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, 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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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, Ingredients, Meta, Recipes

Generosity.

Food is for sharing.

One of the hardest things about moving to Pittsburgh in stages has been my inability to entertain. Cooking for myself is fine — I do like food — but it’s so much more gratifying to do it for other people. My kitchen right now has only a few of my toys in it. I barely have furniture; it arrives with my wife AmyJo in less than a week.

Finally. On all counts. Especially the wife part. We actually like each other. It’s a little sick.

The process of cooking is almost soothing for me. The sweat, the knife nicks on my hands, the performance stress make a strange sheath for an activity in which I find a measure of serenity. It may be the most organized I get. What prep to do in what order, when to hit the heat or take something out of the fridge to get to room temperature, where to put everything in the meantime.

Driving through town on the way somewhere? Stop for a night. I’ll cook. I’ll take any excuse I can most of the time.

And I haven’t gotten to do it.

Mostly.

See, I have a friend. Say hello to Beth. I got to talking on Twitter a few weeks ago about how much I missed this. She offered up her kitchen.

We haven’t known each other since childhood or anything. I’ve only lived here three months and known her for one of them. And that’s now, not when she first opened her house to me.

And this is the crazy thing: Hers wasn’t the only offer I got of a kitchen, just the one that worked out. Pittsburgh’s like that.

Beth’s offer was gracious. And kind. I mean, I suppose she thought something like, “Hey, food.” But she didn’t even know for sure I could cook — just that I talked about it.

That night, she invited over a few friends and I made a tray of ziti with a homemade tomato sauce and a little dip/spread thing that was basically a puree of olive oil and roasted garlic, eggplant, fennel, red peppers and onion with a little fennel pollen at the end to bring out the sweetness a little more. Nothing fancy.

Damn, it felt good.

So last night we did it again. Little more elaborate this time. Tilapia enchiladas in a spinach and roasted poblano cream sauce preceded by mussels in beer with red peppers, shallots, garlic, saffron, ancho chile powder, red pepper flakes — and I think that’s it. I burned off some of the hair on my knuckles roasting the peppers — I didn’t have tongs — and the pan for searing the fish shot me with hot oil a couple times, but I have done far worse to myself.

Another new friend, Emily, made a sinful chocolate cream pie for dessert. Sinful. Impure thoughts. Honestly.

The enchilada recipe is a ripoff of a Rick Bayless recipe that uses chicken and corn tortillas instead of the flour ones I use in this. A few other differences, too, but it’s not like I can claim it as my own.

Mine kind of look like this:

I’m rather incapable of following precise recipes. It’s why I don’t bake. I combine flavors in my head the way I do with words. Organize the ingredients sort of the same way. I taste in advance with my brain. That’s how I know how to explain it.

Food was good. (And if you like: recipes for the enchiladas and the mussels.) All seven of us laughed. Hard. A lot. At the Internet or, like, furniture. Or each other or Eddie Izzard. Didn’t matter.

But it was something that wouldn’t have happened without the donated kitchen. Beth shared. So I got to share, too.

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Beer, Cheap eats, Lawrenceville, Neighborhoods, Service, Traditional

Frankie’s.

Places like this make me nervous.

Old-school like there are no newer schools, Frankie’s is where you can get a more-than-solid hot sausage sandwich and two bottled Yuenglings for less than seven bucks. But it’s just down the street from a place that hand-restores and tailors vintage T-shirts.

I’m nervous it will go away.

The old mill buildings to the west along the Allegheny are hard to see from Butler Street. Even in the memory of a changing neighborhood, what they represent and the people who worked there fade into the background.

Gentrification means less shots-fired calls, sure. But it also means more tax incentives and abatements. More outsiders. More idea cafes. More $50 scarves. More money. More young people. More white people. More pugs.

These are not all good things for a place like Frankie’s. These are things that often kills a place like Frankie’s.

