Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
Whether it's a fish from the Amazon or a French sausage, fish, fowl and other meats served in many Pittsburgh restaurants have been influenced by global cuisine. The results can be delicious, although diners may not be entirely aware of what they're eating. Servers who have done their homework are often happy to explain.
What meaty plates will diners find on winter menus? Some dishes have made a comeback for the season while others are entirely new to town. Here's a primer for animal-inspired preparations, by-products or garnishes influenced from cuisine from around the world.
Exotic Fish and Fish Dishes
Paiche: Also known as arapaima or pirarucu in Brazil or Peru, paiche (pronounced PIE-chay) is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. After overfishing depleted numbers in the '80s, the delicacy is coming back in the wild and through farming. This subtly flavored fish is often compared to Chilean sea bass, black cod and John Dory. It started showing up on menus in the U.S. in 2011. Locally it's found grilled or seared on chef Gary Oceal's menu at Penn Ave. Fish Company, Downtown. (Penn Ave. Fish Company, 308 Forbes Ave.; 412-562-2610.)
Uni: A spiky exterior like the ocean's porcupine makes the sea urchin seem foreboding. Yet inside lies sweet and briny yellow gold. With the texture not far from shirred eggs, uni -- that's most firm when it's fresh -- is best suited atop crostini or in pasta. At Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District, chef Derek Stevens serves it on spaghetti with lobster and caviar, under a drizzle of Dolin dry vermouth and tarragon. (Eleven, 1150 Smallman St.; 412-201-5656.)
Brodetto: Though there are many variations of this cousin to French bouillabaisse, all brodetti contains shellfish and at least one white fish. Others are highlighted by safflower oil or vinegars to complement particularly fatty fish. This seafood stew is made luxurious at Stagioni on the South Side, where chef Stephen Felder stocks it with shrimp, mussels, clams and sea beans in a saffron broth. (Stagioni, 2104 E. Carson St.; 412-586-4738.)
Poke: This Hawaiian-inspired dish (pronounced PO-kay) at Station Street in East Liberty features raw salmon seasoned with soy, ginger, garlic and hot sauce over sushi rice, served in a bowl. Layered with scallions and cucumbers, pickled and fresh daikon, it's garnished with shredded nori (edible seaweed). (Station Street, 6290 Broad St.; 412-365-2121.)
Al pastor: Stop at the taco stand at Casa Reyna in the Strip to take in the scent of slow-cooked pork shoulder, rubbed with chiles and achiote, and seasoned with juicy pineapple drippings that trickle down as it turns on a spit. Served on mini corn tortillas made in the restaurant next door, tacos al pastor are garnished with onions, cilantro and salsa. (Casa Reyna, 2031 Penn Ave.; 412-904-1242.)
Boudin blanc: At Cure in Lawrenceville, this traditional French sausage starts with chicken legs and thighs. Pork fat and creme fraiche add richness while brioche adds texture. It's seasoned with quatre epices, a spice quartet for pates, stews and other dishes that includes pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Chef Justin Severino said the recipe is a modified version from when he worked at Manresa in California. He tweaked it following conversations with chef Tarver King, his friend and chef at Ashby Inn at Patowmack Farm in Paris, Va. The sausage is traditionally served during the holidays, but as far as he's concerned, "it's boudin blanc season all year-round." (Cure, 5336 Butler St.; 412-252-2595.)
Cassoulet: This stew that's a hallmark of home cooks in France combines fatty meat, beans and slow cooking for a near-perfect winter dish. At Spoon in East Liberty, Brian Pekarcik incorporates braised pork, duck confit and tomato and bean stew. The serving is topped with a sourdough crostini served egg-in-a-hole -- an egg balanced in the bread's center: a delicate-looking garnish for a hearty meal. (Spoon, 134 S. Highland Ave.; 412-362-6001.)
Bo Ssam: Served with rice, kimchi, pickled radishes, scallions and lettuce leaves for wraps, slow-cooked pork shoulder with a caramelized crispy skin is heavenly at Korea Gardens in Oakland. Add kochujang, sweet hot-pepper paste, or ssamjang, hot soybean paste for kick. (Korea Gardens, 414 Semple St.; 412-681-6460.)
Variations On Skin and Fat
Gribenes: Crispy chicken skin cracklings with fried onion make up gribenes, one of the more delicious garnishes one could imagine. At Nu Jewish Bistro in Squirrel Hill, chef Kelsey Sukel uses them on fried kreplach, a pasta dumpling stuffed with ground brisket and schmaltz, also known as chicken fat. (Nu Jewish Bistro, 1711 Murray Ave.; 412-422-0220.)
Confit: At Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar in Shadyside, chef Chet Garland rubs duck legs with thyme and black pepper and covers them in a salt and sugar cure for 24 hours. After rinsing them 24 hours later, he cooks them in duck fat at 275 or 300 degrees until fork tender. Duck confit is served pulled on a flatbread or deep-fried for a crisp outside atop an arugula salad. "That's my favorite," he says. (Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar, 5102 Baum Ave.; 412-224-2579.)
Cracklings: Pork rinds made from fried pig skin are so delicious it's hard not to eat them like potato chips. And while pork rinds are just as American, they're often seen as a garnish in cuisine across the globe. Crispy pork fat pairs especially well with a spicy soup at Noodlehead in Shadyside. Sukothai rice noodles with roast pork, peanuts, green beans, cilantro and chili peppers in pork broth, with pork rinds for garnish. (Noodlehead. 242 S. Highland Ave.; no phone.)
Lardo: The preparation at Cure starts with leaf fat that forms around the kidneys and heart, the quality of which illuminates the health of the pig. Then it's cured in the meat room overnight, after which it's rinsed and placed on a sheet pan in the oven with herbs on low heat for 10 to 12 hours. As it liquefies, a cook clarifies the fat as one would a broth. Then it's taken out of the oven to cool. Room temperature butter is added, and the concoction is then whipped in a mixer. The result is a creamy, white, glistening spread served on toasted baguette. (Cure, 5336 Butler St.; 412-252-2595.)