Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pittsburgh's Strip District

Close your eyes and imagine a friendly, livable, cosmopolitan city with world-class universities, top-notch eateries, and two professional sports teams better than any other in the nation. Picture a city with a unique culinary culture that spawned a much-beloved food recognized internationally as an American icon. And now imagine that city has a vibrant, historic ethnic food district with an array of offerings that could hold its own with any major American city. Sounds like a pretty cool place, right?

Would you be surprised if I told you the city you’re imagining is… Pittsburgh?

I grew up about an hour from Pittsburgh, and made a trip into the Steel City on a recent visit to see my parents. Boy, was I impressed…and surprised! I knew the Steelers and the Penguins were the pride of the area. I had heard the city was hosting the G-20 Leaders’ Summit next month. And everyone knows Heinz, with its uber-famous ketchup, is based there. But I must admit to harboring a stereotype of Pittsburgh as a gruff, strictly blue-collar, second rate city. I am very happy to say that I was completely wrong, and that this exciting place is really moving up in the world.

The Strip district is a microcosm of a city with a veritably American, sometimes difficult past, avigorous present, and an auspicious future.
Today, the area is a market district well known for its ethnic grocers, produce, meat, and fish shops, restaurants, and clubs, and the industrial warehouses that date back to the city’s nineteenth century steel days are being converted into luxury lofts. Here are some of the grocers, vendors, and restaurants I visited with my ma and pa.

Our first stop was Reyna Foods Mexican grocer.

Reyna is a very colorful place with piƱatas adorning the ceiling. The shop is not limited to Mexican products but rather touches on the cuisines of much of Latin America and the Caribbean. I picked up a bag of Argentine yerba mate and admired the spice racks, massive cans of beans and Peruvian yellow peppers, and myriad spicy sauces.

There’s a taco stand outside and prepared foods on offer inside, such as lots of different kinds of fresh salsas…

And a host of empanadas and burritos. We snacked on black bean empanadas…

And a chicken burrito.

But, we passed on the larvets, crick-ettes, ant candy, chocolate covered insects, and scorpions trapped inside lollipops that were located next to the cash register.

Next, we headed to one of many Asian shops on the Strip. This one had a vendor out front cooking scallion pancakes to order on a griddle and was chock full of pickles and kimchi and veggies and teas and sauces and spices and seafood and frozen foods and prepared foods…

And of course a number of rice options.

Dear me, how I wish I had a local place like this!

We also strolled around Labads Grocery and chatted with the friendly Syrian owner.

Labads had an impressive array of Middle Eastern ingredients, including the extremely difficult to find molokhia greens. The greens are used most notably to make a popular Egyptian stew, but they’re used as a thickening agent all over the Middle East and I’ve had them as one component of a goat stew at a Sudanese restaurant in Adelaide, South Australia, that you can read about here. Labads had beautiful frozen quails and quite an array of labne and braided Syrian cheeses.

The pastries were very tempting. Many were layered with flaky phyllo dough, like the ubiquitous baklava, and some looked as if they contained nuts and various sticky sweet fillings. Next time I’m in the Strip District I look forward to dining in the restaurant at the back of the store and trying some of these goodies!

No visit to the Strip would be complete without a meal at the famous Primanti Bros. (hey ma and pa!) This casual spot has been a Pittsburgh institution since the 1930s and has been featured on many food shows for its legendary panini sandwiches and local color. The Strip District location is the original, but now Primanti Bros. has 14 other locations in the Pittsburgh area, and two in Florida.

The purpose of a trip to Primanti Bros. is a sandwich known here as a panini (no, it’s not the Italian kind – actually, it’s far from it). The sandwich typically has some sort of meat as its base, and every sandwich comes piled with fresh-cut fries, coleslaw, and a sliced tomato, all on soft, Italian-style bread. We had one with egg and cheese, and the other with pastrami and cheese. I’ve heard various legends on the origin of this sandwich from different sources. One television show claimed the meat, potato, and veg were all squished between two slices of bread so the local workers could have a compact meal that could be easily eaten without utensils. Another source claims the restaurant one day found itself with a glut of potatoes, and one enterprising employee fried them up and piled them on the sandwich. Either way, it’s a quintessentially Pittsburgh experience to eat a panini at the historic bar – at any time of day or night.

You might wonder how we kept up the motivation to continue to browse the food shops after eating these massive sandwiches, but we were troopers, and we pressed on. Another local institution just around the corner from Primanti Bros is Wholey’s Market. Here since 1912, the place has a staggering array of fresh fish and meats and dry goods.

Before I even saw the sign for the next grocer we visited, I was blown away by the huge food mural decorating its outside walls. Just look how tiny I am compared to that massive hunk of prosciutto!

Yes, you guessed it, Sunseri’s has every Italian ingredient you could possibly want for. Not only that, it has 50 options for every Italian ingredient you’d ever desire!

Breads, pastas, meats, cheeses, bulk olive oils and vinegars.

They even had cans of Cento wedding soup, which I’d never seen before. I wrote about Italian wedding soup, a dish that originated in the northeastern Ohio/ western Pennsylvania area where I grew up, here

And of course, Sunseri’s had a selection of produce, most notably heirloom and locally grown San Marzano-type tomatoes.

After all this food shopping in the summer heat, we stopped in Chicken Latino, a Peruvian rotisserie chicken place, and were psyched to find them selling horchata. The banana with tamarind juice cooled us down and fueled us up for the car ride home.

Reyna Foods Mexican Grocer
2023 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 261-2606

Labads Grocery

1727 Penn Ave
, Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 261-0419

Primanti Bros.

46 18th Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 263-2149

Primanti Brothers (Strip District) on Urbanspoon

Wholey’s Market

1711 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 391-3737

Wholey's Fish Market on Urbanspoon

Jimmy and Nino Sunseri’s

1906 Penn Ave,
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 255-1100

Chicken Latino

155 21st Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 246-0974

Chicken Latino on Urbanspoon


Unknown said...

OMG, Cari! I can't believe all that stuff is in Pittsburg. I am going to have to make time for a Pittsburg trip the next time I'm in Youngstown. I think my husband would rather die! But I think I will have to foist him off on my brother so Mom and I can take a trip to all these places. Mom would be stoked with the Mexican shop. She keeps telling me how she can't find chorizo anywhere. And I would love to check out the Italian shop. Not too many Italians here in Texas. It's very hard to find the tomatoes I like when I make sauce. Looks like I'll be mailing myself a box. :)

Cari said...

Celeste!!! You guys HAVE to go there! You'll freak out - I was so surprised at how much ethnic stuff there was... wish I were there when you were in town so we could cook together again!!!

Unknown said...

It would be fun to cook together! Too bad my trip to Youngstown is about 2 weeks away. We just missed each other.

Unknown said...

awesome spot on the 'Burgh, Cari! Whenever I finally end up there with my passel of children, I'm glad to know you might actually come visit us!

Unknown said...

awesome spot on the 'Burgh, Cari! Whenever I finally end up there with my passel of children, I'm glad to know you might actually come visit us!

WDOphotography said...

The best part is that many of these little shops will also ship things to you. If you can't make it to the Strip the Strip can come to you. Call any number of them or check the Neighbors in the Strip website ( to find out about more shops.

Cari said...

Excellent advice, WTO! Good to know, as I'm not often in the Pitt area but crave many of the foods I found there. Thanks for sharing and stopping by.