My Favorite Dishes from a Summer Like No Other
Dining critic Hal B. Klein lists the affordable and portable meals that stood out in a summer of takeout.
The dishes I craved this summer reflect how Pittsburgh restaurants are finding a way to settle into a rhythm in a profoundly unsettled time. I’ve noticed a definite tilt toward comfort food; tweezer cuisine doesn’t work when you’re getting takeout, and even establishments that offer outdoor dining are opting to serve food that lends itself to easy eating. Affordable, portable dishes are what’s working best right now.
I’m choosing takeout for most of my dining, and I’m still enjoying repurposing leftover components from a to-go meal into the next day’s home cooking. I spent the summer deep in my home-kitchen zone, too, enjoying the fruits of my garden as well as outstanding ingredients from local growers. Our farmers have stepped it up this season; they, and the organizers of farmers markets throughout the region, deserve a shoutout for their work.
I’ll note that this list isn’t exhaustive; due to the panoply of changes as a result of COVID-19, I’m not dining around as much as I typically would.
Favorite New Bite
2 Sisters 2 Sons
My favorite Pittsburgh restaurant opening this summer was 2 Sisters 2 Sons, which is owned by chefs Denise Josephs and Marlene Siddo and their sons, Michael Brown and Kwasi Prince. Their Sharpsburg spot delivers some big flavors and, in July, long lines eager to dig into Jamaican cuisine. I like a lot of the menu, but my favorite is jerk chicken, Jamaica’s most famous culinary export. It starts with chicken cooked with a pronounced charcoal grill flavor. That chicken is dressed with a sauce that includes allspice, Scotch Bonnet peppers, cloves, garlic and a blend of other seasonings Josephs and Siddo won’t reveal — all of which makes for a juicy, spicy, savory and satisfying bite. I appreciate that the default setting for the chicken is hot, which allows for the spice blend to shine through truly; Josephs and Siddo will turn down the fire for customers less into a spicy punch.
1882 Main St, Sharpsburg; 412/252-2864, instagram.com/2sisters2sons
Apteka Bottled Beverages
I love the way Apteka chef/owners Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski seamlessly weave the foraging and preservation traditions of Poland and western Pennsylvania into their food and beverage offerings. The duo might have hit a new peak with its streamlined beverage-to-go program, which captures foraged, fermented, juice cordials, tinctures and syrups into an almost entirely housemade beverage program that spurs summer sparkle. When I stopped by, they offered two bottled cocktails. Cocktail A is quince and cornelian cherry cordials, mint and nettle tinctures, Cynar and citric acid. Cocktail B is black currant cordial, spruce syrup, cedarberry and juniper tinctures and vermouth. Both are extraordinarily well-balanced, with just enough bitterness and herbaceousness to offer a full-throttle flavor experience. [Lasky and Skowronski since have added two more cocktails to the menu.] There are equally delightful options for those who don’t want to imbibe: Kompot musujący is a tart, bright, sparkling juice made from locally picked cherries and kwas chlebowy is a yeasty, malty drink fermented from the restaurant’s sourdough rye bread. Bonus: The brightly colored labels are a visual delight.
4606 Penn Ave., Bloomfield; 412/251-0189, aptekapgh.com
Favorite Sweet Treat
Ladybird’s Luncheonette Cookie Sandwich
I had a hard time choosing my favorite bite from Ladybird’s Luncheonette. Should I pick one of chef/co-owner Jade Cageao’s crushable sandwiches? I’m still hungering for another drive to Ellwood City to eat the lard-fried carnitas, queso fresco, jalapeno pesto and smashed avocados, plied in a housemade sourdough sandwich that the multidimensional chef calls La Marquita. The luxurious apple hand-pie I took home from the August soft opening of Ladybird’s new Beaver location rang true, too. But the cookie sandwich had me — a pizza-for-dessert person — at the first bite. I ended up eating way more than a single serving of the face-sized combination of two squishy, crunchy, double-ginger molasses cookies with bits of salt and sugar and velvety, sweet and just-a-touch-funky miso caramel buttercream.
