Thursday, September 6, 2007

Eat'n Park, Pittsburgh

Eat'n Park
Perkins/Denny's/Embers/Big Boy-like chain of diners in Western PA that was surprisingly not as bad as it looked

According to Eat'n Park's website, when the chain was founded in 1949, ""Park & Eat" was as common a sight as "Drive Thru" is today and could not be copyrighted. In a brainstorm, [the founder] decided to reverse it -- to Eat'n Park."

The restaurant itself is very much in the mold of a Perkins or Denny's or Big Boy, a family-themed restaurant that offers diner-like fare (big breakfasts, sandwiches, steak'n'chicken entrees with gravy and mashed potatoes). But Eat'n'Park goes a step beyond that. In addition to the usual diner fare, they offer a gluten-free menu, an "Eat'n Smart" menu, and a low carb menu, things I would expect to see more in a California restaurant than a western Pennsylvania one. The salad bar is about what you would expect, but has some good healthy stuff in it as well, and the soups included a wild rice and portobelle mushroom soup that was quite tasty.

And of course, there are the trademark smiley cookies, sugar cookies with colored frosting in a big smiley design. They also had (for a limited time!) dinosaur cookies that were cute enough that I had to get one for our friends.

The big plus of those family diners is usually the friendly, homey service. We were there at an off hour, so we didn't get attended as well as we might've hoped, but the waitress was very personable when she did come by. The food was pretty tasty overall, a notch above what we were expecting. If this is representative of the whole chain, then we'd pick it over other family diners, if we were set on eating at a family diner-type place.

The Pie Place, Pittsburgh

The Pie Place
Local pie shop in Houston, PA (about 10 mi. south of Pittsburgh)

The Pie Place is exactly what it says it is. Out in the countryside of western PA, you would imagine they make a pretty good pie, and you'd be right. The pastry is tasty and flaky (and probably really bad for you), the fillings are numerous and delicious, and the people are quite friendly. It's not a restaurant, just a place where you can buy pies (no longer ice cream, though the kid behind the counter and I agreed that a nice vanilla ice cream would be a great thing for them to have on hand). They have all sorts of fillings, regular sized pies as well as mini pies, and smaller pastries, as well as "gobbs," which appear to be a western PA specialty--think moon pies without the chocolate coating, only freshly baked with real cake.

We got an apple and a blackberry pie that were both so good we contemplated whether we could freeze a pie and get it back to the Bay intact. Regretfully, we were unable to, but if you are ever near Houston, don't miss a chance to get a pie at The Pie Place.

Gandy Dancer Saloon, Pittsburgh

Gandy Dancer Saloon
American bistro fare in Pittsburgh's Station Square

Attached to the more elegant Grand Concourse restaurant in Station Square is the Gandy Dancer Saloon (named for its sister restaurant in Ann Arbor, also located in an old railway depot). We had come to Station Square in search of a late lunch or early dinner, and in the sea of chain restaurants (Houlihan's, Buca di Beppo, Hard Rock, Hooters) there was this nice-looking place with an outdoor patio where we could enjoy the warm afternoon.

The setting was perfect for people-watching, and the ambiance inside the saloon seemed good, too, very "western bar." Our waiter was very friendly, attentive, and helpful, though he seemed a bit confused when we asked for the tuna sandwich to be delivered without bacon (we changed our mind and said he could go ahead and bring it, and ended up getting a sandwich with no bacon, cheese, or sauce). There were two menus, the dinner menu from the Grand Concourse and the "pub" menu from the Gandy Dancer itself. We opted for appetizers and sandwiches, trying the raw plate, the brie and chutney, the tuna sandwich (as mentioned), and the salmon burger. The appetizers were great, but we found the sandwiches somewhat disappointing. The tuna was supposed to be chili-dusted, but was actually somewhat bland, and the salmon burger (made of ground salmon, not a fillet) was a little salty. In both cases, though, the bread was good and fresh, as was the house bread (warm twisted bread sticks--we refilled twice) and the fries.

Our friends who got entrees seemed pretty happy with their meals, though we didn't try them. On the whole, this was a good choice for a place to sit and watch people go by on a sunny afternoon, and certainly the majority of the food was quite good (we loved the brie and chutney). Their menu changes from day to day, but we'd recommend ordering from the Grand Concourse menu as the food seems to be a bit better from there.

