Benjamin’s Burger Bar on Northside showing improvements in 2014

Fried Egg, Bacon, Potatoes, Hot Sauce Mayo Burger from Benjamins Burger Bar
Fried Egg, Bacon, Potatoes, Hot Sauce Mayo Burger from Benjamin’s Burger Bar

Following a very inconsistent showing in 2013, Benjamin’s Western Avenue Burger Bar is improving and things could be looking up for them as they enter into a warmer dining season.  Recently I had a lunch meeting at Benjamin’s and was pleasantly surprised with my experience.  I felt very welcomed upon arrival and the server was attentive to my beverage.  Based on this, I’m very optimistic that they have addressed some service issues I’ve had.

Plus. I got a burger that I had either overlooked or was new – the Burger dressed with Fried Egg, Bacon, Potatoes, Hot Sauce Mayo.  I was immediately perplexed at the thought of how to get potatoes ON my burger.  However, I had overthought the situation.  The burger arrived with the potatoes under the burger which held them in place better.  The egg was cooked beautifully though made for a slightly messy burger eating experience once you popped the yolk.  The mess was totally worth it though.  Hands down, this is now my favorite burger at Benjamin’s!  Don’t be scared of the mayo, it’s spicy but nothing for spice-a-phones to worry about.

Looking ahead to summer, I will be keeping Benjamin’s in mind for weekend brunch.  I would expect their outdoor seating that will surely bode well for them attracting pre- and post-game Pirates fans.  Especially considering parking on the nearby streets is free after 6:00 p.m.

Good Luck Benjamin’s!  You haven’t won me over fully, but you’re making good progress. Now, just to await a side dish I can hang my hat on.  I still can’t get on board with bleu cheese crumbles in my potato salad.

Benjamins Western Avenue Burger Bar on Urbanspoon

Top 5 Downtown Pittsburgh Restaurants for Picky Eaters

When you dine out with your family or with a group, it can be quite challenging to find a restaurant that will please everyone – especially if there is a picky eater among the group. Picky eaters are most often kids, but every so often adults will have some reservations with dining outside of their comfort zone.

Top 5 Downtown Pittsburgh Restaurant sfor Picky Eaters

I, for one, know a couple picky eaters (adults) who will have a grilled cheese or chicken tenders at home before going out to dinner because they anticipate not finding anything on the menu suitable to them.  It’s my opinion that its 2014 and adults should man-up and start trying new foods, especially since Pittsburgh has great things to offer.  Regardless, for foodies who want to socialize over dinner and invite the picky people along, consider these five downtown Pittsburgh restaurants hand-picked with accommodating items.

Browse this Top 5 List

giardiniera from Proper Brick Oven Tap Room

Proper Brick Oven Tap Room, great addition to cultural district

Proper Brick Oven Tap RoomDowntown Pittsburgh’s cultural district transformation is nothing short of impressive. While Butcher & The Rye and Grit & Grace are getting a lot of press lately, Proper Brick Oven and Tap Room has recently won me over as my new favorite spot downtown. Located on Seventh Street next to the Benedum Center, it’s impressive to walk in and see the brick oven right in front of you with seating should you want to watch the chef make each and every pizza by hand.

On my first visit to Proper, it was a quiet winter weekend afternoon with no large performances so as you would expect, the place was slow. TasteBudA and I sat at the main bar which boasts an impressive selection of rotating craft beers from breweries local and afar.  In fact, I learned there is a brewery I’d never heard of from Millvale!

Beer flights of four 4 o.z. pours are just $9 and a great way to taste a selection of new brews.  I ordered myself a flight to start and for my lunch ordered the Carnivore Pizza.

San Marzano tomatoes / house-made sweet and hot Italian sausage / spicy pepperoni / bacon / house-made mozzarella

Carnivore Pizza from Proper Brick Oven Tap Room
Carnivore Pizza from Proper Brick Oven Tap Room

The pizza was fantastic.  The crust was nice and soft but held the massive amount of meat toppings well.  I really enjoyed the mixture of sweet and hot sausage on the pizza.  Much to my luck, the pizza went well with the beers I selected on the flight too.  Next time, I may have to sit by the oven so I can see the artist – er, chef – at work crafting this pizza.   While I didn’t really want to share, I did find it in my heart to offer TasteBudA a slice, though he didn’t oblige.

TasteBudA got the Sausage & Pepper Puccia. While usually you envision Italian Sausage to be in link form, this sandwich was served butterflied and coated with melted provolone cheese. Flavor-wise the sandwich was on point.  TasteBudA’s only critical comment was that the sandwich may have sat and cooled off too much while my pizza finished cooking.

