Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
At the end of July, Yong Kwon returned to her kitchen at the Golden Pig in Cecil. It was the weekend of the carnival at the township's volunteer fire department when bands played along Millers Run Road and kids rode a Ferris wheel lit up against the sunset.
The lone proprietor since her son helped her open the restaurant in 2008, Ms. Kwon recently took nine weeks off to spend with her grandchildren and to visit South Korea.
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. (The hours have recently changed.)
- Basics: Owner Yong Kwon serves savory, home-style Korean fare out of an eclectic storefront.
- Dishes: Mandu, gim bop, Korean pancakes, bul dak, oh jing uh bokum, daeji bulgogi.
- Prices: Starters $4.50 to $7.95; soups $3.95 to $10.95; entrees $6.95 to $15.95.
- Summary: Credit cards, parking lot, no reservations, BYOB, no corkage fee.
Now, she's back cooking the food she grew up on, decidedly savory dishes that display what she describes as an older style. It's different from sugar-laden dishes that have crept into Korean restaurants, such as Korean fried chicken with its sweet heat.
Her food also reflects her values, having been raised during a depression when she admits she had been close to starving. Today, her priority is to serve fresh, affordable fare.
Regulars had hankered for her cooking during her absence. It had been too long since they'd feasted on bul dak ($7.50, $9.50), sesame-laced chicken with carrots in a fiery marinade, the result of chili peppers, soy sauce and red pepper paste, among other ingredients.
It's one of the hottest dishes you can order in Pittsburgh, competing with the Scoville scale of Sichuan dishes.
Whether it's because of her spicy food or her charisma, Ms. Kwon has cultivated quite a following. It's made up of diners looking for authenticity at a time when cuisine that adheres to a culinary tradition is hardly celebrated. These days, diners are more likely to fawn over a chef's take or unlikely fusions.
The same is true in South Korea, noted Ms. Kwon, where she was surprised to see hybrid cuisine and newly introduced foods. Children doused fried rice with ketchup, which she had never seen before. Formerly nonexistent in her homeland, cheese and pizza have become delicacies.
Things have changed so much since her last visit there five years ago that she did not recognize her former neighborhood.
"I wanted to surprise my family," she said, "but I had to call to ask which house it was."
Back in Cecil, customers are still rejoicing her return.
"Have some wine with us," said a guy at a table of six. He had brought a big bottle of red to share with anyone who wanted a pour, including two guys standing at the counter and students on a date.
Appreciative customers have given her pig tchotchkes that decorate the place. Golden Pig is her grandson's nickname and the auspicious year in Korean astrology. A ceramic family of swine poses near the window, while tiny pocket pigs fill a silver platter.
"My customers are trying to get me drunk," joked Ms. Kwon. "I still have people waiting, and I have to cook."
For nonalcoholic drinks, customers can choose from bottled water, Snapple, ginger ale and Pellegrino Aranciata in the Coca-Cola fridge next to ginseng, cinnamon and rice sodas with Korean labels.
Outside the restaurant, two couples waited for seats when John, the server/sous chef handed them menus.
"We can take your order now so once you're inside, we will have started cooking for you," he said. It was 7:30 p.m. Even on weekends, the restaurant stops taking customers at 8.
In shorts, a T-shirt, an apron and Crocs, he has been learning to cook Korean fare since last year. His favorite entree here is the oh jing uh bokum ($13.95), spicy squid he had been wary of at first, but the texture and tangy spice won him over. John is a former customer who helps out on weekends. He's paid in spicy fare.
The squid joins bul dak as an oh-so-hot dish, along with another spicy entree, daeji bulgogi ($7.95, $10.95) that was recommended to me by regulars the first time I visited. It's is not as hot as the chicken.
Whenever I visit, I try to mix things up by ordering broadly. With such a small menu, though, it's hard to not end up with a collection of red dishes the color of Hot Cheetos.
You can find diversity in the banchan, the appealing starter with Ms. Kwon's terrific kimchi, a balance of spice, sour and garlic, alongside hot slaw and pickled vegetables.
A plate of mandu ($6.50 soup, $7.95, $12.95) is a must. Stuffed with kimchi, beef or vegetables, the thin-skinned, pan-fried dumplings beckon with a sheen of oil. They're also a highlight in a soup.
Kimchi pancakes ($7.95 also available with vegetables and hot peppers) are also a fine start, a sour note between crisped batter. And vegetable gim bop ($6.95, beef $10.95) looks like sushi rolls, a mild bite that's a necessary counterpoint to the dominance of chili in other dishes.
The same thing applies to fried potatoes ($4.50), sliced horizontally and battered, as if home fries meet tempura. The uninitiated may ask for ketchup, but Ms. Kwon adamantly refuses to carry it.
At the end of a meal, I'm still seduced by the bul dak, as the spice accumulates until it's barely tolerable; the rice on the side provides some relief. It's a momentary challenge not to splurge for a second order or, at the very least, wipe the plate clean.
Yet it's not just the dish that's compelling. More than most restaurants, Golden Pig is a reflection of a life.