Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
Think back to your youth, to your hardscrabble mill-town upbringing, when Pittsburgh didn't have any French or Ethiopian or upscale Thai places, when being raised in the Leechburgs and Ambridges of the world meant that your town had one "fancy" restaurant, set apart from the dive bars and fast-food joints by white tablecloths and unusual meat offerings. It's the place where everyone gathered for anniversary parties and 50th birthday celebrations, for a nightcap or, for your more committed barflies, an early-afternoon cap.
This place is known as a "lounge." Munch is a fan of the lounge.
Certainly there is better food out there, and more inventive food out there, and nicer beer and wine lists, but heck, sometimes it's OK to eat at a place where they've never heard of alchemy menus or tapas. Where ordering a meal still means you get a free chilled salad, plus a starch, plus a side of applesauce or beets, plus a basket stocked with rolls that may well have been purchased from a Foodland bakery.
Munch likes the lounge because it is a meal served with a side of nostalgia. Munch likes the lounge because the kitchen staff still thinks that a leaf of iceberg lettuce is a stylish garnish. This was gourmet dining before we became a nation of insufferable, grass-finished foodies. The lounge is stuck in the 1950s, and unapologetically, anachronistically so.
Sorry for taking the scenic route, but Munch wants you to know exactly what you're getting into before you walk through the doors of Michael's Restaurant & Lounge in Baldwin. No to fish tacos. Yes to stuffed mushroom caps. No to pureed cocktails. Yes to sparkly Valentine's Day decorations dangling from the ceiling.
The front room of the 40-year-old lounge -- with a zig-zag bar, a half-dozen booths and a piano in the corner -- still allows smoking, so Munch and Dear One Of Munch (DOOM) found a table in the ruby red dining area, renovated a few years ago when John and Joanne Dziadyk bought the business.
If the interior appointments and the outdoor signage hadn't made it clear that this was an old-fashioned lounge, the menu certainly did -- 16 seafood choices, 11 beef and pork cuts, six veal preparations, seven chicken selections, a pasta menu longer than the arm of God, and two different liver options.
Two different liver options!
Animal offal is still popular in the Deep South, and foie gras is often in the news, but if you're eating chopped liver up North, you're either in a kosher deli or a lounge. Munch couldn't resist the bacon-wrapped chicken livers ($4.95). DOOM -- and the waitress -- literally shrank away from the plate as it was served, but Munch relished the crispy, earthy, metallic appetizers. Yes, it smells like sweatsocks. But it's a good source of vitamin A, kids!
Did I mention it's rich in iron?
DOOM, on a sans beef kick thanks to the documentary "Earthlings" (and DOOM hasn't even watched it yet; just glanced at the DVD sleeve, really), ordered the crab-stuffed shrimp ($18.95), easy on the butter, and that's exactly how they came out, to DOOM's delight. There was filler here, but not too much, and the crab was stacked in generous lumps, not shreds -- three stuffed shrimp to a plate was enough for a meal.
Munch -- who has read "Fast Food Nation" and watched many a PETA-endorsed, anti-corporate farm documentary, yet still hankers for big marbled slabs of red meat -- sought out the petite filet mignon ($17.50). Tender, pink on the inside, it would have benefited from some time beneath a pepper grinder, but was otherwise an adequate cut of meat. The filet came propped on a slice of toasted baguette, the plate garnished with -- yes, you guessed it -- a leaf of lettuce, and a single tomato slice. Adorable.
Preposterous, but adorable.
Sides? We've got sides galore -- a salad, French onion soup, twice-baked potatoes, once-baked potatoes, pickled beets, green beans, rolls, and you know what, let's say we finish it off with a big honkin' slice of red velvet cake ($3.50). All desserts are made on-site daily.
Go to Michael's for the food; stay for the memories of the way America used to eat out. You want applesauce with that?
Have a tip for Munch? Want to be an FOM? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625, or look for "Munch von Munchausen" on Facebook.