The 2013 Munchies: a dozen favorites from the local dining scene

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So just who does this Andrew Zimmern think he is anyway?

Turns out the affable, James Beard award-winning host of the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods" has for the past two years gotten together with all of his highfalutin chef and celebrity friends to award something called The Munchies: The People's Choice Food Awards.

Well, listen here, bub, we've had these Munchies -- our annual recap of some of our favorites from Pittsburgh's casual dining and drinking scene -- nailed down since 2008. So, uh, you and your buddy Anthony Bourdain can take a hike.

What's that? Mr. Zimmern came to Pittsburgh this year and loved it? And he did an hourlong show that almost perfectly captured the quirks, beauty and personality of our town? And he introduced the world to some true local treasures like Lucy Nguyen in the Strip and Toni Haggerty at Primanti's? And then he gushed more about Pittsburgh in national media?

Huh.

OK, Mr. Zimmern. You know how to woo us. You're off the hook. For now.

In the mean time, we present the sixth-annual Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Munchies:

Best place for a reuben and a tall screwdriver: That would be Emil's Lounge, where the fish sandwiches are huge, the hot roast beef platters are bigger still. Never heard of it? We hadn't either, until Rick Sebak visited. Then Rick brought his foodie pal Mr. Zimmern for a segment on "Bizarre Foods," and suddenly, Emil's is the darling of the Lenten fried fish circuit. (414 Hawkins Ave., Rankin, 412-271-9911 and www.emilslounge.com)

Best non-fry'n'slaw based sandwiches in the Strip: As mentioned Mr. Zimmern also stopped by the mothership of our city's most iconic Sammie, but nearby is an outstanding glimpse of new Pittsburgh's culinary creativity, the Thin Man Sandwich Shop. With its campy 1950s logo and items like their signature sandwich, made with chicken liver mousse, local bacon, frisee, red wine vinaigrette, the Thin Man truly elevates the notion of what you can stick between two pieces of bread. (50 21st St. in the Strip District; 412-586-7370; www.thinmansandwichshop.com)

Best spot for a fireside chat: With apologies to FDR (and besides, you shouldn't talk politics at the bar anyway), the roaring fireplace, classic cocktails and charcuterie at Benjamin's Western Avenue Burger Bar makes it a cozy stop for a winter nip and a nosh. The rosemary-balsamic goat cheese and apple burger is an absolute revelation. (900 Western Ave., Allegheny West; 412-224-2163 or www.benjaminspgh.com)

Best new refute to the no-bueno-Mexican-food-in-Pittsburgh argument: OK, so we aren't San Diego or San Antonio with ridiculously good tacquerias on every corner, but having heard the aforementioned conjecture for years, it's a slight to the handful of very good Mexican spots that do exist, a list to which La Palapa can easily be added. Tamales, lengua, flautos and mole are highlights along with house tortilla chips and guacamole so good it could cause a Mexican standoff. (1925 E. Carson St., South Side, and in the Pittsburgh Public Market; 412-586-7015 or www.lapalapapgh.com)

The "Brought to You By the Letter B" achievement award: The blueberry bourbon barbecue sauce on the baby back ribs at The Headkeeper combines a few of the best letter B things on Earth along with another, plenty of beer. A few hundred bottles' worth. From the outside, the place looks like a bomb shelter, but inside is a fun spot with an open kitchen and terrific taps and tapas. Wait, that's the letter T .... (618 S. Main St., Greensburg; 724-838-7439 or www.theheadkeeper.com)

Now-bring-us-some-figgy-pizza award: Having grown up in a family with a corner slice shop, Carmen Pirain practically started slingin' pies in utero. Now he's a full blown pizzaiolo at his own Cucina Bella making beautiful gourmet pizzas with delicious combinations such as fresh mozzarella, gorgonzola, local figs, prosciutto, basil and a balsamic fig reduction. (1200 Pennsylvania Ave., Bridgeville; 412-257-5150 or www.cucina-bella.com)

Best place for 33 of everything: Thirty-three beers on tap and 33 wines at Roman Bistro 33. Why 33? Who knows? Our theory: Huge Merril Hoge fans. The food ain't shabby, either: great salads, impressive pork osso buco, PEI mussels and a couple of big honkin' burgers. (2104 Ardmore Blvd., Forest Hills; 412-871-3704 and www.romanbistro.com)

Best place for flapjacks at 1,100 feet: You can't swing a cattail without hitting one of the walls at the new Micro Diner on Mount Washington -- the place can barely seat two dozen people -- but it's still a great spot for hilltop loafing. Munch can vouch for the pancakes, the fish sandwich and grilled reuben. (Did you know? The highest point in the city is not on Mount Washington, but in Perry North.) (221 Shiloh St., Mount Washington; 412-381-1391 and www.microdiner.com)

Best Alabama-to-Pittsburgh export since John Stallworth: They serve 'em fried, stewed or nude at seafood chain Wintzell's Oyster House. They also serve 'em (oysters, that is) Monterey-style (bacon, cheese and jalapeno), Bienvelle (cream, egg, crabmeat and shrimp), char-grilled (salt, butter, parmesan and spices) and Rockefeller. (530 E. Bruceton Road, Pleasant Hills; 412-650-9090. www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com)

Best Place to contemplate Sino-Cuban relations: Did you know that China is Cuba's second biggest trading partner (at least according to Wikipedia)? Perhaps that -- and a surprisingly long tradition of Chinese immigration to Cuba -- can explain why there's a Cuban restaurant and a Hunanese restaurant housed under one roof at Hunan Cafe Chinese & Cuban. There are other things there that defy explanation, like a surveillance camera peering in on the dining room, and a sign politely requesting that patrons not use illegal drugs there. Either way, the Cuban food is good and the Hunanese food is nearly transcendent: thinly sliced lamb stir-fried with cumin, giant shrimp deep fried with chilis and garlic. (239 Atwood St., Oakland; 412-621-2326)

Best place to scald your mouth (and if you're not careful, other body parts, too): It's helpful to be dexterous and adept with chopsticks (or, have a friend who is) when you head to I-Tea Cafe, which specializes in hot pot, also known as shabu-shabu. The experience is sort of like fondue, except you're served a bubbling pot of broth instead on a tabletop induction burner, cooking your order at your seat. It's definitely a cool experience, as long as you keep the hot stuff in the pot. (709 Bellefonte St., Shadyside; 412-688-8330 or www.iteacafepittsburgh.com)

Grant Street's best kept secret: Sadly it's not that there's a pool in the basement of the City-County Building, or that there's a gumball machine in Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office. A tipster said there are delicious eats at rock bottom prices at Lydiah's Coffee House. And the tip was correct: the curry-flavored stews, fried breads, samosas and drinks are one the best and tastiest deals Downtown. (200 Grant St., Downtown; 412-281-4701 and www.facebook.com/LydiahsCoffeeHouse)

munch@post-gazette.com or Twitter @ PGMunch. Become a Facebook Friend of Munch at www.facebook.com/munchPG.


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