Heading to Pittsburgh soon for a Steelers game (or just for fun?) Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for excellent (and affordable!) steak, or some wild boar bacon, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town. And for any other road trip needs, check out our master list of city guides throughout the U.S.
The woman at the table to my right looked at the canoe-shaped object that had just arrived at my table. Then she looked at her friend. Then she looked at me.
“We need,” she said, “to take a picture of your meat.”
I never expected to hear that sentence in my life, but I also had never had such an impressive display of charred bovine musculature arrayed before me on something that looked like a small personal water conveyance. Sure, I’ve eaten some delicious steaks. There’s the Fabulous Filet at Charley’s in Tampa in Orlando, a dry-aged, 20-ounce, center-cut masterpiece that can be sliced with a fork. There was this beautiful, rare 64-ounce tomahawk ribeye at Ruffino’s in Baton Rouge.
All those previous steaks were limited by cut, though. Even the porterhouse only offers the filet and the strip. The Asado Platter at Pittsburgh’s Gaucho Parrilla Argentina does not force diners into a carnivorous Sophie’s choice. It comes with healthy portions of flank, sirloin, filet, ribeye and strip. It costs $50, and it can feed four normal-sized adults, two extraordinarily large adults or one me.
When I ordered at the counter and gave my party size (solo), the cashier announced it to the staff because apparently this sort of order happens pretty rarely. He also announced that I didn’t plan to ask for a doggie bag. This drew a thumbs-up from the guy manning the grill, but that gentleman deserves all the praise. Because if eaten as intended—by multiple people alongside slices of charred toast dunked in chimichurri and beautiful wood-grilled vegetables—the Asado Platter beats the taste and the experience at all but the very best steakhouses for a fraction of the price.
Let’s say you’re splitting it four ways, which will provide enough meat to make the average adult happy. That’s $12.50 a person. Add in sides split four ways and that’s another $10 a person. The place is BYOB—or BYOW—with no corkage fee, so bring two bottles of wine that run $20 at the store (between $80-$100 at a steakhouse) and split that cost four ways. Add a nice tip for the hardworking cooks and staff, and that comes out to a little less than $40 a person for a steak dinner that blows away meals that cost five times as much.
The reason is the steak itself. Each cut is expertly seared and cooked precisely as ordered. I usually order my steak rare, but I wasn’t sure if I should do that in Pittsburgh because in steakhouse parlance the city’s name indicates an extreme form of rare just a shade up from tartare. But the rare I got matched the rare in any other city. The meat isn’t dry aged—which is why Gaucho Parrilla Argentina can charge less than a red velvet-walled steakhouse—but the filet still comes out impossibly tender. The marbling from the ribeye is just as hearty. The flank still dips wonderfully into that house-made chimichurri.
This way, everyone gets to try every cut without the awkwardness of slicing off pieces of each person’s entree. As an added bonus, someone might need to take a picture of your meat. And we can all use that kind of morale boost.
The surroundings looked bleak. The rumbling that had taken over my stomach after reading the Industry Public House menu began to wane. Across a main road sat a Wal-Mart. Within the same general cluster sat a Sam’s Club, a Max and Erma’s, a Tilted Kilt and a Quaker Steak and Lube. Even though Quaker Steak and Lube sprouted from Pennsylvania, it feels like standard suburban fare. Given those options, the best dining choice probably was a cinnamon sugar pretzel at Sam’s*.
*I’m only sort of making fun here. Don’t sleep on the Sam’s cinnamon sugar pretzel. It costs less than $1 and is better than any pretzel you’ve had at the mall or the airport.
Even though it shared a shopping center with some of these places, I shouldn’t have lumped Industry Public House into one of the circles of Chain Hell. In fact, more places need to do what Industry Public House has done—open a hip restaurant with a carefully crafted menu and excellent cocktails in a place that’s actually convenient.
Many of the places I review in larger cities are wedged into tight spaces downtown. Parking usually is a nightmare. Nearby hotels can be outrageously expensive. This lends a kind of exclusivity to these places that makes them seem cooler, but why? The Industry Public House I visited is the second location—the first is in the Lawrenceville neighborhood—and it serves barrel-aged Manhattans, lumberjack Old Fashioneds (made with your choice of wood smoked by a torch-wielding bartender) and wild boar bacon. Such a restaurant in a downtown area would draw rave reviews. But wouldn’t the place be even better if it served barrel-aged Manhattans, lumberjack Old Fashioneds and wild boar bacon and had a huge parking lot with an Ikea and an airport nearby?
It’s not just better. It’s infinitely superior. People who move to the suburbs shouldn’t be sentenced to a lifetime of Outback and Buffalo Wild Wings. Their credit cards work just as well as their downtown counterparts. Why not bring the dozens of on-tap craft beers and seared pork belly to them?
