Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
"You must work for yourself," said the bartender when a patron ordered a beer at lunch. It was at the Market Square Winghart's on a Friday when the weather still was balmy.
"No one who works around here orders a beer at lunch."
The bartender who goes by the name Dangle wore two full sleeves of ink and black-ringed ear extensions. With a look that's half band roadie, half Hell's Angel, he hustled between taking orders and working the register.
Dangle isn't the only nicknamed employee at Winghart's. Most go by pirate monikers, inspired by the partner at Winghart's whom people call Shipwreck.
2 1/2 stars = Recommended+
2 stars = Recommended
1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
2 stars = Recommended
1505 E. Carson St.
5 Market Square
- Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday : 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.; Sunday: Opens at 11 a.m. but closing times vary.
- Summary: Winghart's is a burger and pizza destination that offers value and good people watching.
- Recommended dishes: Matolla burger, I don't care. Whatever burger, whiskey BBQ wings, salad a la Pittsburgh, original hippy cakes.
- Drink: TBD.
- Prices: Burgers $7.75 to $13.50; pizza $9.75 to $12.25; wings $7 to $12.50; salads $9.50 to $10.50.
- Useful information: All credit cards accepted.
It was five years ago that Shipwreck, the general manager, met Zachary Winghart, the chef and the name behind the concept. They became fast friends and eventually partners.
The Downtown Winghart's, which had opened January 2011, is an iconoclast among local burger joints for its indie imagery and attention to the bar. It also sells one of the area's best burgers and other terrific bar food.
As charmingly divey as the Downtown location may have been, this iteration did not last long. A chimney fire from the pizza oven shuttered the place in the summer and it closed for renovations. It reopened Wednesday, showing off a two-story space with two bars, 60 seats and brighter decor. Light wood and maroon accents frame the interior.
During its closure, Winghart fans have shuttled to the South Side to a second location that opened early this year. In keeping with the neighborhood, it's also a destination for drinks.
"What can I get you?" asked a comely bartender dressed as Pocahontas during Halloween week.
Flanked by maroon walls and blond wood, the downstairs bar snakes the room. High ceilings make the space seem cavernous.
Pocahontas passed along an extensive list of beers on tap and by the bottle that flaunted the likes of Dogfish Head and PBR. She also sent over a whiskey menu, a list curated by Shipwreck.
"Out of all liquors, whiskey is the most dynamic," he said. In the process of creating a whiskey flight menu that will launch later this season, he emphasized his goal to educate consumers.
"Not all whiskey is a shooter like Jameson," he said.
Shipwreck cited Redbreast 12-year as his favorite Irish whiskey for its subdued character with a note of sweet. He also recommended Angel's Envy bourbon as an introductory whiskey and Balvenie DoubleWood as a crowd-pleaser.
But enough about whiskey. The primary reason to visit Winghart's is for the burger.
Compiled by Mr. Winghart, who is a certified butcher, beef here come from cows raised on an Illinois farm. A chuck roll is ground every morning, a cut that's approximately 80/20 beef to fat ratio.
"It's back to basics," said Shipwreck, who confirmed each patty is cut and shaped by hand.
But it's not just the beef that makes these burgers. Winghart's uses a cast-iron flat top that seasons meat and seals in juices.
Burgers are swaddled in wax paper that steams the white bun from Mediterra. Wrapping a burger in paper also allows condiments to commingle and seep into the bread.
Although the Shipwreck burger ($12) with brie, onions, bacon, arugula and white truffle aioli had been the customer favorite, the I Don't Care. Whatever burger ($11.25) introduced in September is gaining ground.
Named for Tara, the very agreeable South Side employee who would eat "whatever" for a staff meal, this burger is dressed with cheddar, pepper jack and bleu cheeses, jalapeno, caramelized onion, pepperoncini, bacon and hot sauce. With plenty of fat, heat, acid and the requisite bacon, it's the epitome of decadent.
During one South Side visit, I ordered the Matolla, named for the butcher under whom Mr. Winghart interned. A half burger features one half-pound patty instead of two with bacon and American cheese.
My friend had other designs.
"I really want wings," she said. The subliminal message of Winghart steered my friend's appetite.
"We did not used to have wings, but so many people asked," said Shipwreck.
The restaurant has added them to the menu as orders of 6 ($7) or 12 ($12.50). Fat and juicy, the classic Buffalo wings are fine. The BBQ whiskey wings are more evenly sauced and flavorful, with a tinge of sweet that complements smoke.
Adventurous types can try tikka masala wings or the questionable variety doused with cinnamon and sugar.
Pizzas are solid but not as memorable as those burgers. Stick to the margherita ($11.25) or the pizza Prasad ($9.75), a six-vegetable ensemble that's among the healthiest options on the menu. Steer clear of the Sweet Georgia Brown ($9.75) and others with barbecue chicken, unless you believe chicken belongs on a pie.
Salads may be as decadent as the meaty menu. Take the salad a la Pittsburgh ($10.50). Diced tomatoes are one feature on this giant romaine salad with cheddar, egg, cucumbers and red onion. Dressed in ranch and topped with french fries, the salad is a tasty offering for a vegetarian and is perhaps as caloric as a burger.
And those fries ($2.75).
"We have some secrets," said Shipwreck of the very crispy, highly addictive side plate. Made with russet potatoes, he confirmed it's a two-day, six-step process until fries are served.
Also fried are the sweet or savory funnel cake desserts. An original hippy cake ($4.50) is dusted with sugar. A strawberry sour cream rendition ($5.50) looks like a sundae, while bacon fiends can order a savory bacon and cheddar version ($5.50). Despite the fact that hippy cakes shower sugar dust, these simple desserts are hard to resist.
Now that the Market Square location has reopened, Downtown workers and residents can resume their regular visits to Winghart's. Should they order a beer at the bar at lunch, perhaps they will meet one of Shipwreck's fellow pirates who works both locations, such as Whitey or Blue, Slapper, Hippy or Ike. Or even Dangle.
Melissa McCart: email@example.com or on Twitter @melissamccart.