For 18 years we've been out there. Lurking. Waiting. Preying on unsuspecting chicken wings. They had it coming anyway.
Like a sleeper cell powered by IPAs and bacon grease, a band of ninjas wielding pierogies and kielbasa rather than katana blades and throwing stars, the Munch cabal has operated in the shadows ever since a bloke made a surreptitious visit to the Tap Room at the William Penn Hotel in 1994, and wrote about it for One of America's Great Weekend Magazines.
But this week, at the behest of an Editor of Munch, the brown paper bag comes off. About time, too. That thing was getting rank.
To that end, we'd like to say hello to all of you -- and to a new year -- as we revisit our favorite Munch stops of 2012.
-- Dan Gigler, Bill Toland, Moriah Balingit and Annie Siebert
• Best spot for farm-fresh chocolate milk: Doesn't get much fresher than the SpringHouse, the Washington County dairy farm turned diner. For 40 years, the 200 or so Holsteins and Jersey cows nearby have been cranking out gallon after gallon, and for the past 25 years, the Minor family has been selling its milk out of the little storefront on Route 136. It's half cafe, half farmers market, and all adorable. Lunch and dinner buffets are the rule here, except for Saturday morning, when the SpringHouse hosts its weekly brunch. After eating, wander over to the bakery and deli section, where you'll find cookies, bread and seasonal pies. -- B.T.
• Best Prehistoric Eating Experience: Most of the time the invention of agriculture is heralded as the beginning of modern civilization, when human beings evolved from primitive hunter-gatherers to civilized, sedentary people. But not everyone thinks agriculture is universally a good thing, which is why the raw food, anti-grain and vegan diet movements are taking hold. The folks at appropriately named Eden in Shadyside have dabbled in these foods and techniques, with lots of vegan offerings with a wide variety of raw entrees. Munch dug the salads, the meatless chili and even the ravioli constructed of shaved zucchini and ground nuts, meant as a stand-in for cheese. Call it caveman chic, like if a Neanderthal went to culinary school and got a Cuisinart. -- M.B.
• Best new Downtown lunch spot: Although I was the one who did the review of Bluebird Kitchen, it could've been anyone: Many of Post-Gazette's editorial staffers head to Bluebird at least once a week, some going nearly daily. Bluebird offers three soups every day, making it almost impossible to resist since chilly weather arrived. A bowl of soup and a scoop of wheat berry or vegetable salad makes a perfect, healthy meal. Bluebird was a refreshing addition to the Downtown lunch scene, with its inventive salads, fresh sandwiches and spectacular baked goods. -- A.S.
• Best new BBQ in 4-1-2: It's a complicated relationship we Pittsburghers have with our most unique second-person plural noun, Yinz. Sometimes it's a term of endearment. Add an "-ers" to the end and it's a derisive designation of our denizens. So Munch was skeptical that YinzBurgh BBQ was a fly-by-night joint with a pandering name, but Georgia transplant Richard Coursey has only love for his adopted hometown. That love should be reciprocated because Mr. Coursey is serving outstanding, smoky, succulent barbecue and sides from his small Oakland store using old family recipes for rubs and sauces. -- D.G.
• Best arancini di riso: It's a Sicilian croquette, fried mounds of rice, mozzarella, tomato, garlic and beef, the ultimate Italian comfort food, and you can find it at the pocket-sized Mateo's Cucina Italiana in Brookline. You can also find, should you endeavor a visit, spaghetti bistecca, eggplant parmesan, stuffed rigatoni or linguini con clam, depending on what owner and noodle-maker-in-chief, Calabria-born Franco Gualtieri, has decided to put on the menu that night. And if you leave before trying the cannoli, Franco and his wife (who makes the dessert specialty) will be insulted. -- B.T.
