Sunday, January 18, 2009

Weekend in Pittsburgh

This weekend I decided to brave the cold and snowy roads and spend some quality time with a good friend from college and his family. As it turned out, it happened to be his birthday, too. Not much discussion was needed to decide how to celebrate, however; it would be a visit to the ever cool Dave & Buster's down in the Waterfront district. My friend's brother also decided to drive in and join us.

After a number of beers and way too many games of Air Raid (holy cow, is that an addictive game -- and expense, too), we left Dave & Buster's only to discover that it had started to snow pretty hard. By this time, we had all pretty much sobered up and were in need of sustenance. I had originally wanted to come early on Saturday so that I could stop and have a local sandwich legend. Unfortunately, I hadn't left early enough and thought I had missed my opportunity. So, with great zeal I suggested we go and get a Primanti Brothers sandwich. Although there are several locations, we choose to go to the original one in The Strip (18th Street). Even though we arrived around 1 am, all the street parking was full up and there were tow trucks sitting waiting to tow anyone who parked illegally. Fortunately, Primanti Brothers has its own parking lot, which was mercifully empty. Here is the sign on the side of the restaurant:

The deal with a Primanti Brothers sandwich is that you can order whatever type of sandwich you want and they will top it with coleslaw and french fries and serve it to you on deli paper. There is nothing formal about this place. An extra order of fries? Served on another piece of deli paper. After paying for and picking up your finished order, you retire to an open table to enjoy your feast. I decided to go with a hot corned beef and provolone cheese sandwich. You'll have to excuse the lighting in the next two photos, the restaurant was dimly lit and since it was 1 am when we went, there wasn't any additional lighting available from the restaurant's front windows. First, a shot of my entire sandwich:

As you can tell from the picture, there is a LOT of bread on top of the sandwich. The bread is hand cut to order and this results in a more unique look. From the bottom up you have the bottom slice of bread, corned beef, cheese, coleslaw, french fries, and then the crown. There are really only two points to make here. First, as you can imagine, this is a challenging sandwich to eat. I had to basically employ the squish and bite method in order to fit it in my mouth. Second, this was a delicious sandwich. The vinegar and sugar that was in the coleslaw really balanced out the unctuous taste from the corned beef. It had that sweet, sour, umami combination that really went well together.

Here is a photo of half of my sandwich. You can see the layering of ingredients a little better.

The only thing I didn't really care for were the fries. I'm kind of picky about my fries and I like them crisp and not overly greasy. These were hot, yes, but a little on the limp and greasy side. They didn't really detract from the sandwich, but they also didn't really add anything either. My two comrades and I split an actual order of fries as well. Overall, this was also a pretty economical meal. Each of us had a sandwich, we split an order of fries, and two cokes totaled just around $20.

By the time we left Primanti Brothers, it was close to 2 am and we were all just itching to get back to my friend's house where we could crash. Unfortunately, the snowfall had been steady and getting progressively worse, so it took us close to an hour and a half just to get home. It was at that point we learned that my friend couldn't even get his car up to his driveway (steep hill) so we had to park at the bottom and walk the last bit. Thankfully the really cold weather had moved out of the area the night before.

Before I left Pittsburgh, I had decided to include another sandwich place in my weekend visit, only this time it would be an ethnic sandwich called banh mi. This is a Vietnamese specialty that uses a French-influenced roll filled with all sorts of meats and condiments. My Ngoc in The Strip (I had to drive right past Primanti Brothers to get here, funny, no?) is well known for their banh mi. I knew this would be the place I would be going to for lunch today.

I arrived around 1:30 pm today to find most of the lunch crowd had already gone. I was seated at a table by the window (my request) and started perusing the menu. I had assumed there would be an entire section just for the banh mi. Nope. There were two types available, chicken and beef, and both were listed in the appetizers section. Unfortunately when I asked about them, my server informed me that they weren't available. I thought about asking why they weren't available, but his English and my Vietnamese are both terrible, so I decided on a different path instead.

For my appetizer, I started out with a rather traditional Vietnamese specialty, the summer roll with shrimp and hoisin dipping sauce.

These had a nice fresh flavor to them but there was nothing really out of the ordinary in the summer rolls themselves. The real surprise was to find just the slightest bit of heat in the hoisin dipping sauce. While I certainly like my other dishes spiced with a generous serving of sriracha, it had never occurred to me to add a little spice to my summer rolls. It really worked well.

Following my summer rolls, I decided to have a version of their Pho with round steak instead of the beef ball (which comes with their standard Pho). It is closer to the Pho that I have gotten used to in Cleveland. Here is the Pho with accompanying plate of extras:

What you can partially see on the plate are bean sprouts, thai basil, and a lime wedge. You add whatever extras you like. Before adding anything to the Pho, I tasted the broth. Sublime. It was full of meaty flavor without being overly salty. I could've just eaten a bowl of this by itself. But after combining everything else with a bit of sriracha, I was in Pho heaven. It was absolutely delicious. I ate all of the broth and most of the other ingredients. I left with a warm belly to face my long drive back home to Ohio.

I look forward to trying the banh mi next time I'm back in Pittsburgh.

Primanti Brothers (Strip District) on Urbanspoon  My Ngoc on Urbanspoon

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