2120 Penn Ave., Strip District (Outside My Ngoc Restaurant)
Writer: ANDY NEWMAN
Photographer: HEATHER MULL
WHAT'S COOKING: Vietnamese hoagies with
pork or chicken, chicken on a stick
HOURS: 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
PRICE: $3-5, depending on size
It is one of the best things to eat in Pittsburgh, period, and you wouldn't know it was being served unless somebody told you or you bothered to ask.
"People see me -- they don't know what I'm doing," says Lucy Sheets, who manages a certain cool elegance even as she hovers over a gas grill on Penn Ave in the Strip District's July afternoon sun. "I tell my grandson I want sign, but I don't know how to do it," says Sheets, who's less comfortable with English than her native Vietnamese.
Actually, it's clear if you look at the grill that, like any number of vendors in the Strip, Sheets is grilling chicken on a stick. What you might not notice, though, is the white Pennsylvania Macaroni bag beside her, in which hide French baguettes. Stop to ask what she's got and Sheets will offer you a "Vietnamese hoagie." You'd have to be a vegetarian or a fool not to order one.
There's steamed pork, but my favorite's the chicken. Sheets slices off a length of the baguette and toasts it on the grill while she coaxes some chicken off a stick and slices it up, then tucks it in the sliced baguette. Then, with her chopsticks, she fishes some julienned vegetables -- carrots, cucumbers, daikon and red onion -- out of jar of rice vinegar and sugar marinade. (The vegetables, marinated just a week, are still crisp). Atop that goes a good bit of cilantro, stems and all, and slivers of fresh hot chili pepper. Finally, the coup de grace: Sheets drips some of the marinade that she uses for her chicken onto the concoction.
Take a bite. There's the crispiness of the toasted, crusty bread, the succulent chicken that's got a bit of crunchy char from the grill, the sweet-yet-tart marinated vegetables, the lively cilantro, the heat of the chili and, god help us, the sauce, a sauce with notes all over the sweet-garlicky-spicy continuum, a sauce of such nuance and complexity I cannot begin to describe it but, trust me on this, it would make a bicycle's inner tube taste good.
The phrase "Vietnamese hoagie" might sound like an oxymoron, but the sandwich is typical street fare in Saigon, where Sheets spends half the year living with family. Sheets' daughter, Jackie Nguyen, who co-owns My Ngoc, the restaurant where Sheets' does her prep work and in front of which she sets up, shows me a photograph from a cookbook of a Saigon street vendor with a stack of French baguettes. (French influence on Vietnamese cuisine, of course, stems from the fact that France had colonial dominance over Vietnam for most of the last century.)
Sheets' day starts at 6 a.m., when she begins setting up and buys her bread, chicken and vegetables from stores in the Strip. She's set up by 8 a.m., which would seem obscenely early for a sandwich maker if not for the fact that hoagies are typically breakfast food in Saigon. Sheets, as it turns out, is giving a taste of home to some of the city's emery board wielders.
"The ladies who do the nails," Sheets says, smiling. "In the morning they want hoagie."
Corner of Larimer Avenue and Mayflower Street, Lincoln-Larimer
Writer: BRENTIN MOCK
Photographer: HEATHER MULL
What's Cooking: Jamaican home-style cookin'
Season: Summer, spring and fall
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Mon.-Sat.
For many families in East Liberty and the surrounding areas, the baby-blue house at the corner of Larimer Avenue and Mayflower Street is Mama's house. It's where the young kids who play freely in the street, the teens who hang religiously on corners and the older adults straight from a long day at the office stop to get a hearty Jamaican meal from Mama Rose, as she's affectionately called.
For the past five years, Mama Rose has opened up her backyard to folks in the community to come get a plateful of her Jamaican specialties: oxtails, pepper steak, snapper, eskovitch fish, saltfish and ackee, roasted turkey, brown stew chicken, jerk chicken, curry chicken, curry shrimp and curry goat. All the entrees are served over healthy portions of rice and peas with a side of juicy cabbage. Mama Rose even has her own fruit punch recipe that's sweeter than iced tea from down South with hints of ginger and nutmeg.
After moving to Pittsburgh from Kingston, Mama Rose immediately began cooking, saying her kitchen work is a gift from God. She had a restaurant for a short while on Highland Avenue called Coral Reef, but it was too expensive for her to stay open. So she took it back to the crib.
Two grills sit in Mama Rose's spacious backyard, large enough to hold a small village. The barrel-shaped grill is used for "jerking" -- massaging a haywire blend of zesty island spices and sauces into the chicken as it grills. The more conventional-looking grill is where she or her husband, called Papa by the neighborhood, barbecues chicken. Then there are two small tables that sit under tent shade where people can enjoy their meals.
Wintertime is the only time, fittingly, when Mama Rose returns to Jamaica, where she not only gets much-needed rest and relaxation but also stocks up on tools for her weapons of mass consumption: the authentic Jamaican curry spices, the homeland jerk concoctions and Jamaican rum for her cakes. Mama Rose returned home for a while but something, curiously, brought her back to the 'Burgh.
