Pastrami at Primanti’s and Polish Pierogis? Perfectly Pittsburgh

All cities worth their salt lay claim to a foodstuff or two, be it the mysterious Washington half-smoke or the ubiquitous Philly cheesesteak. On a recent trip to Pittsburgh, that Venice on the Monongahela, I had the chance to sample two foods that are, if not unique to Pittsburgh, at least very well represented there: the fry-and-slaw-topped sandwich and the pierogi.

Fry-and-slaw-topped sandwich doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but it’s the culinary specialty of Primanti Bros., the chain of restaurants in Pittsburgh that serves it. The recipe is simple—meat and cheese topped with french fries, cole slaw, and tomato, served on two slices of thickly cut, soft-crusted Italian bread. It looks a little something like this:

Fries and slaw and meat, oh my!

The version above, a pastrami and cheese, with onion, from the Oakland branch of the chain, was, well, ok.

I understand the concept and the appeal, but it didn’t send me into the raptures that some of its devotees claim. There wasn’t nearly enough meat on the sandwich to counterbalance the heavy starch of the bread and fries, though for a shade under $7, I certainly got enough food.

Perhaps the other meat choices would have been better—the hot sausage and “kolbassi” versions sound promising—but the little bit of pastrami on mine didn’t add much to the experience. The cole slaw on top was the best part—almost dry and vinegar based, just as I like it.

A good sandwich, probably worth a stop if you’re in Pittsburgh, but not enough to inspire a road trip on its own.

And what would a jaunt to Pittsburgh be without sampling some pierogis, those lovely Eastern European dumplings? I didn’t have much time to search them out in Pittsburgh—ideally, one gets them from a Polish or Ukrainian church fair, made by hand and boiled to perfection in a well-worn pot carried over from the homeland—but I managed to get to a small Polish deli to grab a plate.

Perfectly prepped pierogis!

Tucked in the Strip District, S&D Polish Deli serves up plates of four pierogis, boiled and topped with caramelized onions, for $4. Now, some might argue that since they don’t make their own but rather serve pierogis from Chicago’s Alexandra Foods, they don’t count at Pittsburgh pierogis, but the preparation was spot on.

Why sauerkraut was invented.

Boiled just right and topped with utterly soft, golden brown onions, they hit the spot. I grabbed a plate of four sauerkraut pierogis and was transported back to a plate of kraut pierogis I had twenty-five years earlier (from one of those aforementioned church fairs) that have haunted me since, a sort of Slavic madeline. I probably could have eaten a dozen of them, but we arrived right near the end of their lunch service, so a single plate had to suffice.

On the whole, I had a satisfactory, if not amazing, gustatory experience during my short stay in Pittsburgh. And I’ve never had food prepared by someone with a Pittsburgh Penguins tattoo on each calf, so that’s another checkmark on my life list, I suppose…

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