Ambience, Beer, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Recipes, South Side, Strip District, Techniques and tools

Oven ribs with chocolate rosemary sauce.

Unexpected inspiration is often a good thing. A chocolate party is a perfect example.

My friends Gwen and Derrick have a chocolate party every year at their place on the South Side. Chocolate beer, chocolate chili, chocolate cookies, chocolate ice cream — everything. And I always look at it as a challenge: How to make something a little different and maybe by combining ingredients that are a little out of my comfort zone.

I don’t don’t work a lot with chocolate. Not much of a sweet tooth. And I think it’s fun and the best kind of surprising to play with people’s expectations — in a good way. Chocolate need not equal powerfully sweet.

This popped up the first time when my wife wanted a chocolate party for her birthday a few years ago.

Another friend whose wife’s birthday was the same day also likes to cook. He tried a pasta with cocoa powder in the dough that didn’t turn out and a chocolate chipotle salsa that did.

My offerings: grilled chicken wings with cocoa powder in the dry rub, crostini with goat cheese, caramelized onions and a chocolate vinaigrette and roasted pork tenderloins in a chocolate and sherry glaze with shallots.

All of those turned out nicely, though the tenderloins were a needed lesson in anticipating presentation. If you’ve seen pork tenderloins and can imagine a dark brown sauce — well, there you go. They each looked irretrievably like a giant poo. I sliced them up before serving for obvious reasons.

Last year for Gwen and Derrick’s party I made those crostini again, mainly because I couldn’t remember how I made the vinaigrette and wanted to force myself to recreate it.

This year I started from scratch.

It would have to be savory — that was a must. And it would have to be a little nontraditional.

I settled rather quickly on pork because the easy richness of the meat holds up to the chocolate. The chocolate can overwhelm it but it isn’t too fine a line.

But what kind of pork? I became the Bubba Blue of pig parts. Pulled pork, roast pork, pork sandwiches. Belly, shoulder, shank.

And then. Oh yes. Ribs.

I got two gorgeous racks of babybacks at Strip District Meats. Made a rub, grinding up ancho and New Mexico chiles, pink peppercorns, cumin and fennel seeds and Chinese five spice and mixing it with a fresh-made garlic paste. Added that into a bowl of brown sugar and gray salt — maybe a 7-to-1 sugar-to-salt ratio.

Rubbed that all over the ribs, top and bottom, and wrapped each rack separately in two casings of tented foil with one end left open. Poured into that open end: a little malty beer.

Heated the oven to 250, sealed up the ribs entirely and let them cook about two and a half hours. Longer would have been better, but by then I was running late for the party.

While the ribs cooked, I made the sauce. Some stock and ruby port whisked together and reduced in a pan to a little looser than I wanted it, then I killed the heat and added a pinch of salt, chopped fresh rosemary and chopped dark chocolate, roughly 80 percent cacao.

Sauce done and set aside, it was time for the ribs to come out. I took them out of the foil and put them on baking racks on top of a rimmed baking sheet. Cranked the heat in the oven to 500 degrees — tossing them under the broiler would also work — and hard-roasted them to finish the outside. This part can be a little tricky with all the sugar and even the garlic in the rub because if it burns, you have to start over. No saving it then.

Ribs done and rested for at least five or 10 minutes, it was time to slice and pour over the sauce.

My friend Burgh Gourmand took this shot of them at the party:

Success.

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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, 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, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Seasonal, Service, South Side

The Milk Shake Factory.

This is probably one of the many ways in which I’m broken.

I don’t want a milk shake in the summer. When it’s hot, the idea of all that thick dairyness sliding down my throat and sitting heavy in my belly is not precisely appetizing.

Fitting, then, that I first stopped in at the Milk Shake Factory on the South Side on a snowy, blustery day not unlike today, with the air thin and sharp.

This is where I would usually link to the place’s website. Skipping that this time. There’s music. It’s annoying. Better to just follow on Twitter: @MShakeFactory.

I didn’t know I wanted anything when I walked in the door. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. But I was curious.

Walked past the Edward Marc chocolates — more on that little bit of funny in a bit — and spent a couple minutes looking at the giant board of 55 different kinds of milk shakes.

