Why a Pittsburgher Drove 380 Miles To Pound An Iron City In Ocean City
Our food editor went on vacation — and Pittsburgh tagged along.
In July I went on a series of short road trips in search of food, fun and freedom from Fort Pitt Tunnel traffic.
But Pittsburgh — and orange construction cones — followed me everywhere.
On the Ohio Turnpike, halfway through my obligatory bag of Sheetz treats, I got stuck in my first jam. And wouldn’t you know it, I was behind a 26-foot-long fiberglass peanut on wheels!
I wasn’t too salty though; the Planters NutMobile travels across the country spreading joy. It’s easy to forget your troubles when a 6.5-ton goober is idling in front of you. I gazed at my fellow gridlocked motorists who were all smiling, waving and snapping pictures of the giant legume.
And I thought I had one shell of a job!
The first version of Mr. Peanut’s ride debuted in 1934, more than a year before Oscar Mayer unleashed its Weinermobile on the world. In May, the iconic weenie (that was once helmed by Pleasant Hills resident Rachel Aul) was rebranded as the Frankmobile to highlight the brand’s switch to 100% beef products.
Bold move, Oscar Mayer. When the Steelers changed the name of Heinz Field to Acrisure Stadium, Pittsburghers saw red. And, by the way, we spell bologna J-U-M-B-O.
Despite the pop cultural faux pas, I still had a hankering for a gourmet hot dog. My girlfriend, an Ohio native, bypassed hot dog houses, huts, shanties and shacks and took me directly to Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace.
What it lacked in chandeliers and marble it made up for in good eats, stiff drinks and a massive collection of Thom Lessner‘s quirky artwork.
One of the company’s best-sellers is the Pittsburgh Princess loaded with creamy coleslaw, fries and malt vinegar. I bypassed it for a Chicago-style and the Hot Tot-cho loaded with cheese, onions, jalapeños and tater tots. I was on vacation, doggone it!
The next day, however, I had to respect my roots and order a fried bologna sandwich at German Village Coffee Shop, a Columbus comfort-food institution since 1981. It’s the kind of diner that’ll make you feel nostalgic for it even if you’re a first-time visitor. The folks there put a thick slab of German bologna on their bologna sandwich and top it with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and mayo. Potato chips arrived on the side, but I threw most of mine under the bun.
Just days before, I had wolfed down a fried bologna sammich at the new Fat Cat on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Oscar Mayer should name me their new mascot.
As fate would have it, I wound up at a bar called Fat Cats in Cleveland less than two weeks later.
While Pittsburgh’s version is a nostalgic and gastronomic ode to ‘70s and ‘80s rec rooms, Cleveland’s struck me as a ‘90s time capsule. That’s not to say the place is decked out in Magic Eye posters, caters only to flannel-clad patrons or plays the “Macarena” on the hour; it opened in 1997 (the year I graduated from high school) and still maintains a refreshingly earnest, pre-internet, Bohemian quality.
I had some excellent empanadas there paired with a local brew. Suddenly, I no longer felt like a Pittsburgher in Cleveland but an extra in the 1991 Cameron Crowe movie “Singles,” which was set in Seattle.
Also during my whirlwind tour of Cleveland on July 13 — a date the City of Pittsburgh declared Jeff Goldblum Day in 2004 to honor the West Homestead native — a friend who I met at Monroeville’s Living Dead Weekend took me on a bakery-hopping tour of the town’s Bloomfield-esque Little Italy.
The final leg of my summer snacking marathon was spent in Ocean City, Maryland, where I landed my first professional journalism job. As soon as I inched into the resort town (traffic!) I saw a banner advertising Pittsburgh Brewing Co.’s I.C.’d Tea.
Scenery aside, OCMD and the Steel City are similar in that they’re absolutely crawling with Western Pennsylvanians. There was no need to send postcards home with the sentiment “Wish Yinz Were Here” because everyone already was.
As a social experiment, I packed a bunch of Pittsburgh-centric T-shirts and wore a different one each time I strolled up and down the Boardwalk. Yinzers were comin’ aht of the woodwork to wistfully talk about Mancini’s bread, Chiller Theater and the Jack Rabbit’s double-dip.
Since Boardwalk fare is mostly fries and pizza, I headed a few blocks inland to search for other options.
When I lived in Ocean City, I quelled my homesickness by frequenting a Pittsburgh-themed watering hole called Buxy’s Salty Dog Saloon. It’s located on 28th Street and Coastal Highway. Just look for a bunch of Steelers flags frantically waving in the ocean breeze much like football fans when they see themselves on the Jumbotron at Heinz Field. I mean, Acrisure Stadium.
Owner Douglas “Buxy” Buxbaum grew up in Johnstown and opened the black-and-gold bayside joint in 1999. It’s filled with sports memorabilia, neon Iron City Beer signs, Kennywood arrows and other nods to the ‘burgh. In addition to pierogis, Buxy’s kitchen offers Pittsburgh-style salads (they’re under the menu subhead “Mean Joe Greens”) and sandwiches. Since I’ve had several work-related Primanti Bros. sandwiches this summer, I had an obligatory Iron City, then ventured outside of my Steel City comfort zone to find a new-to-me spot for lunch.
Surfin’ Betty’s Burger Bar opened in April in a blink-and-you-miss-it plaza on Philadelphia Avenue.
It has a retro beach aesthetic and a menu featuring smash burgers, crispy chicken sandwiches, salads, wings, milkshakes, floats and — a Pittsburgh dog topped with cheese, slaw and fries.
It tasted like home.