them. But done well and they’re excellent.

Now, overcook something, oversalt it or bomb it with unnecessary fruit or sugar — that’s when I have a problem. Too much cumin, say, that buries the delicacy of a dish is not fun. Flourishes that add nothing to flavor — edible gold paper comes to mind — I tend to find garish and off-putting.

But I’m very forgiving of something I didn’t expect to like if it’s made well.

That list of things up there — oxtails, okra, etc. — I didn’t used to like any of them. Or I thought I wouldn’t, which can be more powerful.

I think milk is what started me on getting over things like that.

I went more than a decade without drinking milk. In cereal, maybe, but definitely not drinking it. I got a bad carton in elementary school once.

Just once. It ruined me.

I only tried it again when a friend made me. Told me I was being stupid and thrust a glass in my hand and wouldn’t stop staring at me until I drained it.

She was mean. But she was right.

I slowly started trying other things. There’s no way I can pretend I’m Andrew Zimmern or anything, but there started to be nothing that could scare me off from trying it once if someone told me it was good.

It’s like with music. There’s little chance just based on the name that band called Captain Beyond or Deconstruction or My Morning Jacket would be any good.

But put some on the next time you’re making a giant pot of stock or prepping steaks or dicing potatoes. Let the music get into you. It’s good.

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Cheap eats, Neighborhoods, Strip District, Traditional

Mancini’s.

This is probably sacrilege for my second post: Not a huge fan of pepperoni rolls.

Except.

Yeah. That.

I’d heard of Mancini’s but had never been until a trip to Pittsburgh in April. One of my usual stops is the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District — they pull their own mozzarella, get a Parmesan cheese I really like, things like that. I’m also a sucker for 21st Street Coffee a couple blocks away. They both deserve their own posts at some point, to be sure. But right now they’re just context.

Coffee in hand and hands full of grocery bags, I went in to Mancini’s to get bread to go with dinner that night. Just bread. Nothing fancy. And I’d heard good things.

But pepperoni rolls were coming fresh out of the oven. One after another. With that smell. That cheese-meat-oregano-bread smell.

At that point, who cares if it was like 10 a.m. Want.

I went across the street and just sat on a guardrail. Coffee, pepperoni roll and me. Light breeze, trying to keep my very necessary napkins from blowing away, watching people.

I was prepared for a disappointment. I thought this was going to turn out to be a bad idea driven by a misfire of an impulse brought on by a second strong cup of coffee. One of those.

Here’s the thing. The cheese and pepperoni fat inside never turned the bread to mush. The bread was good on its own. The cheese was quality cheese, melted thoroughly but not yet inedible magma.

Messed with my head. Those $5 T-shirts with Ben Roethlisberger and Tiger Woods arm in arm over the caption, “Dumb & Dumber” — almost bought one. I was not in my right mind. Clearly.

It was that good. Right when I least expected it. (I did buy a Mancini’s T-shirt. And I’m not usually that guy.)

Let’s face it — not every pepperoni roll can do all that. So no mea culpas from me.

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Meta, Recipes, Seasonal

Yo.

Food is home to me.

My mother’s Christmas cookies, a favorite little Italian restaurant, my father-in-law’s deer jerky, ridiculous sushi, a massive pot of duck stock simmering for half a day in the kitchen — that’s how I get a sense of place. It is, to a degree, how I get comfortable.

Pittsburgh is my new hometown. As of pretty much now. As I eat and drink my way around, I’ll post my observations here. The only commonality you can expect is my mouth. Sometimes I’ll write about a restaurant, a favorite beer, a neighborhood vibe, my love for the immersion blender, cooking in my own kitchen — whatever inspires me. That photo at the top of the homepage? It’s the fruit of a chocolate tree at the Phipps Conservatory. The background image? Pickled cherries I made this spring along with a homemade mustard and (not at all homemade) duck sausage.

I’m no pro. I didn’t grow up around a professional kitchen and I’ve never worked in one. I’m a writer. One who eats.

So feel free to pass along your favorite places, recipes, experiences. I’m always looking for something new to try. Or yell at me if you disagree, though I’ll warn you now I have nothing at all against fries on sandwiches.

Welcome. Should be fun.

One favorite fall recipe to get you started is on the jump. Continue reading

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