Sausage & Pepper
hot Italian sausage / roasted sweet and hot peppers / roasted garlic spread / provolone

 Sausage & Pepper Puccia from Proper Brick Oven Tap Room
Sausage and Pepper Puccia

I saved the best part for last.  By far, the most exciting part of my meal was the homemade side of giardiniera that I ordered with my pizza. The best way to describe the taste is to envision pickled vegetables drained of the salty, vinegary brine and tossed in an Italian dressing. The spicy pickled house vegetable mix was delicious and will surely keep me coming back for more. In fact, I stopped in on St. Patrick’s Day to have a flight of beers and a side of giardiniera.

Giardiniera from Proper Brick Oven Tap Room
Best Damn Part of the Meal: The Side of Giardiniera

Proper is a top-grade place that can certainly hold its own among other downtown powerhouse restaurants.  When you stop and think about it, it fits in nicely to compliment the offerings in the cultural district.  Fine-dining pizza isn’t something other cultural district restaurants hang their hat on, so I hope they take the opportunity to stand out for their pizza.  Personally, I look forward to going back for the pizza.  But if I’m being totally honest, I’d go back just for more giardiniera.

Proper Brick Oven and Tap Room on Urbanspoon

Returning to Cadillac Ranch for brunch

“I Resolve to Brunch More in 2014.” – PghTasteBudB.  Yes, I said it, but I haven’t exactly carried through. In hopes to get back on track, TasteBudA I met a couple of friends on their way to IKEA for brunch last Sunday.  Last summer we had a wonderful outdoor brunch at Cadillac Ranch in the Settler’s Ridge development, so I figured it’d be a great place to take these two newbies for brunch on their way to Robinson.

Cadillac Ranch Kettle Chips – thinly sliced potatoes, served with our garlic cream sauce, bleu cheese crumbles and topped with scallions and a balsamic drizzle. A signature item!

During brunch on Sunday there are $5 Bloody Mary cocktails, which make for a nice relaxing way to start a Sunday of shopping.  We each seem to have ordered something different with no complaints of the food around the table.  The conversation flowed great and the $5 Bloody Mary’s may have helped with that.  After gabbing about bowling, traveling, relationships and more we departed and went our separate ways shopping.

Egg Wrap at Cadillac Ranch
Egg Wrap – Scrambled eggs, tomatoes, green peppers and cheddar cheese. Served in a tortilla with a side of salsa, hash browns and fruit.
Crab Cake Benedict at Cadillac Ranch
Crab Cake Benedict – Fried crab cakes served over English muffin and spinach. topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. Served with hash browns and fruit.

Cadillac Ranch All American Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Lin’s Asian Fusion on South Side

Lin's Asian Fusion on UrbanspoonScouting for new Wine Exchange venues that we haven’t already been to can prove to be a little bit of a challenge. TasteBudA is currently on the hunt for a great place to invite our dinner group to in April and on Friday we went to Lin’s Asian Fusion on the South Side to see if it was up to the TasteBuds standards to host us.

Since the South Side isn’t exactly a hot bed of BYOB restaurants, Lin’s Asian Fusion has been overlooked by us for quite some time.  After TasteBudA was impressed by their soup offering during the South Side Soup Contest, he felt it was worth a dinner excursion to get a full sense of the restaurant.  Inconsistent reviews of the restaurant on Yelp and Urbanspoon left us wondering what side of the restaurant we’d experience.

Upon arrival, we were greeted nicely and promptly sat.  Our waitress was pleasant and quickly got us our beverages.  Since this was on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, so we omitted bringing wine knowing we had a big day ahead of us, but felt we could gauge the venue for our event anyway.

We started with Vegetable Gyoza, which was a cross between a mixed vegetable pierogi and a pot sticker.  It was nice and light and probably the closest you could get to a fresh spring roll, which is what I was ultimately craving.

Vegetable Gyoza from Lins Asian Fusion
Vegetable Gyoza from Lins Asian Fusion

Hungry for a mixture of meats, I waivered between the Ma La Trio and the Mixed Basil.  The waitress had never had the Ma La Sauce, so she recommended the Basil as a lighter sauce.  Yes, the basil sauce was light and not up to the default spiciness that I’m accustomed to from Nicky’s Thai Kitchen or the Silk Elephant.

Mixed Basil - Lins Asian Fusion
Mixed Basil Entree

TasteBudA got the Pepper Steak with Onion which comes in a brown sauce.  The dish wasn’t overly saucy, but the vegetables looked delicious as the popped off the plate.  Tastewise, the dish was just okay to TasteBudA’s standards.  Living on the northside, this beats China Taste by a long shot, but wouldn’t be special enough to invite our wine dinner crowd.

