Beers and Bites, Western PA style at @IndependentPgh

Beers and Bites, Western PA style at @IndependentPgh

I had dinner plans with a friend on Friday, and of course being such a restaurant enthusiast (I’m about done with “foodie”), she let me pick the location. I fretted and hemmed and hawwed over this, because there are SO MANY factors to consider in deciding on a place for dinner out! Did I want to revisit an old favorite? Or try something new? Did I want something light? Or experimental? Or belly-warming comfort food? Was I thirsty for beer? Or wine? Or cocktails?

My decision ultimately came down to: 1. Beer and 2. Comfort food. So many people have said great things about The Independent Brewing Company in Squirrel Hill since its not so long ago opening, and this seemed like a prime night to try it out. The Independent’s mission and focus is local products. The beers, the wines, the liquors are all from producers in W. Pa., as well as a lot of their kitchen ingredients.

The best way to explain my experience at The Indepedent is this: when you sit down at the bar, before getting around to orders, the bartenders introduce themselves and shake your hand. It’s such a small thing, but speaks volumes about the establishment’s philosophy. The Independent is a place of relationships, neighbors, friendships. Also excellent food and drink.

I don’t consider myself a picky beer drinker, but I certainly have specific tastes. I do not like dark beers (stouts, porters, etc.) and I do not like very hoppy beers (in particular, IPAs). I do like wheat beers, Belgian ales, red ales, some pilsners, and often do like fruit infused beers. It’s not that I turn my nose up at most beer lists, just that it is very quick and easy for me to pare down a voluminous list. Even though The Independent’s list is not huge (they’ve got about 12 taps, all rotating various new and fresh kegs), there were several beers to my liking.

Also, being fairly familiar with the local breweries means that The Independent’s beer list was, for me, easily navigable. When I’ve got a long list of beers from breweries all over the place, sometimes I wind up just picking by name. Western PA has a good number of local breweries, so The Independent has plenty of options when shopping for its kegs, but familiarity with the breweries also means that I can make a knowledgeable selection for my drink.

Time for a draai lag gerstelijke @independentpgh

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The Independent opens at 5pm. We arrived at 6 and the place was bumpin’. We got the last 2 seats together at the bar, actually. For the best seating options, come early or be patient. I kicked things off with the Draai Laag Gerstelijke, similar to a farmhouse ale, and it was a sweet, full bodied thing of beauty.  I had another beer also, but I can’t remember what it was. It was good, but not as lovely as the Gerstelijke.

We ordered plenty of food while we were there. We started off with the meat & cheese plate, which is accompanies by grilled bread instead of crackers or chips, making it hearty and satisfying. We also ordered the brussels sprouts with porter mustard and gorgonzola. Yeah, roasted sprouts are trendy, but they are so good so I can’t help myself. My pal and I both ordered the burger on special for the night– the “kafta burger” which is made of lamb and had lots of Middle Eastern inspired toppings. I was a vegetarian for over 10 years, and during that time, the only meat I missed was lamb and corn dogs. I love lamb, in all it’s greasy, shameful “I’m eating helpless Lamb Chop” goodness. And this burger, it hit the spot dead-on. I wasn’t the only one who thought that, they sold out of the burgers pretty early in the night.

When I got home, the first thing I told Mr. Beez was “YOU NEED TO GO TO THE INDEPENDENT WITH ME!” It’s like having our own little Big Pour whenever we want. Pittsburgh’s got lots of neat new little restaurants popping up, but there hasn’t been one that I’ve fallen for so unabashadly for a while. The food and the drink are spot on, and the bartenders were crazy friendly and attentive. Can we go back tomorrow?

 Independent Brewing Company on Urbanspoon


Gettin’ real at Sichuan Gourmet

Gettin’ real at Sichuan Gourmet

Although I’m not tripping over myself to devour scorpions and fermented shark meat, I do think I qualify as an “adventurous eater.” When encountering a new-to-me cuisine (or variation of a cuisine), I’m eager to pick random things on the menu, no idea what they are, and be surprised by the outcome. This is how I ended up paying 15 Euro for a plate of hash browns in Switzerland. “Roesti” sounded like something FUN, but no, it’s just potatoes. Good potatoes, but not 15 Euro potatoes.

The buzz on the street about Sichuan Gourmet is that it features “authentic” Chinese food. I find the description somewhat troubling, as China is so massive that there is certainly more than 1 “authentic,” and also, I’ve never been to China nor do I have any other such cultural exposure to qualify me to judge what is “authentic.” I noticed when we walked in that maybe 20% of the dining room was speaking English, so I took this as an auspicious sign for a good meal.

Sichuan Gourmet

I like that they’ve got 2 menus: a Sichuan menu and an American menu. The Sichuan menu has all kinds of traditional dishes. The American menu features the typical American “Chinese” dishes, such as General Tso’s chicken, lo mein, fried rice, etc. We, of course, ordered fairly blindly off the Chinese menu. I am pleased to say it worked out very well.

