August 29, 2014 • 5:05 am

I’m in Pittsburgh for the the Pennsylvania State Atheist/Humanist Conference, which begins this evening.  I arrived a bit early to acquaint myself with a city in which I spent much of my youth (my uncles and cousins lived here). As many know, this town, once a gritty, dirty, steel-manufacturing center, has undergone a huge renovation, and is now clean, livable, and attractive. When my father went to school here—at Pitt—in the early 1940s, he told me it was so smoggy that he had to change his shirt three times a day. Now the steel mills are mostly closed, and they’re fixing up the historic downtown, which has some lovely buildings.

Here’s one: the Art Deco Gulf Tower, built between 1930-1932. The Weather Underground bombed the 29th floor in 1974. The entrance is lovely:

Gulf building

Just a random shot of the skyline:


A Henri Cartier-Bresson wannabee photo: busy Pittsburghers:


Based on a reader’s suggestion, I had dinner at the Sharp Edge Bistro close to my hotel. It specializes in craft beers, particularly Belgian ones.


They had a lot of Belgian beers on draft, which was surprising. The prices were high, but I went during happy hour, so the prices were halved.

Draft Belgians

Here are the bottled Belgian beers. I see that one of my favorites, St. Bernardus (12% alcohol), is $75 for a 1.5-liter bottle. But you can buy smaller bottles in the U.S. at a much more reasonable price.

Bottled Belgians

My dinner: a classic meal: moules (mussels, these cooked with chopped tomatoes, garlic, and beer), frites, and a Belgian beer. The server recommended the draft “Over the Edge,” at 9.5% alcohol, and brewed in Belgium for the bistro. It was excellent, with a strong hoppy flavor that didn’t overwhelm the classic fruitiness of a Belgian beer. The fries were served with a mayo/curry sauce.


Fortunately, there was a Ben & Jerry’s next door, and, on a whim, I stopped in for dessert: a waffle cone containing a scoop of salted caramel ice cream as well as an over-the-top triple chocolate pudding flavor (hidden in this view):


Tonight a friend and I have reservations at Josza Corner, an unprepossessing Hungarian restaurant that’s supposed to have terrific food. Report tomorrow. Roadfood, one of my favorite food sites, says this about it:

“Always call ahead!” is especially true of Jozsa Corner, because Alex Jozsa Bodnar provides dinner by appointment only. But with an appointment for space at the two long dining tables that fill the dining room, you can get a multi-course feast of whatever Hungarian country fare Alex decides to provide that day.

On one recent visit, the dinner included these dishes:
– sliced vegetables, cheese, stuffed grape leaves, and pork cracklings
– langos, a fried bread topped with herbs and cheese
– vinegary coleslaw topped with dill
– vegetable peasant soup with noodles
– haluska (buttered cabbage and noodles)
– spicy Hungarian kolbasz sausage
– braided peasant bread topped with poppy seeds, fresh from the oven
– Transylvanian goulash, made with pork and sauerkraut
– vinegary cucumber salad
– chicken paprikash with noodles and homemade dumplings (called nokedli)
– and dessert of langosh and prunes

Now if that doesn’t get your juices flowing, you have no stomach.




50 thoughts on “Pittsburgh!

  1. Pittsburgh’s renovation took place largely in the mid 1980s. I lived in Ohio 83-93, and dropped in on Pittsburgh in 83 and again in 89 and just over that interval the difference was palpable. I thought it had gone from the 19th century to the 21st century in only 6 years.

    In the mid 1980s it got rated the overall best city in the US to live in, but only by being middlin’ in every category including safety, as it had a relatively low crime rate compared to other major cities, but it excelled in no category. Other cities excelled in some categories but rated very low in others. Can’t remember who did this right now.

  2. I love Belgian beer but the message has to be “approach with extreme caution”. I spent a couple of nights in Brussels for work a couple of years back and, with my hosts, we worked our way down a similar looking list. The hangover was brutal.

  3. Just to show you where my head is, when I saw the header “Belgian Drafts” at the top of that menu, I thought they were talking about horses. L

  4. Gluten free beer? Huh? How does that work?

    Doesn’t beer have to contain primarily barley? If not, then it’s not beer.

    1. Yes, primarily. But many contain a lot of wheat (Weissbier, Witbier, etc.). Though both ingredients would be expected to contain a lot of gluten.

      Gluten is a very large protein molecule, so, generally speaking, alomst all of it should focculate and end up being discarded with the rest of the sediments after fermentation.

      Much would depend on brewing techniques and filtering (if any).

    2. Maybe by reinheitsgebot, but it’s possible to make a broth out of most anything and add yeast. Sorghum’s apparently used a lot for gluten-free, and chestnut can be too. I wish it were otherwise, but I can’t say the two chestnut beers I’ve tried knocked my socks off.

