Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
It may be hard for some to get their minds around a supermarket having a bar, but one sign at the new Whole Foods Market South Hills pretty much tells you what you need to know:
“Please No Carts in the Pub.”
That would be the 1788 Pub, pub-ily named for the year of the founding of St. Clair Township, which became Upper St. Clair, where Pittsburgh’s newest Whole Foods opened in January, just across Washington Road/Route 19 from Ye Olde South Hills Village. The North Hills’ Whole Foods, on Route 19 in Pine, has the Wexford Pub, which opened last spring when that store’s popular taproom moved into a bigger space next door that had been a Starbucks. But whereas you order and pick up at the bar casual grub from the store’s kitchen in Wexford, Upper St. Clair offers a more gastropub twist, serving a bigger, set menu that has been described as “semi-service” -— that is, you go to the counter to order, but they bring it to you, after preparing it in an open kitchen.
My family met another mom and son at the South Hills store at 6:30 one night last week to see what it’s all about.
The simple menu is laminated and taped to the bar that separates the kitchen and icy raw bar from the pub in one front corner of the store. The squarish space beckons with tones of brick and yellow and warm lighting, including recessed lights in one wood-paneled wall, and woodblock floors. Mod stuffed chairs and love seats complement the stools down both bars and assorted tables that look to seat up to 50 people. One group almost filled a big eight-top. Two women sat at the corner table by the geometric print banquette. A dad and mom with two young kids took over facing love seats. Barflies included a couple in Penguins gear -— the playoff game was starting on most of the five flat-screen TVs -— and a businessman rating a sampler of four small beers.
The beer list is not small, chalking up 24 drafts. There were so many good and interesting ones that I had a hard time picking, so I started my tab with a Helltown Mischievous Brown Ale, one of the good local brews I know. This pint tasted even better than usual because it was only $4, thanks to the $1 discount for happy hour. My wife ordered one of the eight wines by the glass -— a Cotes-du-Rhone — for $9 (there also are six “signature” cocktails). Then we set about ordering eats.
The lone aproned bartender/server told us that sure, the boys could get food from the store’s typically beautiful salad and hot food and pizza bars; we’d just have to pay for it out there before bringing it into the pub. So the moms helped the boys do that. My 9-year-old’s plate was a healthful melange of chicken parm, fresh veggies and fruit, but at $8.99 a pound, and with a 99-cent can of house ginger ale, his tab was a breathtaking $12.42. And it turns out, he wasn’t done yet.
(I will not make a “whole paycheck” joke. I think Whole Foods offers a very appealing array of foods, sometimes for good deals. My paycheck just limits how much of it I can purchase. I could very easily wind up with a $25 salad. I would relish it.)
The pub prices seem relatively affordable. “Order at the back bar when ready,” instructs a sign beside the food menu, which is a short list of tasty-sounding treats, everything from Steamed Mussels ($12) to Potato & Cheddar Pierogies to a New York Strip steak with white wine, sauteed mushrooms, shallots, garlic, fresh herbs and fingerling potatoes ($22). Those and some additional fare, such as Hoecakes (cornmeal pancakes with roasted pear compote and sorghum butter for $8) are offered for weekend brunch. The beef is described as local, as part of the bigger theme of “responsibly farmed and sustainable seafood and fresh meat from animals never given added hormones or antibiotics.”
We felt like we were splurging by starting with a plate of a half-dozen oysters on the half shell, but they were only $10. After trying to remember if it’s safe to eat raw oysters in a month that ends with a Y, I dove in. I don’t know how responsible they were, but these shellfish were well-mannered and gave us no trouble.
My wife ordered the Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich ($10), which the server brought out with a bowl of pretty purple slaw, and we also tried the vegan offering, wedges of Charred Purple Cabbage served atop bean puree and topped with crispy potato bits. We really enjoyed the latter, and she said the sandwich was good, too, but a bit greasy — either a lack of blotting or a touch of authenticity.
The other mom and I both ordered one of that day’s three specials: not the $12 Western BBQ Burger with tater tots or the $10 Strawberry BBQ Chicken Tacos with pepper slaw, but the $8 BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos, which, again, made for a colorful presentation with black beans, red pico de gallo and green jalapeno slices.
“These are SO GOOD!” the mom said.
“These are SO GOOD!” said her son, as he dug into my order, as did my son. My growing boy asked if he could go back for a cup of chicken noodle soup. I got up to ladle and pay for it and learned that soup is priced not by weight but (pro tip) by container size: $4.27 with tax. His tab was up to $16.69. I told him, “Have some more of my nachos.”
I felt it would be fiscally irresponsible to not get a second discounted beer. I trusted and took the server’s recommendation and tried a Super Silk IPA from an Eastern Pennsylvania-based “gypsy” brewery I’d never tasted: Sole Artisan. It was superb and contained, I learned from the responsible menu, only 195 calories.
We munched and sipped and talked, the boys watched their devices and the start of the Pens game, other pubbers and kids came and went. “We made the trip specifically for this,” said Jennifer Barletta of Canonsburg, with her mom, Cheryl Finelli of Claysville, also in Washington County, as they split a pair of small plates and a bottle of Ergo Rioja that they paid for in the store but the server opened and poured. Previously, they’d enjoyed a similar date on the covered patio out front. They’ll be back just for the pub. So will we.
Before we left, while my wife went to get some more pico to go, I looked for the Sole Artisan cans in the store’s impressive beer selection, but no such luck. I did have another of the brewery’s beers from the excellent list at the Wexford Pub Friday night, where my son devoured a burger and tots and my wife and I split an order of Pittsburgh-style pierogies -— with kielbasa and kraut — and a plate of Brussels sprouts. There, the oysters come in aluminum pans. That bigger brick-walled space is even more true pub-like — very casual and comfy and busy. Whole Foods is adding restaurants to more and more of its stores — including some run by partners — because they work. And spokesman Roya Kousari says, “No two are the same. Which keeps it fun and exciting.”
These busy days, there are more and more businesses offering meal “solutions” of every imaginable kind. I like the idea of having a nice bite and a drink at the source, especially because you also can pick up some food — and maybe drink — for home.
Places such as the 1788 Pub and the Wexford Pub might even encourage spouses to help with domestic chores. “Honey, do you need me to stop and get anything at the store?”
The South Hills Whole Foods -— at 111 Siena Drive, just off Washington Road/Route 19, Upper St. Clair, PA 15241 — is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. 1788 Pub hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m weekends. Call 412-409-4550 or visit wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/southhills. The Wexford Pub is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; that store — at 10576 Perry Highway, Wexford, PA 15090 -— is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/wexford).
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.