Fox's Pizza, Pittsburgh

Fox's Pizza
Pizza chain founded in Pittsburgh: pizza and distinctive "wedgie" sandwiches

Okay, disclaimer: we totally wanted to go to Fox's Pizza for the name. We occasionally look at franchising opportunities when we tire of the high-tech world, and Fox's Pizza Den came up as a good one, plus they have very little presence in California (the downside is that just within walking distance of our house there are five good pizza places, with another opening soon, so it's a pretty saturated market). Anyway, they were founded in Pittsburgh, so on our trip there we decided to try them out.

We had the chance to go there twice, once for lunch and once for dinner. For lunch we got a "wedgie" sandwich, one of Fox's Pizza's distinctive menu items. Mine was a chicken ranch; my friend's was a pepperoni wedgie. The wedgie is basically a small pizza folded in half and then cut in half, so each half of the sandwich is the size of a quarter slice of a small pizza. They're quite good: the chicken ranch wedgie was not very pizza-like, but the chicken and sauce were good, and eating them on a pizza crust was definitely better than standard bread (again we return to my precept that bread quality is a critical and often-overlooked part of sandwich-making). The pepperoni wedgie also got glowing reviews. They were both satisfyingly messy, too. The only drawback was that the Fox's Pizza was a counter service only location, so we had to go sit outside on a bench to eat.

The location in Pittsburgh proper was counter only as well. Situated on the fringe of a shady neighborhood in Mount Washington, we arrived late at night (but before the odd closing hour of 10:45) for a takeout pizza. The pizza remained warm and fresh on the twenty minute trip home and proved tasty as well, with a nice crisp crust, flavorful sauce, and good toppings that enhanced the flavor rather than smothering the pizza. It was received to general acclaim by all. Given that the distribution of pizza places around Pittsburgh seems somewhat more sparse than here in California, I think Fox's Pizza well worth a visit, wherever in the area you happen to be.

Carson Street Deli, Pittsburgh

Carson Street Deli
Voted Best Deli in Pittsburgh

Living on the west coast (and north of Jerry's Famous Deli), it's hard to get good deli, and sometimes the Philly boy in me misses it. Of course, if you don't eat beef then you miss out on the best stuff (pastrami and corned beef), but you can still get ham on rye, a good pickle, good deli mustard, and so on.

So when we were visiting Pittsburgh, we made a detour to the South Side to visit Pittsburgh's Best Deli (by some vote). The Carson Street Deli is located at Carson and 16th in the middle of a nice Bohemian-upscale neighborhood that looks like it would be fun to explore on a day when most of it wasn't closed (as it was on Labor Day, when we went).

Still, like a good deli should be, Carson Street was open on the holiday, and so we trooped in. The "outdoor patio seating" advertised on CitySearch turned out to be a couple plastic tables; the inside space is half taken up by the deli counter, with four tall tables crammed between drink coolers in the other half. It has a great "deli" feel to it--a deli should be all counter--and a great menu to choose from. You can either build your own sandwich or order one of their specials. We got sandwiches like the "Schnickelheimer" (egg salad, ham, and cheese on a croissant) and the "Mark Cuban" (ham and chicken with Swiss melted over it). All the sandwiches came with a pickle spear (good).

The bite I had of the Schnickelheimer was quite tasty--the egg salad was standard, good ham and cheese. But a croissant just isn't a deli bread. Similarly, the "Mark Cuban," though a good sandwich, was on a soft white roll. I think next time I would get it again but ask them to make it on rye bread. We tried the Buffalo Chicken Ranch as well, and that was interesting because the Buffalo Chicken in it was a chicken salad, which I quite liked.

Overall, the sandwiches were good. We didn't get to try Primanti Brothers, which comes up #1 and #2 when you Google "sandwich pittsburgh," but that's first on the list for next trip. We'll see how they compare! Standing on its own, we would definitely go explore the Carson Street area again, and wouldn't mind having lunch at the deli, but I doubt we'd go out of our way to eat there. Unless the rye bread is just amazing, next time.