Pepper Steak with Onion
Pepper Steak with Onion

In the end, I don’t think we’ll be having a wine exchange at Lin’s Asian Fusion. The food was just okay and while the service was great, I felt somewhat rushed out the door. When you get that rushed feeling, it makes you wonder how a restaurant would handle a casual wine dinner crowd who are never in a rush.

Let the search for the April 2014 Wine Exchange Venue continue …

Restaurant Week at Butcher and the Rye

One of the hardest restaurants to get a reservation for for Pittsburgh Restaurant Week was Butcher and the Rye. From the creators of Meat and Potatoes, initial feedback on Butcher and the Rye involves a surprising menu. Considering the “Butcher” name, you would think it would be a steak-heavy menu, but in fact it is the vast array of meats that compliment the whiskey selection (the Rye). Beef, pork, duck, rabbit … if you can hunt it, I bet it will probably appear on the menu at some point.

So for Pittsburgh Restaurant Week, a $35 tasting menu was the perfect way to get to know this new restaurant. Unlike some restaurants, it was great how Butcher & the Rye championed the Pittsburgh Restaurant Week celebration and hung a special banner near the entrance for all to see.

PRW Menu Wall Hanging

Because the items changed daily, new menus were printed each day with the tasting combination of the day.  On January 17, the courses were Salmon Crudo, Pumpkin Risotto, Skirt Steak and Carrot Cake.

Butcher and the Rye
Butcher and the Rye PRW Winter 2014 Menu, Friday January 17, 2014

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Executive Express Lunch perfect for downtown business people

Some restaurants have what it takes to put out multiple courses in a lunch hour and some don’t. Habitat Restaurant in Downtown Pittsburgh has it. Their clever 4-courses-1-plate approach is genius for the downtown worker trying to get in, get lunch and go during the lunch hour.  They call it the “Executive Express” lunch which is regularly priced at $18, but for Pittsburgh Restaurant Week Winter 2014 is discounted to just $14.

Executive Express Lunch at Habitat Restaurant
Executive Express Lunch at Habitat Restaurant on January 14, 2014.  Only $14 for Pittsburgh Restaurant Week.

Pictured above, the Executive Express Lunch items are a chef’s choice selection of a cup of soup, small salad, small sandwich and small dessert. In my opinion, you may not find better portion control anywhere else in the city.  Four courses at other restaurants take over an hour to eat and contain large portions.  At Habitat restaurant, I think it’s actually quite refreshing to have all four courses served at once.  Have a rough morning at the office? Gorge on the dessert course first.

Best of all, Habitat takes reservations on OpenTable so you know before you leave the office what time you’ll be seated so you can plan – and if necessary shift – your lunch hour accordingly.

BT Brunch on Mount Washington, starting 2014 strong

TasteBudA and I are trying to brunch more in 2014.  So, we started off 2014 with a weekend brunch with a couple friends at Bigham Tavern in Mount Washington.  Being near the Chatham Village side of Mt. Washington instead of along Grandview Avenue makes dining at Bigham Tavern (BT) a little more special because you have the sense that the people around you came for the food (and drinks) and not as part of a Pittsburgh sightseeing tour.

Right off the bat, brunch started off great with a $6.50 BT Ultimate Bloody Mary made with Absolut Peppar, garnished with meats, cheeses, pepperoncini and your typical olive and fruit.  The drink was amazing.  The clever addition of meat and cheese take this drink from being a beverage into being a starter for my brunch meal.

Bloody Mary from Bigham Tavern
BT Ultimate Bloody Mary from Bigham Tavern in Mt. Washington for brunch

Browsing the menu, the thing that caught my eye the most was the Breakfast Flatbread for $7.50.  Being a “flatbread” can sometimes be vague so I asked the server about the thickness of the bread.  Discovering this was not a thin crust pizza, but rather a handtossed dough, I decided to go for it.  This “breakfast pizza” had sausage gravy in place of tomato sauce, and was topped with scrambled egg, bacon and cheddar cheese (pictured below) You have to figure that for a dish like this the sausage gravy would make or break the dish.  It was great.  The bacon was cooked not too crispy, as per my preference and the dough was light and fluffy.  As a hungry boy, I was able to finish the entire thing on my own, but could picture it as a brunch starter to share.

Breakfast Flatbread at Bigham Tavern
Breakfast flatbread at Bigham Tavern in Mt. Washinton for brunch

Bigham performed beyond expectations and was a great start to our Brunch Tour of 2014.  I’d like to brunch at least once a month, whether in Pittsburgh or the cities we’ll be visiting in 2014.

Bigham Tavern on Urbanspoon

In 2014, Pittsburgh TasteBuds have plans for Columbus OH, Jacksonville FL, Tucson AZ, Cancun MX, and New Haven CT.  Feel free to leave suggestions on where we should head in those cities in the comments below.