• Best musical brunches: As one prone to inartful eating gaffes -- sneezing with soup, wearing the wing sauce -- the notion of eating on stage is terrifying, but when it's the stage at the South Side's legendary Club Cafe and the occasion is a weekly Sunday brunch featuring gourmet omelets made with local organic eggs and a killer cocktail list, well, that'll help with stage fright. And on a related note, one typically does not enjoy a Belgian waffle while a live DJ spins old-school funk and soul, but one typically does not dine in a super-cool hip-hop record shop with a monthly brunch heavy on Asian and Latin influences. You can find both at Sunday's Best Brunch at 720 Records in Lawrenceville, one of the more unique dining experiences in Pittsburgh. -- D.G.
• Best new sushi place: Fukuda in Bloomfield has a lovely ambiance, artistic sushi and would be a stellar choice for a first date or a dinner with your girlfriends. My husband and I met a new-to-town couple on the day we were planning to go to Fukuda. We wound up inviting them to join us for dinner, and Fukuda's attentive-but-not-intrusive service and delicious food only bolstered our argument that Pittsburgh is the greatest place in the world. In just one dinner, Fukuda secured a place in our favorite-restaurant rotation. -- A.S.
• Best reason to visit Beechview, Part I: If you want something more than uncreative drib-drab, and your car's suspension can survive a half-dozen hairpin turns to Beechview's business district, make sure you drop into Crested Duck Charcuterie. There, Munch downed a bresaola (aged beef), egg and tomato sandwich just feet away from where that cow was broken down and cured. In the age of food industrialization, it was a comforting thought. (And it's downright delicious.) Sure, the service is a little slow, but it's nice to know that your waiter disappeared because he had to go wrestle an antelope or something. -- M.B.
• Best reason to visit Beechview, Part II: This slightly obscure south city neighborhood on the T line with hills that make San Francisco look flat as Indiana is an unlikely spot to have not one but two of the best spots Munch visited all year. But unexpected finds are what makes this gig fun, and the Mexican-Caribbean fusion at Laura and Antonio Fraga's little Casa Rasta is like a blast of sunshine on Broadway Ave. The food is exceptional -- try the Cochinita Pibil (pulled pork) or Jerk Chicken tacos -- and wash it down with a Jarritos (Mexican pop). -- D.G.
• Best new Asian restaurant in the 'burbs: While the Chinese at Yummy Palace in Irwin doesn't compare to, say, How Lee in Squirrel Hill, and the Thai doesn't hold up to Pusadee's Garden in Lawrenceville, the variety of Asian Cuisine at Yummy Palace makes it a welcome addition to Route 30's row of fast food and chain restaurants. When I grew up in Irwin in the '90s and early aughts, Thai food and sushi were unheard of, and the Chinese restaurants were largely underwhelming. It's nice to see a little bit of culinary diversity taking root in my hometown. -- A.S.
• Best Haute Dogs: Hot dogs have long been everyman's food and Station Street Dogs the everyman hot dog stand. It was the place where doctors and garbage collectors sat elbow-to-elbow, unified by their love of franks between fluffy buns. It reopened this year, but this time in Kevin Sousa's grand culinary vision. You can still get your dog topped with chopped onions, ketchup and mustard. But, depending on the time of year, you can also get the banh mi dog, topped with pork pate and cilantro. Munch even spotted sweetbreads and bonito flakes on the menu. And now, they're serving the everyman fare of another land -- ramen, a staple dish of the Japanese. Mr. Sousa has clearly elevated the hot dog to high art, but he's done so without leaving anyone behind. -- M.B.
• Best use of old-fashioned exposed-filament light bulbs: Vintage bulbs remain all the rage in restaurant design circles (despite push-back from environmentalists because of the bulbs' massive energy consumption); this lighting effect tends to work best when the look and feel of the dining hall match the antique appearance of the bulb. The pairing works well at Industry Public House, the new bar and burger joint on Lawrenceville's Butler Street. Go for the soft, flattering lighting, but stay for the impressive beer list and above-average half-pound burgers. -- B.T.