Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
Though he's toiled in Internet obscurity since the waning days of the Bush 43 administration, local blogger Mike Neilson recently became a brief viral sensation when national news outlets picked up on his very literal yet very tongue-in-cheek slice of cyberspace called "Used to Be a Pizza Hut."
The site's mission statement: "These beautiful structures, most likely now devoid of the table-top Pac Man machines, dot the American landscape. Some provide ethnic food, some, used cars, and a rare few are now municipal buildings. Whatever their current purpose, we can always be reminded of the mediocre pizza that was once served in these establishments. That, and those red plastic cups."
As a fellow child of the 1980s, I have similar memories, specifically the can't-take-it anticipation preceding any circa-1982 trips to Pizza Hut in dogged pursuit of the E.T. promotional glasses that I Had. To. Have., lest my 4-year-old psyche come irrevocably unglued. Acquisition of said glasses was the result of a deftly negotiated quid-pro-quo arrangement with my mother, predicated on my not acting up in the Garanimals aisle during trips to Hills.
I haven't been to a Pizza Hut in forever, but am likewise amused by the old ones transformed into something else. And worldwide from Duquesne to Des Moines and North Versailles to New South Wales, Mr. Neilson posts images of the dozens of the goofy-looking retrofitted buildings along with wisenheimer commentary. In December the blog was picked up by the Huffington Post and Atlantic Cities, then Fox News a few weeks later. Among those on the site: a little craft beer bottleshop in Carnegie called 99 Bottles.
Opened just shy of two years ago, the name obviously references the annoying old drinking song but it's hard to not also think of Jay-Z, and to that end the management scrawled "I got 99 Bottles but a Schlitz ain't one ..." on a wall above the bar. Easily a better slogan than "Makin' It Great." 99 Bottles actually has several hundred bottles of beer available plus another 30 on tap and began offering a full food menu in early January.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, they don't offer pizza, but they do have a lot of other terrific, creative and arterially adverse bar food, like the Hibernator: a grilled cheese stuffed with macaroni and cheese and bacon and then deep fried ($8.99). This sandwich was as decadently awesome as it sounds, and doubly so since I scarfed it down while watching an Austrian and a Czech named Dominik and Jaroslav, who looked like a pair of "Bourne Identity" assassins, torturing themselves in the grueling Olympic biathlon. Though it should be served with a side of statins, I washed it down with a Full Pint Brewing Co. Paw Paw Berliner Weisse ($6), which despite my beer geekdom bona fides is a style that I'd never tried before, and I quite liked the tartness of it.
I had a side of the chili, a meaty concoction with a nice mix of tang and heat, the same of which could be said for my order of a half-dozen cranberry haberno wings ($5.25), which were perfectly cooked -- tender inside, but with a crispy skin. That back-to-back combination made my periorbital regions bead with sweat, and I soothed my smoldering tonsils with a delicious Penn Chocolate Meltdown stout ($5), which was like a bottle of Yoo-hoo but as a beer.
On a subsequent visit, I tried the Wake-and-Bake ($8.99). Spicy maple pulled pork, ham, bacon and a fried egg are put between a pair of housemade maple pecan waffles for a "sandwich" that hits nearly every possible note -- sweet, salty, syrupy and smoky. My girlfriend was less enthusiastic about the brisket tip sandwich ($7.99) which came in a house "Texas Mop" sauce that was a little bland on our visit, and the meat a little too fatty. However, this problem was rectified with a half rack of ribs that we split ($12.99). These were sufficiently meaty pork ribs, nicely prepared and said to be rubbed and brined for two days before being served St. Louis style in a sweet, tangy sauce.
The interior of the place is a bit spartan and not exactly the coziest place to hang out all day, but what should I expect -- it "Used to Be a Pizza Hut." As Mr. Neilson's caption of 99 Bottles on his site states, "if you drink enough craft beer, you are sure to forget that you are even in an old Pizza Hut." That sentiment goes double for the food.
99 Bottles is at 1001 Washington Pike, Carnegie. 412-279-1299; www.99bottlespittsburgh.com.