Ambience, Cheap eats, Downtown, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Oakland, Presentation, Seasonal, South Side, Traditional

The Franktuary truck.

Sure, it’s a hotdog. That’s its heart, its essence. Even hyphenated it remains simple. Call it all-beef or all-beef and grass-fed and remains a humble thing. A Pittsburgh thing, even. As much as wings and fries-and-slaw are stereotypes around this town, I have not seen so many hotdog shops anywhere else I’ve lived.

Then there’s the truck, the mobile arm of the downtown joint Franktuary. Order said hotdog in Oakland, downtown, on the South Side from an actual moving vehicle, a rarity and a worthwhile summer indulgence in this city.

I’ve been most often when it’s parked behind a church at 27th and Jane. I won’t pretend it’s a religious experience or anything, but it’s a fantastic excuse to get out of an office or off a couch. Sitting outside, maybe under the church awning or a parade tent, on plastic chairs trying not to dribble on myself is a successful afternoon.

It’s an informal setting for an informal food, even when the little tubes of meat get dressed up. A Bankok dog with rich, peanutty Thai satay sauce, the Memphis with a bourbon barbecue sauce and slaw, the carbohydrate-bomb Brasil with – oh yes – mashed potatoes and crisp, skinny fries, bacon, and a tomato-corn relish.

There’s also a vegetarian dog, but I, uh, I wouldn’t know anything about that.

All this is without mentioning the vegetarian poutine. Which I have tried a few times. Arsenal cheese curds and a veggie gravy over thick, hot fries. They buy the fries already cut — it’s a truck; they can’t do everything themselves — but make their own gravy. It’s not the silky animal-fat variety because it can’t be. But while it may not get all the way to unctuous, it is rich, thick and rather tasty, especially once that cheese begins to melt all over everything. Warm, gooey, a little sticky. In a good way.

Even without those descriptions, it would still be food porn.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Family, Homestead, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Service

Smoke Barbecue Taqueria.

Looks like I have tacos on my mind lately. Couldn’t resist another trip to Homestead this week.

Why — now that’s easy.

Ridiculous, right? Even in a photo taken in a hurry on my semi-crappy phone camera, that pork is tender and juicy but not dripping wet, the tortilla fresh, the sauce and accoutrements well-proportioned. That one there is pork with an apricot habanero sauce and caramelized onions.

Finding it the first time can be a minor pain, peeking out from a storefront on Eighth just east of the Homestead Grays Bridge, the A-frame sign on the sidewalk the best giveaway that they’re there and open. And it is cash-only, which in this iPad-and-a-Square world, I don’t quite understand.

I know I’ve said before that some of the street-style tacos around are overpriced for what they actually give you. But at $3.50 that sucker is a bargain. I liked the chicken one as well — pickled onions, Fresno hot sauce and just a lick of avocado cream. The standout on the short, sweet regular menu for me has been the taco with meat from pork ribs. Barbecue sauce made with porter beer and pickles and onions. Simple but not easy and worth savoring. You’ll want to rip through it in three bits or less, but I beg you: chew your food. Live a little.

I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to order the vegetarian taco. I just like the others too much. And the breakfast taco — I haven’t been there early enough yet. I usually stay pretty local in the mornings. It’ll happen at some point.

Jeff Petruso and Nelda Carranco run the place. He’s from Meadville. She’s not. They met in Austin — the fun one in Texas — and talked about opening a barbecue-style taqueria there. Two things that simply belong together.

Rents here were right and no one was doing anything like this. They put a lot of themselves into the place. It’s small but not cramped. Comfortable. Service was a bit slow at first because it was just the two of them. Hours were a little inconsistent. They’ve hired a couple folks and that’s pretty much a thing of the past.

They make everything themselves. Tortillas — if they run out, that’s it for the day — agua fresca, all the sauces and the meats.

And they make their own horchata. This is one of my favorite things on this planet. Not that I’ve been to others, I’m just saying. Horchata’s a sweet-spiced rice milk with cinnamon, some nutmeg. A little dust of lime zest on the top when it’s served over ice. Light. Smoothly refreshing.

I went in once on an abominably hot day. Fans blowing, dehumidifier running. There was no air-conditioning. And if you’ve been paying attention, I’m a large mammal. Heat, um, impacts me. That horchata was bliss. It’s plenty delicious other times. But that day there was nothing more perfect.

If I ever feel the need to spend money on food anywhere near that sprawling Waterfront development, I’ll make this my first choice.

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Ambience, Beer, Cheap eats, Neighborhoods, Service, South Side, Whiskey

Piper’s Pub.

If a place can be described as pan-UK, this is it. As many people describe the feel and aesthetic as English as do Scottish or Irish — and not just because there’s often a soccer match on one of the two TVs and a proper curry on the menu.

