Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
For 84 years, the market at 1317 East Carson St. sold groceries and sundry items to a South Side population that evolved over time from immigrants and their children to the blue-collared and Bohemian alike to college kids and young professionals before closing its doors in 2011.
Since then, Elisa Beck, whose family has owned the building for decades, has set about her dream of creating in that space a model of a sustainable, urban permaculture building that would have its own solar power, a rooftop garden, compost system, stormwater recapture, no chemical or toxic materials, and creating its own energy.
That the 20,000-square-foot building dates to the late-1800s makes these potential transformations all the more impressive. But with its history as a market, it stands to reason that it might remain as such in some capacity. To that end, Schwartz offers vegan and vegetarian dishes in keeping with its environmental mission.
At the moment, there are two primary vendors: Pittsburgh native Jonathan DiSalle runs Jonathan's Foods with his fiance Lauren Pearlman, and Mya Zeronis, originally from Burma, brought her Zest Wishes stand there this summer. In addition Pamela Arder will bring her award-winning Soup for Your Soul soups to the market in the fall during more soup-friendly weather.
Both Jonathan's and Zest Wishes get much of their ingredients from Clarion River Organics at the Pittsburgh Public Market. All items at both places are made to order, so it can take a little while to get your food, but its fun to kill time gazing out the huge windows at the cars and passers-by on Carson Street, moving in front of you like fish in a bowl.
Jonathan's menu includes items like a quesadilla on a brown rice tortilla with mixed veggies, salsa, vegan cheese ($5), the Tiki Tempeh Tacos, three soft corn tacos stuffed with grilled tempeh, carrots, avocado, baby greens and chili lime sauce ($8), or a Black Bean Burrito with green peppers, onions, zucchini, avocado, salsa and baby greens on a brown rice wrap ($8).
I tried the the Bomb-a-Saurus Rex, a Portobello mushroom "cheese steak" served with green peppers, onions, and a vegan "cheese" sauce all on a toasted gluten-free bread roll ($8). Although it's unlikely to put nearby South Side Steaks out of business, this was a very tasty and healthy alternative to the Philadelphia export, and it won't require a grease-induced nap afterward.
Likewise, the Dijon Chickpea "Burger," a house-made chickpea patty with green peppers, topped with "vegan-aise," Dijon mustard, yellow tomatoes and spinach on toasted millet ($8) bread, was a terrific sandwich, that while not to be confused with a medium-rare moo-er, is something I would eat regularly.
Jonathan's also offers nearly a dozen fresh cold-pressed juices and smoothies ($7-$7.50).
With items such as dehydrated organic kale chips ($5) and raw gluten-free brownies ($3) it's clear that Zest Wishes is likewise health-heavy.
I tried a local zucchini spaghetti -- the noodles, or "zoodles," are made from zucchini -- and it's topped with an organic, basil sun-dried tomato marinara, and a "ricotta" made from garlic, cashews and apple cider vinegar ($8).
Topped with fresh basil leaves, the sauce could've hung with that of any traditional spaghetti platter. The zoodles were an interesting substitute with a crispiness that gave them an al dente-like texture. But the non-cheese ricotta was easily the best surprise, as it tasted exactly like ricotta cheese minus the watery flabbiness occasionally associated with the real thing.
Another excellent and novel dish was a southwestern "nneatloaf" -- the two n's indicate that it's made with nuts and no meat. It is made with organic ancient grains, flax, black beans, almonds, root vegetables, kale, tomatoes, lime, chiles, cumin and cilantro and served with a raw cacao-pumpkin seed mole.
The "loaf" had a thick textured consistency, layered with spicy flavors, and the mole sauce was certainly unlike any meatloaf gravy I've ever had before, and I mean that in a good way.
I was pleasantly surprised to note that the meals from both places were quite filling. That is to say, my first inclination wasn't to walk out and immediately locate the nearest purveyor of nitrate-laden meats and mow down a hoagie, which is frequently the case when I have just a salad for lunch. That's been a personal encumbrance to adopting a more plant-based diet, and one that I'll have to reconsider in light of discovering options like these.
Schwartz Living Market is at 1317 E. Carson St., South Side Flats. Visit http://1317eastcarson.blogspot.com/ for more information.