Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Pittsburgh - Primanti Bros. and Doublewide Grill

Primanti Brothers Restaurant and Cigar Bar
S 19th St & E Carson St
Pittsburgh, PA 15203
(412) 381-2583

Double Wide Grill
2339 E Carson St
Pittsburgh, PA 15203
(412) 390-1111

by Beau Cadiyo

Bite: Quantity, not Quality.

“What you have to understand about Pittsburgh is that food is much more about quantity than quality,” Edward said. “You’re not going to get a good meal here like you would in Cleveland, even if you go into a ‘gourmet’ restaurant.” We were sitting in Primanti’s on the South Side, which Ed had recommended over the original restaurant in the Strip District. “We could go there, but last time I went it smelled like raw sewage. Besides, they do really well on consistency at each one, so it’s going to be the same. And (the South Side) one is less crowded.” That surprised me – the bar was busy when we entered, and people waiting to jump on our stools when we left.

If you’ve never been, South Side buildings are often trashy and dirty. They are packed close together, on unusually narrow, oftentimes one-way streets. Traffic is congested, parking spots are few and far between and apartments stack up on top of street-level businesses in a muddle. Somehow, that means that the South Side is prosperous and thick with people, both locals and tourists, and fosters an atmosphere of excitement and safety. For twenty-some blocks, restaurants and bars compete with restaurants and bars – I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an extended area so densely packed with places to eat and drink. According to Edward, though, not many of them were any good. Pittsburghers like lots of fatty food, and they don’t mind it if it doesn’t taste good as long as there’s lots of it. Frank Hoxha noted that this attitude was reflected in waistlines, which tended to be larger than anywhere I’ve ever seen, with the exception, perhaps, of a popular Dairy Queen I once ate at in rural Nebraska.

We sat down with Yuenglings, and shortly afterward two massive sandwiches arrived. Ed and I split a Jumbo Fish and Cheese and a Pittsburgher. Before picking up his half of the Pittsburgher, Ed asked for the hot sauce, bottles of which stood sentry about the bar. I handed it over, and he said, “Just so you know, you’re going to need this, too.” My first bite confirmed it: the entire sandwich, despite being stuffed with fried fish, American cheese, coleslaw and fries, was bland. It was more than bland – it was absolutely devoid of taste, as if some secret ingredient was added to the sandwich that sucked all flavor out of it. Each bite of the fish sandwich required more and more hot sauce. I added some honey mustard dressing from a plastic pouch and it barely registered against the blandness. The Pittsburgher was just as tasteless, and required even more hot sauce.

While they were tasteless, though, Ed’s suggestion made me question my paradigm of how to judge food. I’ve long analyzed food by taste, texture, aroma, heat, balance, etc. – really, all the things one might use to judge “quality.” Quantity, though, is also important, especially from an evolutionary perspective. After all, food must nourish us with life-sustaining calories and nutrients. The diet of Pittsburghers, if the Primanti sandwich is any indication, was meant for an industrial lifestyle with exceptional physical activity, and the French fries on top of the sandwich made it easier for working people to eat a full meal while on the go. The Fourth Earl of Sandwich would have approved. At the same time, these sandwiches were meant to nourish a lifestyle that no longer exists for many Primanti’s patrons. The investment managers, lawyers and hipsters all around us were scarfing down giant portions adapted to a particularly physical lifestyle, but are not living that lifestyle – thus, their rotundity.

What, then, is the ideal for modern man? It certainly isn’t the Food Pyramid – that’s the ideal for the sugar lobby and other special interest groups which have corrupted the FDA and made its recommendations a joke. I’m still trying to figure that one out. All I do know is that with a food paradigm of most people looking for taste, texture and presentation, Primanti Brothers fails; with the paradigm that food is meant to be big, fatty and bland, all in order to nourish an active lifestyle, Primanti Brothers succeeds in epic form.

Primanti Brothers on Urbanspoon

Ed’s housewarming party was that night. Frank Novotny, the editor of a weekly paper which used to reimburse us for our reviews, was there, and she said basically what Edward had: when it comes to food, nothing in Pittsburgh can compare to Cleveland, but what Pittsburgh lacks in quality, it makes up for in quantity.

The next day found us at Double Wide, an old gas station/garage which had been converted into a grill. Oil cans were made into lampshades and gas signs dotted the walls in between giant flat-screen televisions. An elevated living-room area, with two couches and a TV, took a place of honor near the front door, and looked exceedingly inviting to those at the table with hangovers (Frank Koehler had been drinking until 6 a.m. for two days straight). A chipper Frank Tsai joined us late; he had been hopping around the Strip district, and while he liked it, he had gotten lost repeatedly and had nothing good to say about the city planning. “I know. Where would you have put those three rivers?” Edward said, with only the slightest hint of sarcasm.

Again, we were in for obscenely fatty food; Frank Hoxha noted that many of the patrons lived up to the name of the diner. I ordered the turkey burger, hoping that it would be both tasty and healthier. Of course, we were in Pittsburgh: the turkey was creamy and soft, almost raw, and yielding without resistance to my teeth like mashed potatoes. Like Primanti’s, it was both tasteless and served in massive portions – my burger was at least 5 inches high, including the bun, and the patty was probably 1 inch thick. I’d originally ordered the home fries, but I switched my order to French fries, which was lucky, as the home fries looked crappy and were in unusually small portions. The French fries, on the other hand, were passable as such. They certainly could have used some barbecue sauce.

I went to take a dump in a narrow stall, and thought to myself that many of the patrons wouldn’t even fit in it. Then we walked back outside. Even though it was raining, the bars and restaurants still had plenty of patrons inside, and the streets were at least buzzing, if not bustling. Cleveland has the advantage in food, but this part of Pittsburgh has the advantage in livelihood. It struck me that so much of the development going on in Cleveland is either houses, apartment buildings or townhomes, and none of it is mixed use buildings with businesses on the street and apartments up top, like in Little Italy, Coventry or certain parts of downtown and Lakewood. Where it does happen, much of the space is devoted to streets; the one or two-lane roads in the examples above are so much better for getting around on foot, if not by car. If we could only get these going, the area around downtown Cleveland would be hopping; if University Circle did this, they’d reap the rewards thousands of times over.

And if the Browns could only have a winning season. Well, we beat the Steelers. Perhaps we’ll get some good city planning in place, and perhaps 2010 will be our year on the gridiron, too.

Double Wide Grill on Urbanspoon


BigJim said...

It's not surprising that the historic Pittsburgh eateries would live up to this reputation given the background you pointed out. I have been hearing a lot about the city changing their reputation from a steel town to a more modern business location. I would hope this attempt to change the city will spill over into the style of food the locals demand.

AS said...

If only, amigo. If only.


Anonymous said...

First off, if you went to Primanti's with a true Pittsburgh he lead you astray- the reason the sandwich tasted like nothing, is beacuse you picked the worst two things on the menu- pick a meat w/flavor--capicola or kielbasa are delicious choices- and no it is not gourmet food, you didn't go to a gourmet eatery. Clearly your friend doesn't get out to some of the most amazing restaurants in the city-- head down the street to Dish or into the Strip to Kaya, Eleven, or Lydia's. Then talk about Pittsburgh's 'fine dining.'