I’m all about the food tours these days so when Pittsburgh Tours and More contacted me about going on one of theirs, I gladly accepted the invitation. While I know I would have loved their Flavor of Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh’s Popular Food Culture Tour, I was told that this is more of a Strip District thing, an area of the city I am extremely familiar with (both geographically and culinary speaking). I wanted to be able to experience something new and after reading about their other food tour, Steel City Sampler: a Rust Belt Culinary Tour, I was sold (even if it meant having to wait longer since the first tour was sold out).
The premise of the Steel City Sampler is to take people to former mill towns near Pittsburgh (the Steel Valley) that were once thriving little metropolises. Pittsburgh Tours and More wants participants to learn about the different ethnic groups that shaped the area and who infused a bit of their culture and cuisine right here.
Tour prices are a bit more expensive than some but keep in mind that it’s not a walking tour. Instead, it begins at the popular entertainment area of Station Square (across the Monongahela River from downtown) and you are then driven to each of the stops. The only walking involved is getting out of the van and into the stop. Since these are tours that operate rain or shine, the no walking was particularly nice as last Saturday featured typical Pittsburgh weather-no sun, extreme cold, and off and on rain. The transportation is an added plus for anyone who might have mobility issues and couldn’t participate on a walking food tour. The other nice and very admirable note of mention is that all of the tours given by Pittsburgh Tours and More (they offer numerous non-food ones as well), donate a portion of the proceeds to a local non-profit. For the Steel City Sampler it is the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area-the organization that runs tours of the Carrie Blast Furnaces (for my post on that extremely interesting place click here).
We were taken to a total of six stops. With the exception of the stop in the South Side (this was our first one and was only a short drive from Station Square; the South Side was also home to a couple of steel mills back in the day), all of the other stops were in the Steel Valley, areas of the region that many people never go to. A common mentality in Pittsburgh among locals is “why would you go there?” As in, why would you go to an economically depressed area? What they don’t understand is that those same economically depressed areas were once beautiful and vibrant and that they stay depressed because people essentially are not willing to give them a chance. Organizations like Pittsburgh Tours and More are doing their part to better educate people on the promising aspects of these areas and also to bring visitors to these small businesses that are just starting to take root in such locales, brave and positive thinking individuals who want to contribute in making them better places.
Our two tour guides were both fabulous-each having plenty of local lore and tidbits to share with the group. To me, the tour got off to an exceptionally good start when, while waiting on the bus to depart, we were given a sweet roll to snack on (nutroll, apricot, and poppy seed) from Daryl’s Famous Rolls. These types of rolls are a Hungarian/Central European treat and were brought to the area by those immigrants who came in the late 19th and early 20th century. We would be given other treats on board which included a mini “Polish platter” which consisted of smoked Polish sausage (from S & D Polish deli in the Strip District), a few crackers, cheese, and two different honey cake style cookies called pierniki (one that was plain, and one that was frosted in the style of a babushka). We learned that these cookies, which are meant for dunking in coffee, have such a texture so that they could be saved for a long time. This was especially useful for the mill workers.
Our first stop was at the Pretzel Shop where we were given a freshly made soft pretzel. This is a place I’ve heard a ton about but never had the chance to visit. We actually went in the back, which was cool as it allowed us to see the centuries’ old oven still doing its thing. The Pretzel Shop has been been feeding the residents of the South Side (many whom at a time were immigrants) for well over 100 years old. Soft pretzels are always a delight in my opinion.
Next up was the Triangle Bar and Grill in Swissvale. This apparently was a change from the usual spot due to a holiday parade that was taking place that day in Homestead. It was here that we sampled their famous submarine sandwich. Personally, I don’t think subs/hoagies (whatever name you want to bestow upon this type of sandwich) should necessarily be on a food tour since there really isn’t anything too unique or memorable about them. Sure, it tasted really good but it’s just not the type of food I think of for a food tour.
We then headed over to Braddock. This majorly economically depressed town keeps trying to make its comeback. It was devastated by the mill closings in the 1980s and then was beset with street drug epidemics in the years that followed. But businesses like the Brew Gentlemen are one of the reasons its doing its best to turn itself around. Run by two 20-somethings, the Brew Gentlemen offers uniquely brewed craft beers. In a city where some of its residents stay attached at the hip to what, according to some beer aficionados, is akin to “nasty waste” (IC Light, Budweiser), it’s nice to see these two young guys wanting to change that and more importantly, provide locals with a craft beer education. Located right on Braddock Avenue, the main drag, Brew Gentlemen is located in an original building that the two owners restored themselves and honestly, it’s a great looking space that still oozes its former history. They had two beers for people to try-White Sky, which is a chai spiced wheat beer, and Mexican Coffee, an oatmeal stout. They also had two divine tasting chocolates that were made by a local chocolate company to go with the beers.
After getting thoroughly tipsy (joking), we proceeded down the street, deeper into the heart of Braddock and ended up at the Bread Oven. A community bread oven is exactly what it sounds like-an outdoor oven for the entire local community. The one in Braddock is the only one in the Pittsburgh area and ironically enough is located directly across the street from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson plant, the only working blast furnace remaining from the city’s steel-making days. The bread oven is rather new (dating from 2008), although construction on a larger one has already begun (this will be able to serve even more people). In a society where people seem to become more and more disconnected from each other, it was nice to discover that such a community oriented operation exists. We sampled some bread along with tasty and fiery jams.
Stay Tuned Distillery is a craft distillery located in Munhall that’s dedicated to small batch gins and fine whiskey. It’s housed in a former church which I think is the funniest and most ironic of things (I can only imagine some former churchgoers turning over in their graves if they knew what their church is now serving as). Thankfully they had mixed drinks for us to try, nothing straight up. We sampled something with a very strong citrus kick to it. And just like The Brew Gentlemen, there are only two men at the helm of Stay Tuned Distillery-pretty incredible if you ask me.
Our final stop was at the Carpatho-Rusyn Club. I’ll let Wikipedia do the educating so click here but in a nutshell, the Rusyns are an ethnic group (like the Kurds or Basques) who are without their own homeland. The largest number of Rusyn immigrants settled in the Pittsburgh area and the Carpatho-Rusyn Club is located in a former cathedral, the first one that was built exclusively for Rusyns. The building was gorgeous (honestly, it looked straight out of Europe) and here we got to try some homemade halushki (a simple noodle/dumplings dish that’s common in Central/Eastern European cuisine) and Rusyn torte. One of the organizers also gave us a little lesson about the Rusyn culture and history.
The Steel City Sampler: Rust Belt Culinary Tour is most likely not like other food tours you’ve been on. While we were provided with food the entire tour nearly the entire tour, I didn’t leave feeling “full” (this is obviously not a bad thing). The items we tried were definitely more of the sampling size. However, what I enjoyed most about the tour were the things that made it unique, set it apart from other food tours-two of the stops featuring locally produced alcohol and the neat historical angle that was offered. I also liked that the tour had nothing to do with the side of Pittsburgh that makes the Top 10 lists or shows up on Travel Channel segments-while it’s easy to forget a city’s history that doesn’t mean we should. And the Rust Belt Culinary tour does a good job of making sure you don’t forget, along with some tasty food of course.
Note: I was a guest of Pittsburgh Tours and More but all thoughts and opinions mentioned here are my own.