Also: There’s a gargoyle climbing up a wall behind the bar. Which is cool.

How their Scotch eggs — hard-cooked, wrapped in sausage, then battered and deep-fried — are not an officially recognized City Food of Pittsburgh is a mystery. Center stage food-wise is often the latest boxty – a giant folded potato pancake stuffed with generous amounts of savory ingredients like lamb and gravy, smoked salmon, or bangers, ham and cheese.

Not to mention they take their beer and whiskey deeply seriously. Order a Miller Lite and the threat of assault from behind the bar is unspoken but present.

Don’t know much about either? Ask. They’re happy to educate. Hart Johnson, one of the bartenders, makes exceptional beer at home and knows inside out the processes for brewing, storing and serving good beer. He wants you to drink better and smarter than you do. He’ll take the time to help that happen.

Sure it’s on the South Side. And sure that can mean idiocy at the wrong time on the wrong night. But if you’re looking for a cheap bucket of Natty Lights or dudebros fist-bumping in all their popped-collared glory, this ain’t your place. If you’ve ever non-jokingly used the term “slampiece,” there are other places along Carson Street I’m sure you’d fit right in.

But stay out of Piper’s so I can better enjoy it.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Family, Ingredients, Presentation, Recipes, Service, Traditional

Golden Pig.

Yes, Korean food. In li’l ol’ Cecil on Route 50.

The whole restaurant has just 10 seats and is subtle enough to drive by twice before pulling in. Even shares a building with a used-car dealership. Like you do.

This is it. All of it. Seriously.

I only found out about it because a friend knew someone who thought highly of it, enough so that it sounded like it was worth a little drive. It was.

Owner Yong Kwon might just be hand-rubbing a vinegary spice slurry on cabbages to ferment her own kimchee or pickling mu radishes when you walk in. A native of Korea, she chose the out-of-the-way spot because she wanted to live close to her grandson — her “golden piggie,” hence the restaurant’s name.

Among her favorites is a classic beef bulgogi, marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, wine, garlic, black pepper and sugar and flash-cooked to keep it tender.

Don’t go in expecting a wide array of banchan, the traditional Korean side dishes. There are a few and she keeps them simple and on the vinegary side. But paired with the bulgogi or a Korean pancake appetizer big enough for two made with sweet potatoes and onion, their sharp pungency accents and elevates what’s on the plate.

Not everything is homemade. The ramen — broth and noodles — are of the instant variety, which she explains by saying no one in Korea eats anything else. Spending a day making the broth and noodles isn’t worth it, she said, when doing it this way is almost as good.

She seems to know everyone who walks through the door, and well enough to give them endless crap if she’s in a fun mood. The better she knows folks, the more merciless she is.

“You finally brought your wife,” she told one dude who came in with his equally trucker-capped buddy. “Hurry up and eat and get out.”

All in good fun.

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Cheap eats, Ingredients, Lawrenceville, Nontraditional, Recipes, Seasonal, Techniques and tools

Berries in white-wine syrup with mint and jalapeño.

One of the most versatile things I tend to make in the summer goes as well with cheesecake or ice cream as it does with grilled or roasted meat like lamb or chicken or turkey.

The warm syrup macerates the berries which then infuse the liquid after it sits a while. Fresh mint punches it up and balances the sweetness.

When I made it bring to our friends’ place in Lawrenceville this weekend, I added a little twist — a jalapeño. Hadn’t done it that way before, but it seemed right.

I write for a living, and with more practice and experience, the words just come together in my head. As ideas, as phrases, as paragraphs. It’s not even that I have to work to organize information or structure or the individual words. Often it kind of happens on its own. The right way to begin, then how to progress from there, with some idea of where ultimately I want readers to arrive.

But to do that requires that I know what story I’m telling.

The more I cook, the more that happens with food. With flavors. I’ve sort of mentioned this before. But it happens with greater frequency now. The more I taste, the more I cook, the more I smell things together, the more improvisational I get. As long as I have in my head how the flavors are supposed to work and what I want it to be when I’m done, the organizing and experimenting comes somewhat easily.

The finished food is the story I’m trying to tell. Something like that, anyway.

On Saturday, that meant jalapeño. The sweet syrup, the cool mint, the tart berries — they needed a little heat.

I’d never made it this way before and didn’t want to serve anything I hadn’t tasted and gotten a second opinion on. I made the syrup as usual, using a dry, light vinho verde for the wine in it, tore up a little mint and chopped part of a jalapeño, then sacrificed a few berries by combining everything together and setting it aside for a few minutes to come together.

I tasted it. Good. Better than I expected, even. Sweet up front, then a melding of the mint and the heat. Not overpowering with either. Just a balance.

Then for the real test: AmyJo. She’s my bestest taste-tester, in part because we like a lot of the same things but have rather different palates and preferences at times.