      And then in Sweden, spelt (hexaploid, aka hulled wheat) was apparently the traditional grain. Brooklyn Brewery has recently opened a branch outside Stockholm, and this is a shout-out to this excellent spelt brew of theirs.

      1. Yes, and I’ve had some other spelt beers that were pretty good too.

        Anything that can be cracked to sugars can be used to make “beer”.

        The Reinheitsgebot precludes many of my favorite beers (most Belgian brews have one or more of: wheat, spices, fruit (or dried fruit) all of which are ganz und gar verboten by the Reinheitsgebot.

        Of course, in its original form, the Reinheitsgebot also forbade yeast, since they didn’t know about yeast (as needing to be added, they had it native in their fermentation vessels, which were almost certainly wooden).

        It only allowed:
        Malt[ed barley]

    3. The breweries most successful
      with gluten free brews use barley.
      They remove the gluten afterwards. Try
      Widmers Ommision series. Also Dara which is Italian, I believe. If you’re ever in Oregon there is an adorably geeky brewery called Bunsen Brewery producing all gluten free.

  5. Cool! nice to see the Belgian brews. Some of my favorites there. They have the Chouffe Houblon (houblon means hop in French) which comes from the tiny town of Achouffe in the Ardennes in SE Beglium.

    I’ve enjoyed their beer numerous times at the brewery. Highly recommended.

    Their “La Chouffe” is (IMO) much better than the “Houblon” brew (which may appeal more to American palates which have bcomes accustomed to over-hopped beers). The La Chouffe exhibits the maltiness and the fruit and spice flavors for which Belgian beers are famous. If I had to pick one beer to drink for the rest of my life (Ceiling Cat forbid!) it would be La Chouffe.

    1. If you look hard enough you can find La Chouffe here in Oz.
      I’ve had it a few times and it’s very nice.
      I have plans to travel through Belgium in a few years visiting all the Trappist breweries.
      I recall that some years back, Westvleteran had a brew that was voted best in the world. Of course it then sold like mad and they ran out and when asked why didn’t they brew more to make more money they replied that they were monks and the money they made from brewing was only for them to live on and some for charity.
      It’s good to see that none of their beers are on the lists Jerry photographed as they only sell it out front of the brewery and ask that it not be sold on.
      Can’t wait to try it as I believe you can get it on draught at a cafe across the road.

  6. I would be terrified to try mussels. Nothing about them seems appetizing to me, but I’m a landlubber from the southwest through and through. I do admire Jerry’s eclectic palate, and anyone else of similar bent. I just don’t have one of my own.

    1. I generally don’t care for mussels either. However, recently a relative ordered them at our local place (we shared dishes around the table) and they were superb.

      Generally, I find them too fishy/funky (though I am a thorough-going fish and seafood eater).

  7. Mussels, beer and fries with curry…heavenly. Though, it appears that some of the busy Pittsburghers need to work on their posture when they walk.

      1. I was more referring to the glass of Chimay for 13$. The 3 Liter bottle of Duvel for 125$ is getting damn close to where it makes economic sense to simply hop on a plane to Brussels 😀

  8. I’m surprised at the prices they ask for the Belgian beers here in the US, even at liquor stores. And, I wonder what they would ask if they were able to sell “West Vleteren” trappist … Although, beers like Leffe are reasonably priced (I guess they’re owned by Interbrew or what is it called).

    Now, I’m wondering though – why Ben & Jerry’s when presumably they also had desserts at the restaurant! It’s absolutely nothing against Ben & Jerry’s (au contraire …), but didn’t they have a good chocolate mousse with Belgian chocolate on their dessert list? I could not say no that.

    1. When West Vleteren came to the U.S. it went for
      $85 a six pack. It seems the monks needed a new
      roof. The bottle shop/tap room I work at pre
      sold the beer in a day and still got hundreds of calls from people wanting it. Like Pliny the Elder I think it’s over hyped. Try Rochfort 10.
      Available, cheaper (by far!) and better.

      1. 🙂 I don’t think it’s overhyped though. Well, I’ve always liked it.

        Rochefort 10 is indeed excellent as well. But still too expensive here, I think (disclosure: I’m Dutch, born close to the Belgian border …).

  9. Pittsburgh has become a very nice beer snob town. My two favorites are EastEnd, what many consider the town’s flagship microbrewery (and where some of my old lab cabinetry has been re-purposed), and the Brew Gents, which you’ll like more if you like hops less, and where there’s also a fixture or two that’s been re-purposed via me.

    Craft distilleries are springing up here as well, including this one, also run by friends in partnership with one in the Shenandoah valley of VA, and which is soon (Nov 7) to release a Scandinavian aquavit with a special character all of their own formulation.

