Think Globally Eat Locally
Pittsburgh slowly is moving closer to becoming a global dining destination while maintaining a culinary connection to its industrial past. PM Dining critic Hal B. Klein profiles 16 international restaurants you need to visit.
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On weekend mornings, students from China gather around the tables at Sakura in Squirrel Hill to dip cylinders of crisp, fried dough into bowls of congee. At Royal Myanmar in the North Hills, Myat Theingi and Aye Yee serve a funky, fermented tea-leaf salad called leq-p’eq. Up in Allentown, Leon Rose prepares goat curry and jerk chicken at Leon’s Caribbean just like he did decades ago in his native Jamaica.
“We’re seeing a shift. The true vibrancy of a city is felt through the culture that you see, whether that’s a representation of the culture through food or music, or, more broadly speaking, the arts as a whole. That means a wider representation of people of color and different immigrant groups,” says Betty Cruz, director of Change Agency, a Pittsburgh-based social enterprise organization.
Pittsburgh’s restaurant culture has diversified over the past few years, and diners now are starting to embrace restaurants with owners and chefs who represent a heterogenous group of international cultural identities, while at the same time preserving the cultural heritage of the city’s industrial past.
The selection offered currently is less diverse than it could be — for example, I’d love to see Mexican, Filipino and Vietnamese cuisines making the same inroads here that they are in other cities. “It’s harder when you don’t know the rules, the certifications, the health codes or how to get your business started. The learning curve can be more complicated when you’re not from here and don’t speak the language,” Cruz says.
Even so, we have a strong cross-selection of restaurants for eaters to visit. And, being that more restaurant customers are eager to say, “Yes! Make it how you think it should be made,” it’s just going to keep getting better from here, too.
“There’s a recognition here that the market is not at all saturated when it comes to international food. Like any small business, there’s a risk. [Potential restaurant owners] can take calculated steps from light-level catering and festivals to opening their own small businesses, which is where we are right now,” says Cruz.
I hope that new migrants, partially refugee communities from Somalia, Syria and elsewhere, feel welcome enough to share the cuisine from their homelands, too, as they settle into Pittsburgh.
We searched for restaurants that have owners, head chefs or both with a profound and personal attachment to the particular geography of their establishment. We wanted those who were bold enough to embrace their cuisine as it should be rather than adapt to Americanized tastes. Finally, to narrow down the list to the final selections, we asked the most important question of all: Is it delicious?
This is Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2017 local guide to global eating.