November 9, 2012
“I love going to new places and trying their indigenous delicacies, but I don’t think that there are any foods native to Pittsburgh.”
“What about Primanti’s?!?!”
“Um, I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s a sandwich with fries and coleslaw on it n’at!”
“That’s not a delicacy. That’s a sandwich.”
The above exchange* occurred a few years ago at Heinz Hall between Anthony Bourdain and a heavily accented yinzer lady. Though seemingly a bit dismissive, I don’t believe that the celebrity gourmand meant any disrespect to our fair city. I’ve read about and watched enough of his culinary voyages to know that a Primanti’s sandwich isn’t going to come across as novel or exciting to someone who has feasted on mutton chops in Dubai, duck feet in Beijing and ensebollado in Ecuador. Regardless of its lackluster gastronomical merits, most Pittsburghers love their Primanti’s and consider it our greatest provincial delight. This unbridled adoration is kind of like when you’re a kid and think your dad is the best dad in the whole world. Statistically, there’s really no chance that he actually is, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he’s always there to comfort you and support you through good times and bad – just like Primanti’s.
The Primanti’s in Mount Lebanon is near the bustling Washington Road/Cochran Road intersection at the spot formerly occupied by Bimbo’s**. It is nestled behind a gas station and anteceding an old folks home. This spot is not exactly the most scenic of locales and the nondescript red brick exterior does little in the way of visual stimulation either. However, the impressive hardwood-laden interior gives the place a pleasant, comforting atmosphere. Since it’s newly refurbished, it lacks the blue-collar roots of the more seasoned Primanti’s locations. However, I’ll take cleanliness over character any day when it comes to eating establishments.
I arrived to meet some colleagues for happy hour after work on a recent Thursday and was surprised to find the parking lot jam-packed. I spotted an orange-vested attendant seemingly assigned to direct traffic, but he appeared to be on a smoke break near the dumpsters. Luckily I was able to snag a spot after only circling once and joined my already seated co-workers inside. The draft beer list rattled off by the amenable waitress wasn’t particularly lengthy, but it did contain the appealing Rogue Dead Guy Ale (Heller Bock – 6.50% ABV). My lovely wife showed up to join our group just as my first beer arrived. I took a sip and then realized that this happy hour gathering ended up being an all-female affair except for me. If you’ve ever wondered what a group of girls talk about when they’re hanging out, I now have the answer – it’s other girls. Yes, there was some television talk and complaining about work, but mostly it was female-related kvetching.
I didn’t have a whole lot to add so my attention oscillated between soccer highlights that were playing on one of the flat screen televisions and reminiscing about college. Back when I went to the University of Pittsburgh, my friends and I would habitually go to the Primanti’s in Oakland after trying, and usually failing, to grind on some babes at The Attic. I always got the Ragin’ Cajun Chicken Breast with Cheese sandwich, which tasted…well…I actually can’t remember how the sandwich tasted since I was way too crunked on quarter drafts whenever I ate them. I then realized that regardless of how this current meal would turn out, I was already thrilled that my current clambake was like a dream come true when compared to those past Primanti’s sausage fests. Keeping in the spirit of change, I decided on eschewing the Ragin’ Cajun and ordered the acclaimed Pitts-Burgher cheesesteak.
The sandwich was delivered shortly on a wax paper plate in a basket. The cheesesteak was covered in the infamous fries and coleslaw and slapped between two thick slices of fresh Italian bread. I rolled up my sleeves and grabbed a hold of the intimidating stack of unhealthy goodness. I immediately noticed that the advertised cheese and steak were both rendered superfluous by the whopping toppings. The overwhelming profile my taste buds registered was one of mushy, vinegary saltiness. I picked out a piece of meat to try on its own and found it to be extremely nondescript. The meat tasted much more like a diner hamburger patty than actual steak. Individually, the fries and coleslaw didn’t quite impress me either. The homemade fries were too limp and potatoey, and the coleslaw had a cider tang that was a little off-putting. Despite these complaints, the sandwich as a whole had a certain je nais se quoi that made it decidedly better than the sum of its parts. My theory is that it’s because of the wonderful bread, which is as white, thick and delightful as Adele.
Final Call: Deciding to dine at Primanti’s is like when you’re picking teams for a basketball game, and you’re faced with choosing someone who can really play, or your brother-in-law who isn’t very good but is 6’8”. Primanti’s is a Pittsburgh institution, and as such deserves a visit every once in a while solely out of respect for the Steel City’s blue-collar roots. The sandwiches aren’t culinary marvels, but they are big, relatively inexpensive and will soak up a massive amount of alcohol. The new Mount Lebanon location is festooned with flat screens in typical sports bar fashion, but the wood-laden interior has a comforting, lodge-like feel to it that separates it from the pack. I highly recommend it for your next happy hour clambake.
* This is probably not verbatim but it’s definitely close.
** Bimbo has always been my most beloved Kennywood character, even more so than the eponymous kangaroo himself. I’m not sure if he’s an alien or an albino, but I love him no matter what.