"God call me ta come back and cook," says Mama Rose in her thick accent. "He tell me, 'Go back an' feed de people.'"
Not only does Mama Rose cook for the folks in the community, but she also cooks for her church and caters. On Jamaican Independence Day, Aug. 6, she's planning a big family cookout where she hopes all the people of her extended family (which judging by word on the street is basically the rest of the city) will come out to feast, lick fingers, smack lips and enjoy a good h'arty meal on her.
"Of all de Jamaican restaurants 'round here, me was de first," declares Mama Rose. "But dem all me babies. All dem who have de Jamaican restaurants now came to Mama Rose to eat when dem growing up."
Neighborhood: Oakland, at Forbes Ave. and Bigelow Blvd.
Writer: JULIE MICKENS
Photographer: HEATHER MULL
What's Cooking: Indian/Pakistani
Season: Year 'round, except holidays
Hours: Late morning to mid-afternoon
Price: Everything under $5
Three years ago, Oakland's famous and popular food trucks were in the crosshairs. At the time, the city was about to crack down on these mobile entrepreneurs, which were then technically illegal. Luckily, the masses -- and the masala -- prevailed. After a few months of wrangling, the trucks were allowed to shift into a nearby parking lot and were granted new city vending licenses.
On a recent midday, the small shaded lawn in front of the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library is scattered with little clusters of students efficiently empting the insides of Styrofoam shells into their hungry little gullets. Judging by the long lines -- 20 or more at high noon, with business holding steady at 3 p.m. -- more students prefer that Kashmiri fill their Styrofoam than any other spice-purveyor.
Knowing that crowds are never wrong, I followed their lead, choosing the simple chana masala -- chickpeas and spices. "How spicy?" Seven. Though some local Indian restaurateurs don't seem to take my instructions seriously, Kashmiri did: A seven's a seven here. It was intense enough that I couldn't tease out the individual spices. But who cares? It tasted great, my beloved chickpeas were nutty and sturdy but not too hard, and the sauce-rice proportions approached the golden mean.
Though more extensive than your average street-food offerings, simplicity is still the rule at Kashmiri. For almost all the vegetarian (including a different daily dal), chicken, lamb and even shrimp dishes (about two dozen in all), $3.50 buys a generous small and $4.75 gets you the large. Even the drinks are cheap, just $1 for either mango juice or mango lassi. The chicken pista korma and the butter almond chicken curry (also available with lamb) are house originals.
Each meal is made to order in about five minutes, mostly by one hard-laboring young man, who swivels between two cast-iron gas burners and the service window. When he finishes an order, he pokes his whole head out to holler at the customers waiting patiently in the hot sun: "Alu gobi! & Alu gobi!" he shouts, announcing with no wasteful chitchat that somebody's potatoes and cauliflower is ready.
He's assisted by Vinay Patidar, Kashmiri's proprietor. A former textile engineer, Patidar's a sturdy guy in shorts and a stars-and-stripes ball cap, whose own no-nonsense demeanor is lightened by a folksy saying here and there.
Patidar's secret is simple enough, but probably tough to replicate. "We don't buy anything readymade. I mix up the spices myself and grind it every day. & Everybody buys from Indian stores, everybody has the same spices on the table, but the magic, that's &" He holds up his open hand, and draws the fingers together two or three times, casting a knowing look.
The security of a street vendor like Patidar is always precarious, and he again worries that he'll be displaced if the parking lot between Hillman and the Carnegie is re-converted to a grand Schenley Park entrance. "But the students were with us then and they'll be with us again," he says.
Scotty's Hot Dog Stand
Corner of Forbes Ave. and Bigelow Blvd., Oakland
Writer: JUSTIN HOPPER
Photographer: HEATHER MULL
WHAT'S COOKING: Hot dogs, sausage, chicken
HOURS: All freakin' day
Price: $2.00-3.50, approx.
Oakland must be the most misunderstood neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It's not the University that nobody gets, nor the remnants of the once-strong ethnic communities that fluxing student life has all but driven out. No, the problem with Oakland is its lack of center -- maybe that's why even no-brainer businesses, like the Beehive and a revolving cast of bars and restaurants, have trouble holding firm. There's no single spot where that 'hood points directions from, no axis to spin on.
But Scotty's probably comes pretty close, especially for the college kids. No, not CMU -- those computer kids probably eat their hot dogs boiled. We're talking about Pitt kids with a penchant for red meat, and chicken that's so thick and juicy it might as well be red. And we're talking about Scotty, an Oakland celeb of one-name status and then some. He's been at the southwest corner of Forbes and Bigelow, grilling kosher dogs for homesick big-city kids and fresh-cut first-timers since the dawn of the '90s. (Before that, Scotty's stand served East Liberty; he estimates his hot-dog career at 21 years so far.) Along the way, he's turned his corner -- and, by God, it is his corner -- into something like a combination neighborhood restaurant and info booth. More Pitt kids probably visit Scotty each semester than the library whose doors share his sidewalk.
