‘Burgh Bits and Bites’ Brookline Tour
Note: I’m going to be taking a much needed short break. When I’m gone I hope to FINALLY put together a media kit for the blog and also work on my book instead of just thinking about it (the old dust has started to collect new dust). But the best part of all is that my trip to New York is almost here. I haven’t been since 2012 and can’t wait for all the new food & sightseeing adventures I have planned. To follow along be sure to like my Facebook page and also check me out on Instagram (@theredheadedtraveler).
Last Christmas my brother and sister-in-law gifted us a ‘Burgh Bits and Bites certificate. The certificate was valid for four of BBB’s tours, two of which I had already done (ones in Bloomfield and Lawrenceville, both fantastic, by the way, but especially the latter), one I didn’t have interest in doing a “structured” tour in (the Strip District, where I go all the time on my own), and Brookline, a completely new neighborhood for me. So easy choosing, obviously.
If you’re wondering why I waited so long, ( if you’ve been reading my blog you’ll know that I ADORE food tours), it boiled down to a food tour in winter is just not my idea of a fun time. Spring was somewhat of a blur: I started a new job, then there was my Alaska cruise, recovering from said cruise, getting sick, and dealing with the dreaded clutter in my house. It was the end of July before I knew it. So I reserved a Brookline tour for a Saturday in August and honestly, it was the perfect “be a tourist in your backyard” activity during a month when I wasn’t traveling anywhere.
Here’s the thing about Pittsburgh geography-just as in the United States there’s a North and South, well, in Pittsburgh there’s the North Hills and the South Hills. They’re separated by a river and one of the most popular (and most congested) ways of getting from the North to the South is going through a tunnel that was blasted out of a mountain. It also involves traversing the dreaded Liberty Bridge, a structure that seems to be habitually closed due to construction or in the case of last September, a fire (I kid you not). So in short, people from the North Hills (me) rarely make it to the South Hills since it’s a major PIA (no need to define that). In all the years I’ve lived in the Pittsburgh area, I’ve made it to the South Hills a grand total of perhaps four times? Well, Brookline was to be my fifth.
Brookline is primarily a residential neighborhood and quite historic as well (the South Hills was developed well before the North Hills). And I can’t forget about its hills. Pittsburgh as a whole is a very “hilly” city but make a trek to the Brookline area and you will be amazed by the number of ridiculously steep inclines you encounter. And keep in mind, Pittsburgh gets very cold and icy weather in the winter, unlike in more temperate San Francisco, also known for its hilly terrain.
Even though Brookline is mostly residential, there’s Brookline Boulevard and essentially just about all of your needs are covered from a shopping/eating perspective. And that’s where the entire tour takes place. A century ago, you did all of your shopping locally, there was no getting in the car to go to the mall or the supermarket. You walked to get what you needed, and the layout of Brookline definitely reflects that. It’s one of the reasons I so enjoyed visiting, that and there’s a branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh there too, right on the Boulevard. That sold me on automatically liking it.
Jackie was our Brookline tour guide and just like all of the other tour guides I’ve been with on food tours both in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, she was fantastic and utterly passionate about her job.
The tour stopped at a total of six places in addition to one fun non-food establishment which I’ll detail below:
I’d heard about Pitaland for years but had never been there. It’s basically a foodie version of an amusement park; upon stepping into the room where the pitas are made you’re hit with the best damn smelling aroma, ever. Pitaland is owned by Lebanese immigrants Joe and Jocelyne Chahine who are the true embodiment of the American Dream. Their business started small (they applied for asylum in the United States after war broke out in their native Lebanon and ultimately immigrated here) and now Pitaland is the pita supplier to countless restaurants all around Pittsburgh. Joe was there to greet us, not only telling us his backstory but also explaining the pita making process. Here we got to sample fresh pita (we were allowed to take it RIGHT OFF the conveyer belt where it was wonderfully piping hot), and then there was feta cheese, red pepper hummus, plain hummus, and olives. I’m not going to lie, this was my favorite stop on the tour (and naturally we returned post-tour to take some goodies home with us).
Deluca’s Bakery, Deli, and Groceria
Just as Pitaland smelled awesome from a savory standpoint, Deluca’s smelled amazing from a sweet one. One of the staff members here provided us with a brief history of Deluca’s, which I appreciated since I’ve found on some food tour stops you just get the food but know nothing about the establishment which is somewhat of a letdown.
Here we sampled a delicious cookie topped with copious amounts of sugary frosting that I truly felt gluttonous after eating (there was so much delectable frosting) and then a couple of cookies which, since they were bagged, I brought home with me.
I know that authentic Mexican food in other American cities is a dime a dozen anymore (I mean that in a good way, as in it’s very prevalent). Here in Pittsburgh that hasn’t always been the case but it’s slowly (emphasis on the slow part) changing. Las Palmas opened as a Mexican grocery store/carniceria (butcher shop) but then started offering tacos to go street-side. Piece of advice- if you want authentic Mexican food, you go the corn taco route, not flour. Here we had our choice of tacos (there were about five or six different fillings you could choose from); I opted for pork and pineapple. After the tour, we went and bought some Mexican grocery items too.
Party Cake Shop
Okay, so this is one of the stops where we literally went in and out and just got a bag of items to go. I know they were busy but it still would have been nice to have someone affiliated with the store chat for a moment (thankfully Jackie was a most worthy fill-in). Here in Pittsburgh burnt almond torte is a huge deal, (it’s like THE cake). My only true critique of the tour (more so this stop), is that they didn’t provide any utensils to eat said torte. I’m fine with eating with my hands, but when it’s a torte covered in huge glops of icing? Easier said than done. And frankly, I’m not a huge fan of head diving into frosting either. We were also given a pączki (Polish-style donut) to go, which I saved for the next day. It was delicious.
Sal’s Barber Shop
In an era of chain hair cut places (Supercuts) and fancy salons, it’s nice to know that an old-school establishment like Sal’s still exists. Sal took the business over from his dad who had owned it for decades, right in a prime spot on the Boulevard. The inside was a lot of fun to see and photograph, especially all of the historic shaving mugs.
Cafe de Noir
Although we were given a bottle of water at the start of the tour, we came to this sweet and laid back cafe where we had a choice of either hot or cold tea or hot or iced coffee. Although the interior is quite nice (you could clearly tell the building was historic with its gorgeous ceiling that harkens to times past), they have a lovely covered deck out back where you had a perfect view of Pittsburgh’s hills.
Our final stop of the day included a slice of pizza here. There was nothing glamorous or even modern about the inside but it serves good pizza and sometimes that’s all that matters. I’m a big stickler for a worthy crust; I can’t stand pizza where the crust tastes salty/cardboard like. When it’s like that, I don’t bother eating it. This was not one of those times.
People may wonder if I’m ever going to tire of food tours since last year I went on five and this year I’m set to go on four. The answer is no. Whether they’re in a city I’ve never been to or the city I live in, they’re still fun and unique every time. If I had to choose one way to pass the time I would choose a food tour since they offer so much-exercise, the chance to be outdoors (hopefully the weather is nice), learning some history, and most importantly, trying some awesome food.