507 Lawrence Ave, Ellwood City; 724/824-3623, instagram.com/ladybirdsluncheonette
Cafe Agnes Pupusa with Smoked Jamison Farm Lamb Shoulder
In July, I attended a gorgeous-in-every-way outdoor dinner on the rolling hills of the legendary Jamison Farm. The meal was a celebration of the run of Union Standard, which closed in June due to the COVID economy; owners John and Sukey Jamison’s daughter, Eliza, was the restaurant’s closing executive chef. Before driving home, I stopped by the barn to purchase a lamb shoulder from Sukey Jamison. Opportunities such as these — if you’re already at the source of the best lamb in the United States you ought to get some to take home — are why I always drive with a cooler in the summer. I smoked the lamb for six hours over hickory and cherry. I shared most of it with my friends that evening and set some aside to keep in the freezer. Cut to early August, when I picked up remolacha pupusas from Cafe Agnes, my Best of the ’Burgh pick for Best Pop-Up and one of the best food establishments right now in Pittsburgh. Lightbulb! I crisped the pupusa (stuffed with beets, sofrito and refried lentils) in one pan, the lamb in another; I then topped the whole thing with Agnes chef/owner Marcella Ogronik’s salsa roja. I dug that smoky, savory, earthy lunch so much I was buzzing about it the rest of the day.
Favorite Vegan Dish
Visual artist Ulric Joseph left his long-commute teaching job in Maryland last year and decided to start selling his native Trinidadian cuisine. This year, Joseph is hitting his stride with a curated menu of vegan dishes. What’s on offer at the Squirrel Hill, East Liberty and Lawrenceville farmers markets changes weekly, but there’s one staple — doubles. The beloved street food begins with bara, a fried flatbread laced with turmeric. Atop that goes a heaping of curried chickpeas; those are dressed with an array of chutney, all of which Joseph makes from scratch. Because of public health restrictions in place at the markets, Joseph sells the doubles deconstructed, which means you can find the right balance of tangy tamarind, grassy shado beni and fiery pepper sauce to season your doubles and have at it. Look for a standalone ShadoBeni restaurant from Joseph and his wife, Jennie Canning, later this year.
Chengdu Gourmet Cumin Lamb
Not to wax too nostalgic, but this is now the third issue in a row I’ve mentioned how much I miss group dinners at Chengdu Gourmet (as well as at Sakura and Sichuan Gourmet). It looks as if I’m going to continue to pine for those communal feasts for the foreseeable future. That prompted some hard decisions about what to order for a quiet meal celebrating my 10th anniversary of moving to Pittsburgh. I chose cumin lamb from Chengdu Gourmet as the centerpiece because nobody in Pittsburgh makes this intensely flavorful dish better than chef/owner Wei Zhu and his team. Lacy slices of lamb are accompanied by cooling celery, fruity bell pepper and peppy onion. Those ingredients are stir-fried and dressed with a musky, cumin-forward scorching sauce with sweetly numbing Sichuan peppercorns. It all makes for a dish that feels like a celebration, even when you can’t gather with all of your dearest pals.
5840 Forward Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412/521-2088, chengdugourmetpittsburgh.com
Favorite Meal Deal
Soju Monday Deal
I was hankering for a snack one August afternoon when I saw a post from Soju chef/owner Simon Chough announcing the Garfield restaurant’s Monday meal deal. Chough launched “I got $5 on it Monday” in the spring as a way to manage inventory — but also, he says, as a means of maintaining human connection during the depths of the stay-at-home order. As the only person working on Mondays, Chough gets to interact with all of his customers. On the August afternoon of my visit, Soju’s spicy chicken sandwich was one of the features. The combination of delectably crunchy chicken katsu, zingy housemade pickles and savory-peppy spicy mayo sandwiched between a sweet Hawaiian roll was pure comfort. That particular sandwich isn’t offered every Monday — the menu rotates each week, which allows Chough to be creative — but it has proven to be so popular it earned a spot on the restaurant’s regular takeout menu, which is updated daily. Even if it’s not on the list, you can expect a terrific satisfying meal at a very reasonable price point.
4923 Penn Ave., Garfield; 412/956-7699, simonchough.wixsite.com