Eating Across Bridges: The Strip District

A quick and mouth-watering introduction to the food of Pittsburgh Strip District

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News-Herald

Wholey’s Fish Market may be the best known food destination in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, but there’s an entire smorgasbord of global cuisine up and down Penn Avenue.

Jonathan Ross, Co-Editor-in-Chief

There are the food staples of North Allegheny students: Monte Cellos, Rita’s, and Chick-Fil-A. Like a majority of NA students, I’ve eaten my fair share of slices after football games and more chicken sandwiches than I can count. Ultimately, the local food scene is, though perhaps predictable, good enough.

I firmly believe, however, as with anything else in life, simply being good doesn’t excuse complacency. When it comes to food, I believe that it’s necessary to explore and eat outside of the infamous “Wexford bubble.”  All it takes is crossing a a bridge or two on your way to downtown Pittsburgh.

I’m fortunate enough to have eaten at many restaurants around Pittsburgh, from humble Asian stalls in the Strip District to renowned Spanish eateries in Lawrenceville. So, in an attempt to share both my love of food and the often overlooked culinary culture in and around Pittsburgh, I’ll be touring the neighborhoods of the city, eating and writing. This edition of Eating Across Bridges will focus on the Strip District. 

Penn Avenue is perhaps the road in Pittsburgh that I know best, particularly the stretch from 11th St. to 33rd St. This neighborhood is called the Strip District, formerly one of the city’s first and largest commercial and shipping centers. It’s still a hub of the city, but it now houses boutiques, specialty stores, and restaurants rather than US Steel and Heinz factories. 

This unique history is apparent almost immediately as you enter the Strip from the south end, with the first and most expensive restaurant on the list, Eleven, housed in an elegantly repurposed warehouse. Eleven is self-described as a  “modern, refined American restaurant,” serving food ranging from locally sourced oysters and foie gras to my personal favorite, the ELEVEN burger. While this burger is far from vegetarian friendly, with its braised veal patty and black pepper bacon, it’s an absolute must for the burger connoisseur. The meat requires no distracting sauces or gimmicks–it’s simply meat. Very, very good meat. 

But food in the Strip is not limited to dine-in restaurants. In fact, some of the highest quality food–in this case, cheeses–can be found in a local grocery store: The Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, colloquially known as Penn Mac. The store is as much a place for good cheese as it is an experience. 

The cheese counter at Penn Mac in the Strip District opens at 6:30am, though lines begin to form on the street as early as 6:00.

On particularly busy days, customers start to line up at 6:00 AM, with the store manager carefully directing customer entry, and the lines reaching two-hundred deep. Inside, the cheese stalls are reminiscent of the auction houses that lined the Strip’s streets in the 1960s. Workers yell out now-serving numbers, shoppers claw their way towards the front, and managers every so often offer free wine for those willing to leave the main room.

Ultimately, though, the zoo-like atmosphere is entirely worth it, especially for my favorite cheese, Challerhocker. It’s a swiss cheese, but it’s a far cry from the kind envisioned in old-fashioned mouse traps. Challerhocker is meant to be eaten at room temperature and is wonderfully sensational when done so. The cheese is paradoxical–firm, melt-in-your-mouth, nutty, and buttery. Quite simply, it’s experiential. And if you order the particularly niche Challerhocker first, the cheese purveyors seem to adjust their recommendations and generosity in giving free samples accordingly.

Penn Mac sits next to what I believe to be the best baked goods store in Pittsburgh: Enrico Biscotti Company. The adjacent placement allows for a quick, two-birds-with-one-stone efficiency for the hurried shopper. Enrico’s desserts are anything but a quick induction of post-dinner sugars; they’re a savory standalone serving. The smell of the shop is indicative of its atmosphere, warm and welcoming. The owner and his employees welcome shoppers with flour-covered aprons and dough on their hands, and the aroma of cakes, bread, and biscotti permeates throughout the store. Luckily, they taste as good as they smell.

While I’ve never eaten anything at Enrico’s that I’ve disliked, the Lemon Curd Pie is in a league of its own. The butter crust alone would be a best-selling product, but really, it’s nothing more than a vessel for the pure, lemony goodness. The curd strikes a perfect balance between the tart, sourness of the lemons and a lovely, almost hug-like sweetness. It’s a dessert that wholly satisfies in one bite, but warrants many more than that. 

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It’s hard to find anything on the menu at Enrico that falls short of the highest expectation.

The food I’ve mentioned thus far is from established, brick-and-mortar stores. I would, however, be doing a disservice to the Strip if I failed to discuss the food vendors that line the streets. The food carts all have their own distinct flavor, but they all pack a wonderful culinary punch. Outside of the Jimmy & Nino Sunseri Company sits a metal cart, with rows of pepperoni bread, some plain, and some dressed with jalapeno slices, named “atomic”. Just across the street sits yet another cart, this one with seating outside of WFH Oriental Market. It serves chicken on a stick, smothered in Sriracha and freshly fried vegetable egg rolls. These two, along with the other street vendors, offer the busy shopper easy access to good food. They aren’t necessarily fancy, nor are they flattering, but they do hold their own in relation to the other fare available in the Strip District. 

The Strip is a lively place, a mixing bowl of wonderful foods. And while I’ve tried to highlight some of my personal favorites, the restaurants and stores I’ve mentioned only scratch the surface. There is a Peruvian place, Chicken Latino, that specializes in chicken, beans, and rice; an old-fashioned American Diner, Pamela’s, that was frequented by President Obama; a Caribbean restaurant, Kaya, that features tropical paella and jerk chicken; and a minimalistic, locally sourced Italian restaurant, Bar Marco, with an ever-changing menu. They each represent a small slice of the many cultures of the Strip, and thus, the many cultures in Pittsburgh. The food of the Strip is far more than empty calories; it defines this neighborhood, and it helps to keep our city thriving.