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Return to Pitt, Baby: The Playoff Pens Blew It, and I Did, Too

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Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Lego Display: Yet another thing in PGH my almost 5-year-old Theo would have loved, along with Penguins hockey team, the hand-cut French fries and milkshakes, this weekend’s Children’s Festival-plus, the bridges, subway and cable cars.

We had a two night stay in this once decrepit-turned-hipster hot culinary mecca cum capital of Appalachia, and I blew it. Just like those erstwhile Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Pens did against Tampa Bay in the Friday the 13th Game 1 of the Eastern Conference hockey finals across from our boring but totally clean and congenial Marriott Hotel.

It’s just not that liberating to parachute into a new city anymore, with a baby in tow, now that we are world-weary parents of two. I crave routine. I want home (but is home Maine, where we had settled or Virginia, which felt like a homecoming this sabbatical year?). I need comfort, predictable home-cooked meals (with local produce) and kids that happily drift off to sleep at the anticipated hour. I hereby relinquish my pulse on our nation’s Millenials-driven food scene. I’m too tired to care.

Still, I was excited to go back to Pittsburgh with Dan for his Behavioral Models of Politics conference. Back in 2005, I’d had a memorable night out there at the Harris Grill in Shadyside, when, staring down my graduation from J-school, I interviewed for a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cub reporter job I didn’t get. (I forgot: neither the Harris Grill or still provincial, so hard up to be hipster Pittsburgh impressed me as much during our brief stop there as we crossed the country to our new life in Oregon in 2008.)

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I like Polish food, enjoyed with Dan in his old Greenpoint hood, but Pittsburgh’s ubiquitous pierogis didn’t appeal this trip. Could have had them below at vacant Catholic Church Friday next to Consol hockey arena, across from our conference Marriott in the culinarily-dead City Center.

 

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But since then, the Steel City-turned-wannabe Silicon Valley’s slick revival has been much (over?) hyped. The New York Times gushed about post-industrial Lawrenceville’s “Youth-Driven Food Boom.” Zagat recently proclaimed PGH the country’s top food town. Conde Nast Traveler just celebrated Pittsburgh’s old YMCA turned Ace Hotel  (alongside the Quirk from my hometown of Richmond and The Ivy in our beloved Baltimore) in its 2016 list of hot new hotels). We’ve stayed at the Ace in PDX, and cool as it is, I didn’t come to Pittsburgh for facsimiled Portlandia culture, replete with that selfsame Stumptown coffee. I’d rather go to Baltimore import Zeke’s Coffee next to the Dollar General across the street from the new PGH Ace.

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Stumbled into Sree’s Foods in downtown Pittsburgh Friday: $5.89 vegan Hyderabadi authentic Indian dishes like green beans and peanuts and black-eyed pea spinach curry. A welcome oasis, if a decrepit building, and a super-satisfying lunch. Seemed a good omen to run into the Planned Parenthood delegation from Portland and Lewiston, Maine there. A big Planned Parenthood rally hung their pink banners up somewhat sheepishly there at the Pittsburgh Convention Center.

But I stopped in the lobby for a local Red Star kombucha while baby Emmet napped in the double-parked car the valet tolerated. I had to at least witness the familiar, yes reassuring and aesthetically on par downtempo yet somehow contrived vibe. We’re no longer in that hard cider and Bloody’s before 11am phase of life. I wanted something a little more real Pittsburgh, a little more sense of this French fries on sandwiches, Pierogies and milkshake loving place. (No wonder many Burghers I saw walking around downtown seemed unhealthy/overweight!) I didn’t think I wanted the greasy indulgence of Primanti Bros., but it’s the real deal reliable 24 hour joint on The Strip to taste true local flavor.

The Ace’s affable parking attendant, a young, black St. Joe’s graduate from Philadelphia, understood why the Whitfield’s sanitized menu, even with its nods t those ubiquitous hash browns and tots on its local duck confit sandwich, even though I espouse those ideals and lamented Pittsburgh’s lack of community gardens and overt farm-to-table scene, pandered. Wasn’t what I yearned for. This earnest valet said Philly loves (yes, parochial, provincial) Pittsburgh, but the Appalachian underdog doesn’t return the admiration East. He steered me to his favorite cozy neighborhood bistro Avenue B. Menu seemed solid with nods to “local greens” (yet I’m always, even before this Tampa Bay investigation, on high alert for farm-to-table food fraud). We just wanted something less fussy since traveling with a hungry baby.

So why not Primanti Bros.? Dan had only tried it once at the Pittsburgh Pirates stadium. My farm-to-table, practically Paleo preferences these days rarely let him indulge in such gut-busting cuisine. Why start eating healthy the day we left our two-night sojourn here, where I went to bed hungry, gobbling pomegranate glazed Sahadi cashews (I masticated out of desperation for baby) and Cheddar Chex Mix and a $5.50 Marriott lobby HagenDaz bar because room service is a rip-off and there aren’t good restaurants in walking distance of the Consol Energy Center, which was mobbed with the hockey playoff game the Penguins lost anyway. So what better time to indulge in one of those famous sandwiches?

Plus, I wanted to eat the first place native son accomplished chef Damian Sansonetti goes when back home. He has chef de cuisine at Bar Boulud in NYC and now runs Abruzzian Italian charmer Piccolo and Blue Rooster Co. gourmet hot dogs with his master pâtissière wife.

Primanti did hit the spot. The perfect stick to your ribs food on a rainy, grey, mid-May day with a high of 58 degrees. I got the Colossal fried fish and cheese sandwich to get Omega 3s into the baby, but it was no healthier than a Filet-o-Fish, with that fried Alaskan Pollock and cheese. At least the coleslaw was vinegar-based. We devoured Dan’s pastrami sandwich, the meat expertly cured and smoked next door at Jo-Mar Provisions and griddled with melted provolone. We did miss the bite of mustard that chases the fatty pastrami at a Jewish deli. Our only complaint: the sandwiches lacked sauce.

Sometimes, you’ve got to let yourself enjoy a little industrial meat. Good thing we had sautéed spinach and Swiss chard from our New Branch Farm CSA for lunch the day we left, with the garlic preschooler Theo and classmates harvested at our beloved Chancellor Street Cooperative Preschool.

Emmet and I spent most of Friday lolling around the Pittsburgh Children’s Theater Festival that took over Cultural District streets. But the booths of preschool hands-on crafts made me miss almost 5-year-old Theo, who stayed with his grandparents in Charlottesville. We’ll let Daddy go to conferences alone for now, and not disturb his sleep. I will have my time as adventurous trailing spouse again before I blink. When I’m not so laden with breastfeeding and baby care.

For now, I’ll rest my gaze on this quiet and so alert, calming baby “who is much more tuned in even than some 1-year-olds,” a kind woman remarked at the Adli German discount grocery chain I experienced for the first time near University of Pittsburgh in Shadyside. (We stopped in Aldi again on the drive home in Winchester, aka “Funchester”–even though it’s not that great, though the parent company owns Trader Joe’s.) Emmet’s stunning presence and constant happiness commands attention wherever we go. The Happiest Baby on the Block, indeed. That’s enough to keep his Mama happy for now, as we, awash in gratitude for all the joyous change of this year away but with that palpable hum of ever-present angst, transition back to our life in Maine.

 

 

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