Chicken hot pan
Mr. Beez ordered a chicken hot pan, which sizzles and cooks right on the table top. It looked very good, but it was full of hot peppers. I am a wimp and can’t take the heat, so I didn’t eat any. He did report that he enjoyed it thoroughly.

Basil Chicken
The Basil Chicken was sweet and strong with garlic and basil. All around excellent.

Baby bok Choy and black mushrooms
I loved this dish of baby bok choy and black mushrooms. The bok choy was steamed and the mushrooms had a sauce, but were not heavy with it. It had the saltiness I expect from Chinese food, but without so much oil and heaviness.

Steamed Whole Fish

We also went all out and got a steamed whole fish, which was just fantastic. If I’m going to order fish, I want a head on my plate. I don’t eat the head, I just want the satisfaction of staring into my opponent’s eyes. This fish was flaky and flavorfully stuffed with ginger. The sauce was not overpowering. My mom and I shared the dish, but I am a glutton and probably could have eaten the whole thing.

The meal was more expensive than our usually Chinese take out bill, but the quality was high and the service attentive. The servers are all business and not very chatty, which is just fine with me. I like that they have some huge tables and also a private room, this could be a fun place to take a book club or just go out to dinner with a big group of friends.

Sichuan Gourmet on Urbanspoon


A Spot of Tea with Dobra Tea and @missbritt

A Spot of Tea with Dobra Tea and @missbritt

The late afternoon calls for a shot of caffeine, whether it’s coffee, tea or (my favorite) chocolate, and this is best enjoyed with some friendly conversation. Britt Reints, the happiness advocate behind An Amateur’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness, and I had been running into one another at recent events, and decided it was time to sit down and get to know one another better.

I suggested Dobra Tea in Squirrel Hill, mostly because I’d driven by it and never been inside. I expected a basic coffeehouse style outfit, just with tea. It turns out, Dobra is something quite different, in a unique and special kind of way. First off, Dobra’s tea menu is huge. It’s not just a menu, it’s a whole book. There is also a good selection of food, including PIE! Who doesn’t like pie? The pies are supplied by the Pittsburgh Pie Guy, and the featured pie is chai pie. I had never had chai pie before so I tried it out, and it was really good. The filling is a sweet but mild custard, and it’s topped with lovely candied nuts. The graham cracker crust was especially delicious, as it was very chunky and perfect to pair with tea.

Dobra Tea

I had oolong tea and I think Britt had green. Both of us like tea a lot, but we are not highbrow tea sippers. We are both proud to report that we liked our teas quite a lot. We were flying a bit blindly when we picked them, since the menu offered a selection beyond our zone of familiarity. For those who do not enjoy the “pick the option with the funniest name” approach as much as I do, the back pages of the menu contain a number of house recommendations. The staff also seemed pretty friendly, and would likely give you their take on good picks.

Dobra is an excellent option for hanging out, sipping tea and casual conversation. We did not feel at all rushed, and all the pillows and comfy seating make it welcoming for a leisurely visit. The architecture of the space was my favorite thing about Dobra. The space is separated into little semi-private alcoves with all kinds of seats and pillows. It has the feel of a hookah lounge without all the hookahs. Does that even make sense? Anyway, I’d love to show up with a bag with magazines and hang out there for a few hours of reading alongside a piping hot mug of chai.

Dobra Tea on Urbanspoon


Nu Modern Bistro, or OMG THAT SANDWICH

Nu Modern Bistro, or OMG THAT SANDWICH

For once, I let Mr. Beez pick a restaurant. His selection: Nu Modern Bistro, a Squirrel Hill Deli with a contemporary twist. My attitude was ambivalent, but hey, a sandwich is a sandwich, so I went along without complaint.

Nu Modern Jewish Deli

Our outing was on a snowy winter night. I can’t remember a night in these parts when it wasn’t snowing, but the old folks tell me there was a time, long ago, where the temperature was above 40 degrees. Seeing as we have descended to the next ice age, soup was a necessity, and we selected Nu’s signature “Jewish penicillin.”

Nu Modern Bistro

A couple local dining reviews have raved over the soup. I thought the fried wontons were a fun twist, but overall it was good enough. I was brought up with matzoh ball soup that is full of chunky vegetables and chicken, so Nu’s version felt sparse. Still, I considered it decent.

Nu Modern Bistro Latke Tots

We ordered the Latke Tots for Baby Beez, because she has been very three lately, and three year olds will (usually) reliably eat fried potatoes, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, chocolate, and the tears of their frustrated parents. On this particular evening, Baby Beez was only interested in the tears, so we invited ourselves to sample her Latke Tots. I found them to be fairly typical fried potatoes. They were more latke than tot (meaning that the texture was shredded, not chopped), but otherwise they were salty and greasy and exactly what you expected. That is a good thing, but not a particularly “modern” thing.

This review so far has been rather boring, but then we got to my main course:

Nu Modern Bistro

DANG THAT’S A GOOD SANDWICH. I got the Upstreet Dip, heavy with brisket, caramelized onions, horseradish sauce and jus for dipping. The bread was soft but crusty. The meat just the perfect level of salty and fatty and so full of flavor. OMG THAT SANDWICH. I didn’t even bother with the pickle or coleslaw, because I was enjoying that sandwich so stupid much that I did not want to sully my tastebuds with any other flavor.

