Location: 1025 Lebanon Road, West Mifflin. 412-462-4900
Hours: Sun.-Sat. 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Prices: Breakfast and lunch $5-10
Fare: Traditional diner, super-sized
Atmosphere: Neon and chrome with an attitude
Ask anyone about our great nation's contributions to the way the world eats, and you'll probably get an earful about fast food. How depressing, especially when the truth about how many of us really eat is so much more satisfying. We would like to set the record straight, and for starters, we'd like to nominate the diner, fast food's sit-down-and-stay-awhile cousin, as the new international emblem for the American Everyman's appetite.
Diners may not be any better for your heart than fast food, but they sure are better for the soul. We have yet to meet anyone who can resist their combination of booths, jukeboxes and breakfast served all day. We suppose that's why, even as the original diners from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s grow older and fewer, new ones always seem to spring up to take their place. Some are theme restaurants putting a modern spin on diner classics such as meatloaf and grilled cheese; others are family restaurants dressed up in neon and chrome.
Hot Metal Diner, out near the Allegheny County Airport, is a woman-owned-and-run, new-old-fashioned diner with a Harley theme and sassy attitude embodied by not one, not two, but three, different signs warning patrons against whining. But when it comes to the food, the Hot Metal is a straight-up diner like Mel used to run.
Or should we say, like he'd run it if he were feeding a football team. Wanting to try a bit of everything, we ordered a lot of sides, causing our server to cock her head at us and ask, "You haven't eaten here before, have you? I'm not sure it's all going to fit on your table." We were at the largest table in the place.
Our first indication of what we had gotten ourselves into came with Angelique's side order of a single pancake. Larger than the entire skillet we cook pancakes in at home, it hung off the edges of a Fiestaware serving platter. It was no spread-thin, crepe-like thing, either: At least a quarter-inch thick, it lived up to the name "mancake." (The menu also includes stacks of normal-size and silver-dollar pancakes.)
So was there more to this flapjack than mere mass? In a word, yes. The edges were lacy and crisp, the interior light and fluffy, and the flavor buttermilky and just slightly sweet. The other members of the griddle triumvirate -- French toast and waffle -- were just as big and just as good. Hot Metal Diner actually expands the classic trio of breakfast meats -- bacon, sausage and ham -- by offering both sweet and hot sausage in patties. We found the sweet sausage to be strongly flavored with fennel, which didn't quite go with the syrup that inevitably dripped off the pancake. The bacon, on the other hand, was exceptional, thick enough to be meaty but thin enough to curl and crisp.
Sampling the more savory side of breakfast, Angelique tried the breakfast burrito, which, frankly, made our other portions seem almost birdlike. A 12-inch tube as thick as her biceps, this was sort of a Spanish omelet wrapped in a tortilla. Egg, potatoes and sautéed onions and peppers made for a hearty filling; the outside was a sundried-tomato tortilla drizzled with melted cheese, and served with salsa on the side. Angelique added hot sausage for extra savor and was glad she did. Otherwise, the filling would have been dominated by the starchiness of the potatoes.
The diner is open until mid-afternoon, and so, in addition to the complete breakfast menu, there's a limited lunch menu plus daily specials. The grilled Buffalo chicken sandwich was tempting, especially when our server explained that it wasn't saucy, just spicy, but the allure of an extravagantly topped burger won out. A half-pound Angus patty was adorned with cheddar, sautéed onions, mushrooms and bacon, plus barbecue sauce for the Mancini's bun. The burger, which appeared hand-formed, was broad enough not to be a jaw-stretcher but thin enough to be properly cooked, still juicy within. The thinly sliced onion had a subtle presence, and that wonderful bacon worked very well with the array of other ingredients. We upgraded from chips to fries, true shoestrings that were credible, if a bit too pale. A side of onion rings -- the only thing we ordered that was not oversized -- was excellent, light and crisp without any overfried flavor.
Good as they looked, we couldn't find any room for slices of fresh apple or cherry pie. That's OK -- it just gives us an excuse to go back. Hot Metal Diner turns food you can get at any roadside joint into something worth a dedicated drive.