Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
In addition to stuffing my face and quaffing beer on the company dime, a prime aspect of this gig is sharing story snippets of the entrepreneurs behind the establishments, and their connection to their communities -- like that of Zachary Shumaker, proprietor of ShuBrew Handcrafted Ales & Food in Zelienople.
A hometown guy, he graduated from nearby Seneca Valley High School in 2001 and went on to serve four years in the Marines as part of a helicopter squadron. He caught the craft beer bug while in the service and worked at the iconic Stone Brewery in San Diego before returning east in 2008 with designs on becoming a brewer himself.
It took awhile, but with the help of his wife Erika, ShuBrew opened in September, in the quaint pre-Civil War-era town, next to a barbershop and down the block from the marquee of the century-old Strand Theater.
It's a cozy, narrow space with a handsome wooden dining and drinking area. A copper sign from Mr. Shumaker's great-grandfather's mailbox, reading "Geo. Shumaker," is the lone, simple decoration above the bar.
Mr. Shumaker and staff brew 16 batches of beer a week on a Brew Magic system in the kitchen. Over two visits, I tried five of their beers ($5-5.50). Unfortunately, I missed out on some of their more elaborate offerings; however, those I did experience were expertly executed and were clean, easy drinkers that refreshed but didn't linger.
To wit: This Shu is Bananas is a near perfect Hefeweizen with that distinctive banana and clove flavor, unfiltered with a slightly creamy mouthfeel that might knock the lederhosen off of Mr. Shumaker's German forebearers.
Made strictly with Mosaic hops, the Mosaic Marathon is a crisp, very drinkable single-hopped American Pale Ale, while the Shoe's On Saison had a nice dry taste from the mix of Belgian and French yeasts employed in it. This style often too a little too sweet for me, but this version was not; however, it could use a little more spice.
A Porter often connotes a pitch black beer with the viscosity of crude oil, best enjoyed during winter. But the Murphy's Paw English Brown Porter is more akin to an American brown ale with plenty of malty, chocolate notes, but not so weighty that it could double as a dessert.
The Horse Shu is a German "Gose" (pronounced goes-uh), a relatively obscure sour beer style that's seen a revival recently. ShuBrew's interpretation was airy and light, with a mild pucker factor that made it almost effervescent.
The food holds its own, too.
For starters, my girlfriend and I enjoyed the Bees Knees ($9.50), a bowl of warm brie topped with a bacon and shallot jam, sweetened with local honey and brown sugar. Mixed together and spread on toasted baguette slices, it tasted almost like sweet bacon butter.
Six different pizzas made from scratch dough ($10-13) range from a classic Margherita to a veggie option to the elaborate It's a Secret Pizza, which (spoiler alert) is topped with pulled pork, a house chipotle beer BBQ sauce, jalapenos, and macaroni and cheese. I usually don't go for gimmicky pizzas like this, but this combined four of my favorite things on Earth, so we gave it a try and promptly devoured it.
A half-dozen sandwiches are also available ($8.50-12), including pun-ny homage to both an Internet meme (Shroom goes the Dynamite -- sautéed portabella mushrooms and roasted red peppers topped with a gruyere cheese crisp and pistachio pesto) and an American Modernist painter (Georgia O'Beeffe -- beef brisket topped with house pickles and a saffron peach jam).
Thus far on the scorecard: great personal story? Check. Well above-average beer and bar food? Check.
Then, on Sunday evening, just before the 9 p.m. closing time, Mr. Shumaker gathered his staff around the bar and surprised one of them by presenting him with an oversized check -- a donation of over $800, representing that weekend's sales of the Horse Shu gose -- dedicated to the construction of community skate park in honor of that man's deceased stepbrother.
Dry eyes among employees and regulars were scarce. Even hard-hearted Munch was moved, and my girlfriend was practically a puddle. When total strangers put a lump in your throat, it's hard not to fall in love with a place.
Which, we did.
ShuBrew Handcrafted Ales & Food, 210 S. Main St., Zelienople; 724-766-7466; www.shubrew.com.
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @gigs412.
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