Would I return to Nu? It wouldn’t be the place I’d use as a Pittsburgh introduction for out of towners, but I sure as heck would stop in for that sandwich. Their Montreal-style brined meat also seems like it could be good, and although I usually like to try all different things on a menu, I loved the Upstreet Dip so much that I can’t see myself straying from it. Nu has some work to do to get itself more widely on the dining radar. There were several aspects of the experience that I found to be just “ok”, including the service and the ambiance. But even with those weaker aspects, if they can get a following for a few of their excellent and special menu items, the place could have long-term promise.
Nu Modern Jewish Bistro on Urbanspoon


Every Day Comfort Food at Everyday Noodles

I watch too much Travel Channel. WAY too much Travel Channel. And ages ago I saw one of those millions of programs that features someone traveling around and eating things, and they ate soup dumplings, and Immediately I knew OMG I NEEDED TO HAVE THOSE.

Except soup dumplings were nowhere to be found in Pittsburgh. We have pretty a pretty diverse food culture, but soup dumplings were nowhere to be found. And I had a big sad. I did briefly contemplate driving to DC or NYC or wherever might have them, because yes, I am that kind of person who will drive long distances for a specific food item. Before I got around to planning out a trip, TA DA, Everyday Noodles opened in Squirrel Hill and SAVED THE DAY!

Watching Noodles Being Made at Everyday Noodles

Dinner and a Show: Front Row to the Noodle Making

All of Everyday Noodles’ noodles are made in house. This means 2 things: (1) they are super fresh and delicious, and (2) they won’t sell you take-out. Wah.  Apparently the owners don’t want you to have anything less than a stellar noodle experience, so you’ve got to go to them to get what you want.  This gave me a big sad one day when I was feeling sickly and noodles and broth would have made it all better (but given that Squirrel Hill is just covered in noodles eateries, Mr. Beez was able to easily find an adequate substitute).

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup at Everyday Noodles

Everyday Noodles is a small venue with lots of two-seater tables (that can be combined to seat 4, 6, etc) and one large table.  They had a brisk business when we were there, but it wasn’t crazy packed. If you’re a party of two, it’s easier for them to get you to a table.  Because we were three, they had to do some seating acrobatics to get two 2-tops together so we had to wait a little bit (maybe 10 minutes).  The hostess was very conscientious and communicated well with us to explain why some parties of two got seated more quickly, etc.  Those kinds of seating difficulties are inherent to the restaurant business, and I did appreciate that the hostess communicated with us about when tables were expected to free up and in what order.  In general I found the service to be kind, attentive and friendly.

Mr. Beez ordered a spicy beef noodle soup.  He likes spicy food, but this was spicy even for him.  He was very happy with it, although he had to eat it slowly because it was spicy spicy.

Minced Pork and Rice at Everyday Noodles

We ordered the minced pork & rice dish for Baby Beez.  I was SUPER THRILLED to see the marinated egg on her plate because I love those things (even though they look yucky).  Boo hoo for me, she felt the same way, and she gobbled it all up.  I guess she gets first dibs since it’s on her plate and all.  The minced pork and rice were good, but the noodles are truly the specialty of Everyday Noodles, so it would be a shame to pass over those delicious noodles for a good but unexciting dish.

Tofu Nuggets at Everyday Noodles

We ordered a side of the tofu nuggets with our meal as well. I expected this dish would be trying to be chicken nuggets, but it really wasn’t.  The tofu was actually silken tofu that is coated and fried.  The result is a crispy, thin outer coating and the nugget itself is creamy.  The sauce is salty and sweet, and the texture a little strange but addicting.  It’s weird but good.

Crab and Pork Soup Noodles at Everyday Noodles

Crab and Pork Soup Noodles at Everyday Noodles

And the star of the evening: the soup dumplings!  I expected these to be little more than a novelty.  I imagined biting in to one, soup spraying everywhere and scalding my throat, and me chewing and gasping “Aren’t these things crazy?!”  It was nothing like that at all, actually. These were not a novelty food, they were a solid, delicious belly-warming comfort food.  OMG they were good.  I did let them cool a few minutes before chowing down, so when I bit into one my throat didn’t get all burned up.  But the soup and the crab and pork filling and the ginger and the sauce together were like taking the best, super-chunky bite in a bowl of soup.  I need more soup dumplings in my life. I am not the kind of person who orders the same dish every time I go to a restaurant.  I’m the one who always likes to try something new, so even if I really like a dish, I rarely order it multiple times.  I loved these soup dumplings so much, though, that I can’t imagine having the opportunity to eat soup dumplings and picking something else instead.

Everyday Noodles on Urbanspoon

EDITED TO ADD:  I have been informed that the no-carry-out policy they had when they first opened (the experience described above was in the first week or two the place was open) has since been repealed, and now they will allow you to order carry out.  I can’t imagine soup dumplings would hold up too well on a drive home, though.