  10. Glad to see that my suggestion didn’t disappoint. And you wisely chose not to have dessert there – nothing noteworthy on that portion of the menu.

    Enjoy your visit in the “Burgh” – and don’t forget to check out the Strip if you get a chance. Especially on Saturdays when it’s wall-to-wall people shopping and noshing. It’s foodie heaven!

    1. So that answers my earlier comment on the thread 🙂 So, as a Belgian restaurant, they don’t offer a good chocolate mousse? Too bad.

  11. I lived in Pittsburgh for a few years back around the turn of the millenium while taking a degree at CMU. Curious place, and I was back in 2010 or so as well for a conference. The beer scene is apparently big there, but since I don’t like beer …

    As for the pollution from a while ago: at least in 2003 at the top of the Duquesne Incline there was an oldtimey photo of the city from the 1930s or so. It was labelled as taking place at *noon*, and yet the sky (in the B&W photo, mind) was black as night. Also, the monumental Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh is stained, apparently forever, due to the same pollution.

    1. A couple of years ago (I think it was for the 220th anniversary of the founding of the university) they cleaned it. Looks spanking new now – complete with falcons on the top!

    2. The Carnegie Museum, in Oakland, basically across the street from the Cathedral, used to be very black thanks to the old pollution. they did clean it but left one part still black as a reminder on what can happen.

      The Cathedral also has very cool stone work inside and classrooms done in the style of various countries that is well worth the visit.

  12. Now that’s my kind of restaurant. Belgium beers are nonpareil and Belgium lambic is one of my favorite beverages. I see they have Lindemanns…the most popular in the US, but not the best: too fruity. My favorite lambic brewer is probably Cantillon. Especially the Gueuze…I love sour!

  13. Mmmm that looks yummy! I would be so “full” from the beer, there would be no way I would be able to down the ice cream. I think this is why I steer clear of alcohol (that and the headaches and stomach aches I always get) so I can eat lots of sweets. 🙂

  14. I lived in Belgium for more than 20 years. The Belgian beers are without equal.
    If you go to Limburg, every farm has its own beer, only sold at the farm and local pub.
    Many of these beers are sublime.
    Of the commercially available beers in Belgium (about 300) the one one i like most is the trappist beer of Orval.
    I’m on a ‘paleo’ diet (lost me 12 kg and normalised my lipidogram), but for an Orval I’ll make an exception any day.
    Note, in South Africa, where I live now, Orval is as rare as a feminist opposing Islam (am I being slightly obnoxious there?).

  15. My father grew up in and around Pittsburgh in the Beaver Falls area and worked at the steel mill when he was younger, and my Grandfather worked for Crucible steel as a metallurgist/chemical engineer. I was born in Rochester, and was subjected to many mill-stories growing up and visited the area many times. Though, I was too young to notice any changes and as of late the only part of Pittsburgh I’ve had the pleasure of visiting is the airport en-route. I also have 2 brothers and my mother buried out there, so I really need to visit the area, if only for the beer.

  16. Pittsburgh is a great city. I used to live in Mt Lebanon in the early 80’s when my father was an architect for PAT’s light rail project.

        1. I lived on Roycroft in the early 80’s. technically Castle Shannon i think, but I went to Mt Lebanon High for a term.

  17. Fergive my iggoranse, but what, in the context of beer, is a ‘nitro dra[ “f” || “ugh” ]t’ ?
    I’d hypothesise that it’s from a keg that’s pressurised with nitrogen, with blether about the N2 not changing the pH of the beer and therefore not changing the taste. But I’ve not exactly got a sofistikated patella, so I don’t really know.

    1. Nitro beers usually refer to a nitrogen / CO2 mix being used.
      The nitrogen causes smaller bubbles so you get a creamier head like with Guinness.
      I’ve been meaning for years to try it out my my craft brew setup.

      1. Bubble size … hadn’t thought of that.
        Well, strictly a consumer here. The last time I brewed any beer, it was with the aid of un-depleted uranium (to stir around the yeast’s genes a little), and was well over 10% a.b.v. We called it “Shotgun”, because if you put it in your mouth, it would blow your brains out. And it produced the desired effect on incautious Belgians (who’d brought a car-load of Belgium’s finest to the party) and a Pole with a particular disregard for the normal rules of gravity, inertia, and common sense. We (El Runtissimo and I) took that as “success” and promised to never make any more of it.

  18. Yes, Pittsburgh has some great architecture! I’m a docent with the Chicago Architecture Foundation and a group of us toured Pittsburgh two years ago – we were completely blown away by it. Be sure to see Henry Hobson Richardson’s Allegheny County Courthouse, a masterpiece. And of course, if at all possible, make a side trip (43 miles) to visit Fallingwater.

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