Penn Brewery, Pittsburgh

Penn Brewery
German food and microbrews in Pittsburgh's Deutschtown

Visiting friends in Pittsburgh, we tried to find some restaurants that would be fun to visit while there. In the Bay, it's hard to find good German food, but western Pennsylvania is right near the German-descended Pennsylvania Dutch, and has a much larger German population. So it seemed like a German restaurant would be a good option, plus there was the chance to try some local brews for Mark and our other friends.

We didn't know that the Brewery is, fittingly, found in Deutschtown, an area of Pittsburgh settled by German immigrants in the later half of the 19th century (parts of which look like not so great neighborhoods now; fortunately there is covered parking behind the restaurant). While dining at one of their long tables, we were seated next to a man who'd emigrated from Germany in the mid-1900s and married into a local family. He used to live in the area but had moved away to California and was back with some other Pittsburgh natives (including a woman who'd gone to the same college my mother did).

The friendly, convivial atmosphere is just one of the attractions of this place. They're accommodating to infants, happily for our friends and their ten-month-old daughter. In all respects, it seems like a family brew pub, if that designation makes any sense. And the menu is very German.

Our party tried the WURSTPLATTE (sausage sampler), the SAUERBRATEN (pot roast), and a grilled chicken with red pepper/white wine sauce (not on the online menu), as entrées. But first, the BROTZEITTELLER (German meat sampler) and KARTOFFELPUFFER (potato pancakes) for appetizers, which everyone loved. The applesauce and sour cream went perfectly with the crisp-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside pancakes, and all the meats and cheeses were big hits, not to mention the small sour pickles, the thick, tasty bread (rye, not brown bread), and the mustard that came with it. The entrées themselves were good, though Mark commented that our chicken breast wasn't really German. Still, it was excellent all around. I didn't try any of the beers, but nobody seemed to have any complaints (also nobody said "wow," so take that as you will).

The waitstaff were friendly and helpful, but in keeping with our experience of German restaurants, there was a very prolonged gap between the appetizers and the entrées. A good restaurant will have the entrées out right around the time you start to wonder where they are; we had a good twenty minutes of wondering before the food appeared. However, as I said, that seems to be the norm for European restaurants in general and German restaurants in particular. The idea is that you take your time over a meal, let the previous course settle before moving on to the next one.

Somehow, even after all that food, we had to order dessert. The Black Forest cake and the carrot cake came out quickly, and we were impressed by the restraint in the size of the slices. Each slice was only a little over an inch high and was a smallish wedge, at least by big restaurant chain standards. That's to take nothing away from the quality, which was outstanding--one of the best carrot cakes I've had, and though I don't have a lot of experience of Black Forest cakes, the Brewery's made me wish I hadn't eaten so much dinner.

They also have an outdoor patio with live music, which we walked through. Looked like a nice place to sit on a summer night. All in all, we'd definitely recommend the Penn Brewery, as long as you make sure you have enough time for a good, long evening out.

Cafe 222, San Diego

Cafe 222
Healthy and not-so-healthy breakfasts in San Diego's Gaslamp District

Another of our San Diego traditions is breakfast at Cafe 222, a place Mark read about that lived up to all of our expectations when we first tried it a few years ago. Situated at Second and Island (222 Island St., hence the name), it is within sight of the convention center, especially if you sit outside to enjoy the warm summer morning.

The scrambles and the waffles are the things to get at Cafe 222. We've tried the cornbread waffle, the pumpkin waffle, and the waffles with toppings, and they're all good--though we recommend the pumpkin or cornbread waffles, because you're unlikely to get them anywhere else. If you want something a bit more out there, go for the peanut butter waffle with banana, which is every bit as good as it sounds.

On the side of the scrambles, you can opt for green eggs and Spam, yes, Spam, where the spinach provides the green. You can also get Joe's Special, a more traditional scramble with spinach, potatoes, bell pepper, and onions, though it's less traditionally topped with sprouts. That plus the pumpkin waffle made up our breakfast this time around, as good as we remembered. The sprouts work well with the scramble, which is a nice blend of ingredients held together well with eggs and cheese. Everything is fresh, and despite the self-described quirkiness of the cuisine, the chefs clearly know what works and what doesn't.

The only problem with Cafe 222 is that everyone knows how good it is, and there's almost always a wait. But they provide fresh coffee, so leave yourself an extra half hour for breakfast and head on down to Second and Island some morning for peanut butter waffles, and green eggs and Spam.