Inside it’s dark and stained and Dr. Phil is on the TV a lot. No one’s jeans were “distressed” at purchase in there. No one in there would ever use the word “distressed” — about pants, certainly, but probably about anything.

There are four sandwiches on the menu, one of which is a foot-long hotdog. Vegetarian options — um, chips?

It’s an island of IC Light braced against a craft beer flood in this city. Most places will nod to that with something local — a little East End Brewing, perhaps, or something from Penn. At Frankie’s, screw off. Winter seasonal beer here just means the cans of Coors Light get colder. There are two types of malt liquor on the menu in case you want something with a higher ABV.

It feels a little weird talking about what’s authentic in a neighborhood in this case because nobody named Frankie ever ran the place. Dude’s name was Lou. He had a business partner named Frankie. I hear Lou still comes around every once in a while, but I’ve never seen him.

The brothers who own it now have had it since 1989. They own the building, so rent’s not a problem.

I love that it’s there. I hope it continues to be there. Because I can’t quite tell what type of neighborhood Lawrenceville is trying to be.

Almost every city I’ve lived in has a neighborhood like this, coping with this kind of transition. Is the momentum to invent and rebuild and take over going to destroy everything that was there before? That’s what seems to happen other places. What starts with a locally owned coffee shop, an art gallery and an architecture firm ends with Panera, Ulta and Starbucks.

Is there a magical balance that evens out only on a scale placed on the tip of a unicorn’s horn? Is Lawrenceville where that happens?

No idea. Let’s hope.

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Bloomfield, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Presentation, Service

Thai Cuisine.

Never been to Thailand. Or Italy. Never been to France or India.

I can’t tell you about authentic. But I know when something’s good.

A friend of mine first took me to Thai Cuisine at Liberty and Pearl before I moved here. I had a winter squash curry. Maybe a little watery, but flavorful. Good. Probably better than just good.

It was also my first time in Bloomfield, which quickly became one of my favorite neighborhoods. The old Italian grocerias where you can meet the person who makes the pasta, the way the freshness of a building’s facade has no relationship whatever to its interior, the Officer Paul J. Sciullo II memorial trophy, the tendrils of an Asian demographic shift.

I made a point to go back. I did. And I will again.

This time there was a soft-shell crab special. That’s an easy sell for me.

I suppose it should weird me out a little that there’s an industry built around snatching crabs out of the water when they’re at the their most vulnerable, shedding their hard shells and slowly growing new ones. But it doesn’t. (… Sorry?)

This one was tasty. Well-battered — not too heavy, good seasoning that adds something to the crab — if a little oily. On the plate, it looked like a giant fried spider climbing a small mound of tasteless shredded iceberg lettuce and toothpicks of carrot that similarly added little.

On my tongue it was almost all crab. As it should be.

Then came the Rad Na. Wide rice noodles in an oyster-garlic sauce with fried tofu, carrots, onions and Napa cabbage.

Thai Cuisine, like a lot of places, has a heat range to choose from, 1 to 10.

“Actually,” my waiter said, “we can go higher than that if you want.”

I asked for an 8 when he couldn’t give be a ballpark idea of what a 10 was. The 8 turned out to be a fairly mild palate-warmer, a little tingle that stayed with me after I walked back into the outside chill.

Next time will be Spinal Tap. Next time, we go at least to 11.

There was too much sauce on the plate that arrived — everything was practically doggie-paddling in it — but it clung to the ingredients well. The noodles themselves were excellent, smaller than I expected, delicately chewy bits of garlic-soaked wonderfulness. The texture inside the tofu added the creaminess I’d hoped for.

This is when I wish I knew more about what was authentically Thai.

I mean, I suppose it’s not not Thai. Not the way that this pizza joint in Oakmont isn’t really Italian even though its name is Tomanetti’s. At least they’re honest about it in the fine print. Check out the end of the second paragraph.

I stopped in here once and bought a hoagie. I had to pee and felt bad I wasn't getting anything. Not a bad little hoagie.

But I digress. I just thought that was funny.

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