Once I saw the look on her face, I didn’t have to wait for the verbal confirmation. We had a winner.

Ingredients:
— Four pints berries; I like a mix, but blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries — they all work fine on their own, too.
— One cup sugar
— Two cups white wine; I prefer a vinho verde, young and dry and light and a little bubbly
— Handful of mint leaves, torn
— One jalapeño, halved and sliced. I left in the seeds and ribs, but if you want less heat, remove them.

Directions:
Make the syrup. In a saucepan, combine sugar and wine and stir, kicking the heat to medium. Stir occasionally until the sugar dissolves fully into the wine and it just comes to a boil. Let it simmer a minute or two, or longer to let it reduce, still stirring every minute or two. Kill the heat and set aside.

Drop the berries into a large bowl with the mint and jalapeño. Pour over the syrup and stir. Set aside. This can be chilled or left at room temperature — depends on what you like. Good both ways.

Eat.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Family, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, North Side, Recipes, Techniques and tools, Traditional

Wilson’s.

Publishing can be a strange beast. I wrote a piece on the North Side barbecue joint Wilson’s in January for a magazine in Arkansas. It finally hit print — yesterday. (Flip to page 17 and zoom in if you’re so curious you can’t stand it.)

It was the first bit of paid food writing I’d ever sold. I had this charming little site, sure, but most of my writing experience has been, well, other. There have been other things since, but this was el primero.

And as simple a piece as it seems as I read it again, it wasn’t. I don’t think George Wilson trusted me. Not at first. Some dude walking in his place with a notebook and a camera asking him all about his business. I wrote it freelance. Not like I could show him an official-looking press pass or a business card with the name of a real publication on it.

He doesn’t have time for anybody else’s crap. He only takes cash. And he works when he wants, as much as he wants. His place. His rules. You don’t have to like it.

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He’d tell me to show up and then say he was busy or didn’t want to talk that day. Maybe later. Come back again.

So I did. Again and again. He lives upstairs and so was usually around, even if he wasn’t open. If he was open, I always ordered food and sat a while. After a few times, I let him talk to me first. Didn’t initiate any kind of conversation at all. Just ordered and waited. And usually, he’d want to talk a little bit.

I think the only reason he went with it at first is that he grew up in Arkansas and he liked the idea of people there seeing how he turned out after he left in 1945. When I get a hard copy of the story, I’ll walk one over to him. I happen to live a few blocks away.

I found him fascinating. Hell of a storyteller. And — oh yeah — the food is seriously good. True Southern barbecue, the likes of which don’t seem to exist much in Pittsburgh.

Just remember to bring cash and a smile. Otherwise this octegenarian just might beat you down.

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Cheap eats, Family, Ingredients, Presentation, Recipes, Seasonal, Techniques and tools

Roasted-corn and tomato summer salad.

I forget what the inspiration was the first time I made this. I know I took it to someone’s house for a summer party, but the rest is lost to me.

The last few years, it’s become a summer staple in my house. Or the house of anyone who had a little more room on their table and was kind enough to have me over. I made it again on Monday to take to a picnic. I like it well enough that the one time I tried putting meat in it was the last time. And I’m one of those people who thinks meat makes most things better.

Couple folks saw me mention it and asked for a recipe. So.

Getting a little char on the corn is important, and use the best tomatoes and olive oil you can tolerate — because of budget or snobbiness-aversion reasons. Either is totally acceptable.

What really made this work when I lived in the South were the tomatoes. The heat does something to them there. Meaty, firm, uncutous tomatoes. I usually use a red or black variety, like Paul Robeson, but yellow zebras do something cool to this, too.

Winds up looking roughly like this:

So make it. Eat it. And if you remember, tell me what you thought.

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Roasted corn salad

Ingredients:
— Six ears corn, husked
— Six or seven plum-sized tomatoes, diced; heirlooms if possible
— Three shallots, halved and sliced paper thin
— Handful or two fresh basil, torn or sliced into chiffonade
— 1/3 cup cider vinegar
— extra-virgin olive oil and Kosher or sea salt and fresh-cracked black pepper to taste
(Optional: a sliced jalapeno, couple roasted poblano peppers, chopped fresh oregano)

Directions:
Rub the corn with olive oil and roast in a 425-degree oven or grill until fully cooked. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, toss together gently shallots, diced tomatoes, salt and pepper, vinegar (and poblano/jalapeno if using).

When the corn cools, stand it on end on a cutting board and cut the kernels from the cob with a sharp knife. Add the corn to the bowl and toss.

Add in olive oil slowly, stirring gently. When it tastes like the right mix of acidity and fruity olive oil, you’re good. Add in the basil (and oregano, if you like) and toss.

Let sit about 15 minutes, toss and eat.

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