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, Family, Neighborhoods, North Side, Service, Traditional

Caruso Beer Distributor.

Sam Caruso started out as a teacher. Grew up on the North Side in Mexican War Streets, where his Sicilian father opened a beer store in 1933, right after the end of Prohibition. Maybe the first one in Pittsburgh after repeal. He’d worked in the store since 1944, when he was 4 years old. But he was something else with an accordion.

That's him on the left.

So he went to Duquesne. Bachelor’s, then master’s. All in music. Taught first in Sharpsburg then up in Clarion County.

“I had one class that was girls’ chorus,” he said. “Finally I figured out that if I didn’t want the girls to talk all the time I had to get my accompaniest to go straight from one song into another without a break. I had those girls singing more than 40 minutes in a row, but no chattering.”

He didn’t make much money teaching — $6,000 a year at first — and he still worked for his dad in the summers delivering beer for a couple hundred bucks a week under the table. Time came in 1968 to open a new place a couple blocks from the one on Resaca where it had been since 1940.

“My dad asked me if I’d like to come in and work selling beer full-time,” Caruso, 71, said. “So there I was and here I am.”

The younger Sam Caruso, 1986.

The place has been around. Inside, it looks almost untouched, let along unchanged, since 1968. Back then, he used to sell almost 10 times as much Iron City as anything else, with Fort Pitt in the top five. Sometimes people offer him more money for his old beer signs than they spend on actual beer.

Seems like a lot of those old, family-owned beer distributors around Pittsburgh don’t change much. They still bank on Busch, Yuengling, High Life, Bud Light, Duquesne — often in cans — to keep their old regulars coming in but have no interest in the newer stuff.

This is where Sam’s a bit different. He carries those, but also gets in cases from Rogue, Great Lakes, Smuttynose, Troegs and others. In his office he keeps bottles from distributors’ samples he’s gotten to remind him what he’s had and liked. If a customer wants something he doesn’t carry, he’ll order it and call them when it comes in. He keeps a handwritten list of certain customers’ names, phone numbers and beer preferences by the cash register.

“Things change,” he said. “Tastes change. Some of those newer microbrews are really good beers. I’ll sell whatever people want, but beer’s come a long way.”

So has his family’s place. He’s not sure whether one of his children will take it over.

“They say they want to, but there’s no action on it,” he said. “I’m not going to be here forever.”

Even if it seems the business has been around that long. He collects old photos of his family and the beer distributorship — 19,000 in all, all of which he scanned in to keep digital copies.

Their first storefront:

A delivery truck:

He moved out of the neighborhood long ago, but he’d like to see the business remain.

“I hope it can,” he said. “I’ve always felt we had a real connection to this place.”

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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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Ambience, Family, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Service, Squirrel Hill, Traditional

How Lee.

Never been to China. Rural, urban – nope. Not even Hong Kong. And when it comes to the language, Wayne Campbell outdoes me.

I am clearly not the person to tell anybody what authentic Chinese food is. So grab yourself a grain of salt as large as you can carry.

How Lee in Squirrel Hill feels like the real thing. Can’t say “tastes.” So “feels.”

It doesn’t look like much. Which is to say it looks like most decent Chinese restaurants I’ve been in. Walk in at the right time and it might be busy, but I get the feeling a lot of people get take-out. There’s usually a table or two open in the back — I’ve seen them breaking down green beans by hand there when it’s slow.

The times I’ve been in there, I only once glanced at the inside of the menu. The fried rices and lo meins and beef with broccolis. They have their place, but no thanks in a place like this.

The back page of the menu is the only place I look. It’s where the descriptions sound like food the owners would make for themselves. For their own families.

Tea-smoked duck. Absolutely.

Dumplings in capsicum with sesame seeds. No doubt.

Pork kidney with pickled peppers – yes. Hell yes.

Twice-cooked pork belly. You tell me:

I might be wrong about this, but it also seems like I get a different level of service when that’s where I look on a menu. They’re happy to help me understand what something is, how it’s prepared. They’ve answered every question I’ve asked and been friendly about it.

There are some things on the menu that are possibly out of even my comfort zone.

The spicy pork blood, for example. Haven’t ordered it. Probably won’t. But I kind of want to.