"All right, Dad, what's yours?" he asks a shy boy and girl, lagging behind the small crowd awaiting their freshly grilled food. "Don't be afraid -- I ain't gonna mug you! There's a newspaper reporter right there," he points to me, dead earnest, "and he's lookin' for that story: 'Hot-dog man mugs student.'" They walk away a little later with dogs, plus a drink on the house.
At Scotty's, there are a few rules. First and foremost, Scotty and his current Pitt-junior right-hand man Big John aren't the only employees: Grab your own drink outta the cooler, and you might have to take your own change off the stand. Secondly, this is a city hot dog stand: You snooze, you lose; speak up, or you might lose your place. Third, when Scotty's talking with you, it's with you. "Where're you from?" he asks, in perhaps the only Pittsburgh neighborhood where that question's applicable. "Bucks County? Harrisburg? Greensburg? Don't say nothin' bad about Greensburg, 'cause this guy's from there."
If you follow the anarchic rules, you'll end up with what might be the best hot dog in the city: plump and juicy, grilled just right, coupled with whatever the hell you want on it. I highly recommend Scotty's personal fave: just mustard and pickles. Not relish, mind you, thick kosher dill slices. I'll never go back to relish, Manhattan be damned. Big John's personal lunch sounds right-on, too: plain dog with a little bit of grilled chicken on top.
But beyond the dogs (regular or big Chi-Town), sausages, and beautiful chunky chicken, it's the overall stand experience that makes Scotty's a centerpiece for Oakland. From the internationally symbolic yellow umbrellas to the almost inexplicable signage -- drawings of a chicken, a bull and (gulp!) a terrier -- Scotty's cries out "eat here" without ever having to say it. And eat here you will -- but not without a little bit of banter and barter first.
Gus & Yiayia's
West Ohio St. off Brighton Rd., North Side
Writer: SHARMILA VENKATASUBBAN
Photographer: HEATHER MULL
What's Cooking: Ice balls, peanuts and popcorn
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Price: Ice balls, $.75-1.50; peanuts and popcorn, $1
Gus Kalaris, of Gus & Yiayia's, goes through 7,500 pounds of ice each day making ice balls -- or "icy balls" as his regulars call them -- which are cups of shaved ice flavored with homemade fruit syrups. He's been selling icy balls on the North Side since 1951, when he inherited the business, including its signature bright orange copper-and-wood cart, from his father, who had been selling icy balls there since 1934. Also named Gus, the elder Kalaris moved to the U.S. from Greece in 1919, when he was 19 years old.
"My father bought the cart off of some guy who'd been selling icy balls for 17 years," Gus says. "So this cart's been around. It's been refurbished a few times, but it's always been orange with little white lines on it."
The icy balls have also changed little since the Kalaris family made their first one. Kalaris uses a 1950s cast-iron shaver to scrape a large ice block and scoops the shavings into a waxed-paper cup. Then he pours one of many syrup combinations over the ice: orange and grape, for example. Or lemon-lime. Root beer. One customer, a 47-year-old man who has been a fan of Gus & Yiayia's icy balls for 15 years, says that he likes banana with pineapple best. A girl who orders two icy balls says she likes cherry, but her brother -- to whom she is speaking on her cell phone -- likes pineapple with blue (as in blueberry).
"Cherry, orange, lemon -- that's the most popular," Kalaris says. "It's the 'Iron City' of icy balls."
Kalaris doesn't sell Italian ice a la the chain shop Rita's; this is the Great American icy ball, he says.
"They started making them because people couldn't afford to buy ice cream," he says. "So this was another, cheaper cool summer treat."
But Kalaris' ice tastes different from its Italian counterparts -- the syrup is lighter and somewhat less sweet, though make no mistake: It's one part sugar, one part fruit acid, and one part corn syrup. The recipe perfected by Yiayia, Kalaris' mother, whose 1939 photograph is taped to the front of the cart. ("Yiayia" means grandmother in Greek.)
"It's that formula," he says. "We wouldn't have survived for 69 years without it."
This is true, perhaps. But Kalaris' gentle demeanor and pleasant personality seem to be as popular as the ice itself. In the winter, he has made money by working for a heating company, driving trucks, delivering beer, and tending bar. He knows all of his customers, and most of them spend a few minutes socializing with him before scuttling back to their desk jobs.
"Hey, tell this guy I want an onion and garlic," jokes a man who has been coming to Gus' cart for 25 years. He buys a bright green lemon-lime icy ball. "I don't come as often as I used to because my office moved to over by PNC Park."
"You're in the high-rent district now," Kalaris says.
A woman who walked up from the hospital stops to buy an icy ball; she's visiting a sick friend.
"Is he getting any better?" Gus asks.
"Well, hopefully," she says. "But this is what he wants. He asked for an icy ball."