A visitor recently asked us if Pittsburgh has a distinctive local food. This gave us pause, because in some ways, our city is most strongly associated with the foods brought here by its immigrants: kielbasa, pierogies, haluski. But those are more home (and church-festival) cooking than restaurant fare, and not invented in Pittsburgh.
Then there's steak "Pittsburgh rare," like the steelworkers supposedly cooked it on the iron furnaces of the mills. But you don't see that very often. And, of course, the whole fries-on-sandwiches thing — but is that distinctive to Pittsburgh, or to the one local establishment that has defined that supposed tradition?
Whatever you think about this, none of these options is — not to put too fine a point on it — remotely vegan, unlike our visitor. Fortunately, there are more venues than ever in our meat-and-potatoes region that acknowledge, celebrate even, vegetarian and vegan choices — and there's about to be one more.
Randita's Organic Vegan Cafe will soon open a restaurant in Aspinwall, but because it is the time of year for scenic drives through the countryside, we sought its original location in Saxonburg, a charming town founded by Brooklyn Bridge designer John Roebling about 180 years ago. Some of Roebling's idealistic immigrant spirit seems to have persisted in Saxonburg, where Randita's neighbors on Main Street include a yoga/wellness center, an artists' co-op, and a shop offering herbs, fair-trade items and homemade teas.
We found Randita's to be attractively appointed with deep-red walls, an exhibit of nature photography and magazine-worthy flower arrangements on every table. More modern and sophisticated than the hippie health-food restaurants of yore, Randita's exuded warmth and welcome.
The cafe is mostly a lunch-only place, with dinner specials on Fridays and Saturdays, and its menu was accordingly brief. But it spanned the vegan range, from faux meats like seitan "sausage," and meat replacements like tofu, to meat-free classics like a hummus wrap and West African sweet-potato and peanut soup. It was easy to find good choices.
Our first few items belonged to the category of Vegan Without Apology: Only the most uncompromising carnivore would think they could be improved by animal products. The house salad was a beguiling, autumnal mix of greens, grilled carrots and zucchini, diced apple, dried cranberries, toasted pumpkin seeds and croutons. With sweet, savory, earthy and nutty flavors in magnificent balance and the addition of a delicious lemon-tahini dressing, this filling salad easily belied any notion that a vegan diet might be bland or unsatisfying. The brilliant orange sweet-potato soup was thick and rich, with chunks of sweet potato and a topping of cilantro and peanuts.
The hummus wrap — in an excellent whole-wheat tortilla, and thick with fresh spinach — was studded with chunks of crisp cucumber and bright grape tomato, but the standout innovation was chewy, sweet bits of fig. The hummus itself was smooth, creamy and mildly flavored to defer to dressings like fruity Caribbean or the creamy-yet-tangy lemon-tahini.
The wrap also came with one of the most charming garnishes we've ever seen: a single spinach leaf, topped with a dollop of hummus and one dice each of cucumber, tomato and fig. It was like a meal for a fairy.
Our vegan friend observed that veggie burgers are a good test of vegan/vegetarian cooking: so easy to get wrong, so hard to get perfect. Randita's bean-grain blend was well balanced, moist and rich, but, like all too many veggie burgers, too loose to hold together once bitten. It didn't help that the bun, in the absence of yeast, was a bit too hearty for such a delicate patty. A mildly creamy, chunky cole slaw was simple but effective as both accompaniment and condiment, brightening the otherwise slightly dense proceedings. We could have done without the ketchup.
We'd brought our skeptical kids, but Randita's has seen this before and easily won them over with off-menu servings of simple, firm fried tofu for one, and a "pizza" — really more of a quesadilla — for the other. A tender whole-wheat tortilla contained thin layers of sweet, simple tomato sauce and one of those creamy vegan "cheeses" that is a perfect substitute for things like ricotta. Finally, a slice of chocolate peanut-butter pie pleased all palates.
We may be omnivores, but dining at Randita's presents no dilemma. We can't wait until its new location brings its superb vegan cuisine even closer to home.