I’d been walking a while outside in a giant coat. I’m not small. I was plenty warm. And they had my favorite: pistachio. I sat down on a painfully uncomfortable metal stool — clearly not built for, like, large people — at the back counter and ordered.

Yum. More than a little bit. They don’t use any special kind of milk, just good ice cream, a good recipe and good technique. Delightful.

It was slow in there — weather-related, I’m sure — and the folks working were happy to chat. I looked over their chocolates and decided I sort of wanted a salted caramel. Hell, I had 85 cents. Most people buy the milk chocolate one, one of them told me, but the dark chocolate’s better. So I went for the dark chocolate.

Here is where I pause to laugh. The name on all the chocolates is Edward Marc, which sounds totally fake. Possibly a Canadian first and middle name, but probably made up. So I asked if there was actually an “Edward Marc.”

Yes, they told me. Well, sort of.

Apparently his name is either Mark Edwards or Mark Edward Something. They weren’t sure. And the Mark’s with a K. I suppose I could look it up, but I like it better this way, not knowing for sure and relying only on the way his employees tell it. Far more amusing.

Even if he’s confused about his name, the man knows his chocolate. The salted caramel was delightful. Soft, melting, light. The dark chocolate didn’t overwhelm what was a far more delicate caramel than I’d expected.

Maybe the next time the snow and the wind pick up, I’ll be back in for more.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Service, South Side, Traditional

Southside Steaks.

Fatty, oozy, meaty, cheesy, bready — cheesesteaks are a thing close to my heart.

There’s a joke there somewhere. It’s about a cardiologist.

I’m not from Philly, but the place still feels like home on the rare occasions I get to go. I lived there only two and a half years. This was a while ago. But it’s the first place I felt like I got to know through its food.

I was 21 when I arrived. This led inevitably to many, many late nights or early mornings or whatever the hell they are at that point.

3 a.m.

4 a.m.

On one strange night that involved a complicated situation with a female, 6 a.m. Or maybe it was 7 by the time my friend and I got there. I hope not.

Then there was the night with the hot sauce. Ow. Just … ow. Also: I may have peed in an alley.

Pat’s. Geno’s. Of course. (Pat’s is better.) A couple places not there anymore.

But a cheesesteak is truly a Philly thing. Get outside the city and there really isn’t anything comparable. And people there are loyal partisans. One night I took a friend from Reno to Pat’s after the bars closed. Long line, into the street. Geno’s is literally spitting distance away, ablaze in garish neon. There was first a murmur and then a full-on bellowed chant from the back of our line.

“Geno’s sucks! Geno’s sucks!”

The drunks were taunting the other line. People looked around like there might be a fight. I thought it was funny. But that’s how it can be there.

A real cheeseteak: Sirloin or top round steak, cheese, maybe onions, maybe cherry peppers, all on a good roll. Cheez Whiz, provolone, both — whatever. Shouldn’t be that hard.

So there I am on the South Side. Pittsburgh. Not known for its cheesesteaks. Someone told me Southside Steaks got its rolls from the Amoroso’s bakery in Philly. This is one of only two acceptable bakeries for a traditional cheesesteak roll.

It was cold. I was hungry. Early for something, but I forget what. I went in apprehensive. I saw words like “chipotle” and “Cajun” on the menu. Not helping.

The nice lady behind the counter tried to talk me into something weird and complicated even after I said specifically I was looking for something simple, authentically Philly, the real thing.

Thanks, but no.

That they went to the trouble to get the right rolls and listed Cheez Whiz as a menu option told me I should at least give it a shot. If I was serious about finding an exception to the no-good-cheesesteak-outside-Philly rule, there are worse things to go by.

Cheesesteak with onions, Whiz and provolone. I might not be 21 anymore — praise be; I was kind of a jackass — and it wasn’t 4 a.m., but this was worth a shot. No cherry peppers to be had, though.

The roll is critical because of the grease off the meat and the runny cheese. It has to hold up. All the while, it still has to taste like good bread. Good in that department. The meat was tender and well-seasoned. Onions browned into sweetness on the flat-top and not mushy or burnt. And the cheese tied it all together.

Pretty damn close. Definitely not bad. Might have to go back for another.

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