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, 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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