The barrel-aged Manhattan was excellent, but I immediately regretted ordering it when I saw the bartender lighting up shards of hickory to make smoke to infuse into another diner’s Old Fashioned. This may seem like a parlor trick — and it’s more theatrical here than anywhere else I’ve seen it done—but the smoke does pair well with the natural sweetness of the bourbon. The idea behind barbecue, where wood smoke enhances the flavor of meat that is sweetened by caramelizing fat, isn’t that different.
The boar bacon appetizer, meanwhile, is tailor-made for someone with my bacon preferences. If you like your bacon burned to a crisp, just skip this and order another drink or head straight to the burgers. But if you like your bacon chewy, you’ll love this. The boar is leaner, so there’s more meat and less fat. Because of this, it has to come out chewy or it will be ruined. But unlike regular bacon, there is little chance of getting a barely cooked glob of fat on the end of the piece. If you’re concentrating on drinking and only want a little food, order a bowl of the Catalyst Chili. It packs savory ground beef and ground pork into a mixture sweetened and deepened by Hop Farm Coffee Porter.
Those with healthy appetites should order the Blast Pig Burger. It’s a half-pound patty topped with candied bacon, candied jalapenos, caramelized onions and fried zucchini. The zucchini acts as a base to provide support for the more extreme flavors of the bacon and jalapeno. Just as with the chili, the burger presses the savory, salty, spicy and sweet buttons at once. It would seem entirely at home at the newest, hippest gastropub in the part of downtown with the least available parking. Instead, it tastes even better next to a wholesale club that sells toilet paper in 48-packs.
Multiple locations throughout six states, but born in central Pennsylvania and heavily concentrated in western Pennsylvania.
The push messages kept delivering more bad news. I had a 10:30 p.m. reservation that would deliver me a steak in Pittsburgh, but a line of storms moving through Georgia had made that steak disappear. We sat on the runway for an hour before taking off for Atlanta, and the plane that would take me from Atlanta to Pittsburgh had been held for two and a half hours in Charlotte. Every time the phone buzzed, the hour of arrival grew later.
I had deliberately eaten a light lunch and skipped dinner to accommodate that steak, so I had to find something once I got to Pittsburgh. I found a place that served food until midnight, but as we sat on the runway 14th in line for takeoff from Atlanta, that option evaporated. Still, Pittsburgh institution Primanti Brothers had a location near the airport that stayed open until 2 a.m. Never before had fries on a sandwich sounded so wonderful.
But when I finally walked through the door at 1:25 a.m., I learned the kitchen closed at midnight. Desperate, I nearly resigned myself to a meal of beef jerky from the market at the hotel. Then I remembered where I was.
Though the concept has proliferated throughout the country in the past few years, people in western and central Pennsylvania have been lucky enough to have Sheetz service stations for decades. At any time of the day or night, Sheetz stores offer made-to-order food that surpasses most fast food restaurants and rivals plenty of fast casual and sit-down chains. The trick is keeping the touchscreen ordering system from taking you down a dark path in the wee hours.
As expected, I found a Sheetz within two minutes of pulling out of the Primanti Bros. parking lot. Within seconds, I was at the screen trying to decide just how much I wanted to pollute my body before bed. It helps to remember in these moments that the screen acts as a perpetual devil on the shoulder.
I pressed bratwurst. Then the questions began in the form of touchable squares offering me various options.
Q: Would you like a pretzel bun?
A: Yes, preceded by a word your favorite football coach uses frequently.
Q: Would you like chili?
A: I shouldn’t do this now. This is a bad idea. This will hurt when the sun rises.
Of course I want chili.
Q: Do you want jalapenos?
A: Oh, come on. Why would you ask me this at 1:30 a.m.? What kind of masochist would put chili and jalapenos on a brat in a pretzel bun at this hour?
Of course I want jalapenos.
Q: Would you like something else?
A: Did you see what I just ordered? What’s wrong with you? Are you trying to kill me?
Yes. I also would like a burger and fries.
Q: Would you like jalapenos on that burger?
A: You are trying to kill me. Don’t you want me to live so I can order more Sheetz food at a later date? This doesn’t seem like a healthy long-term business plan.
OK. Give me the jalapenos.
Q: Do you want chili on that burger?
A: No. No. No. Even I have limits. I want to make it through the night.
(It’s true. Even I have limits.)
Minutes later, I had a meal fit for a king—or at least fit for a king whose flight was delayed into the wee hours. Any frustration over the flight delays had been melted by the heat of those jalapenos. The pretzel bun was soft. The brat had a perfect snap. The burger was greasy and glorious.
I had planned to blow a small fortune on a steak. Instead, I had spent $11 and gone to sleep smiling. I may be no match for the order screen, but I still won that night.