I don’t have textural problems with jellied or congealed food, nor an issue with thick, irony, minerally blood. I love blood sausage and offal.

I like exploring things I don’t see often on menus. The evident care they take with their food, too, means I’m comfortable that even if I don’t like it, it won’t be because they prepared it poorly. For some reason, this just doesn’t sound like my thing.

Now, I love knowing that they have it. I almost didn’t go the first time I wound up there. I had a hard time looking at the name and not thinking it was a Hawai’ian joke on me.

How Lee. Haole. Funny, funny.

But I broke down and went. And now it’s becoming my go-to place for Chinese food in the city. Or at least what I’m pretty sure is Chinese food. Y’know, without going there to make sure.

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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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Ambience, Family, Meta, Nontraditional, Traditional

Yinz privileges.

Almost seven months in Pittsburgh now. I’m still new. It’s my city but it’s not my city.

As much as I have embraced this city and it me, I am not of this place. I still have something to earn, something to prove.

I don’t yet have yinz privileges.

Some of that’s about language. Pittsburghese. The dropped infinitives, the flat vowels, downbeat instead of an upbeat at the ends of questions, the n’ats and gum bands and yinz-guyses. Maybe I know how to get from the South Side to Bloomfield without a map, but those aren’t words I get to use yet — mockingly or otherwise. Even if I wanted to, I could never out-Greg & Donny the actual Greg & Donny.

Living in Philly a decade ago, I inadvertently started occasionally dropping my Rs in words like “yesterday.” I did — to my mother’s heartbreak — say “wudder” for “water.” What I never did pick up was the “yous” — the Philly version of yinz or y’all. Not out of a feeling of respect or otherness, it just never felt like it fit in my mouth.

I do find myself saying y’all. And I did spend more than three years in the South. That’s when it came back to me. I had a high school teacher in Oregon who came from northern Louisiana — he said y’all. A lot. And I started saying it to poke fun.

Said it enough that it kind of stuck for a while. And there I was, Oregon kid from Southern California, saying y’all for no reason except I liked to be an idiot and make fun. That went away until I’d been in Arkansas a couple years and then it just seemed expedient. Saying “you guys” or some such just took too damn long. Always a chance I was going to need those syllables later for something more important.

There are different ways of getting to know a place. I’ve read plenty about Pittsburgh. The H, the Hump, the flood in 1936, the Hill District and jazz, Carnegie and Frick, Andy Warhol, Gene Kelly, that — holy crap — the Pirates used to be good.

But that’s not the same as experience. I’ve walked around where Forbes Field used to be. Been down to the Block House to touch it for myself. Seen shows at the O’Reilly and the Benedum. Spent time in the Heinz History Center archives for research. Happened across little things that tell something about this city.

A friend even got me in to see the CMU steam tunnels. Which was beyond cool.

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And I’ve done a lot of learning with my tongue. The traditional. The new. The people trying to make something special. Those who have taken the time to help me, show me around, teach me something, give of themselves.

They share their food, their beer, their insights, their lives. With me.

Before I moved here, I heard a lot from other transplants about how hard a city Pittsburgh was to get inside. That it could be difficult to win acceptance or find the right guide. Natives would look at me skeptically, they told me. Connecting with people would be hard.

Utter crap.

Maybe I just found the right people faster than I should have. Luck. Fluke.

I don’t think so.

My brother came through Pittsburgh a little while ago to play a gig in Polish Hill. We got to talking about Portland. That place can be a true closed society. Hard to meet people. Hard to know who your friends are. Hard to break into whatever club everyone else is a part of, the insouciant but vicious coolness of already living there.

I told him about Pittsburgh. The people I’ve met here. Jennie and Rob and Mike and Kelly and Abby and A.J. and Derrick and Gwen and Andrea and Andrea (two people) and Beth and Emily and Kim and Claire and Arthur and (another) Mike and Perry and Chris and James and Mindy and Hart and Adam and Cara and Dana and Amy and Tim. Yeah, not every one of them would get on a plane to post bail for me in another state, but they and a bunch of others have made this feel like home for me. And in not that much time.

I like it here. Think I’ll stay a while. Might even pick up those yinz privileges somewhere along the way.

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