When I let people know that I was headed to Pittsburgh for a few days in August, most told me to beeline for Primanti Bros to get one of their famous overstuffed sandwiches. But, while I’m all about trying out the food a city is known for, I felt like this trip was the perfect opportunity to explore off-the-beaten-path spots that would take me outside of downtown and into Steel City’s flourishing neighborhoods. I’d never been to Pittsburgh before and, though I needed to be downtown for work during the day, I wanted to go where the locals went and support women- and BIPOC-owned establishments on the way.

After scouring news articles, Reddit threads, and online reviews, and asking as many locals as I could, I uncovered five incredible spots that put even the world-famous cuisine of New York, my home city, to shame. Pittsburgh is a hidden culinary gem, and if you’re looking to have a darn good meal while you’re in town, look no further than this list.

Duncan Street Sandwich Shop (Millvale)

Price range: $$

Walking into Duncan Street Sandwich Shop on my first full day in Pittsburgh felt like accidentally walking through the back door of a restaurant kitchen. With just a small courtyard out back of the old North Ave building it’s housed in, there’s no proper indoor restaurant. After spotting its bright green facade and the rainbow flag in its window, ascending its steep staircase, and opening its creaky wooden door, you’ll literally enter … a kitchen. A giant chalkboard menu hangs across the white room and separating clientele from staff and cook space is nothing but a long pine bar (and all the various kitchen supplies adorning it).

After spending a few years hosting monthly speakeasy-style five-course pop-up dinners out of their home in Lawrenceville, chef/owners Kendyl Ryan and Dan Rodriguez opened their brick-and-mortar shop in 2018. Since then, they’ve garnered citywide acclaim, and it’s no surprise to see their brainchild added to an ever-growing number of best-of lists.

“The best thing about being where we are is that it’s a perfect representation of what Pittsburgh is to me,” Kendyl told Next Pittsburgh. “Everyone walking through the door is so drastically different. You have old-timers mixed with young people moving into the area. People from every walk of life. It’s basically a big open kitchen and we get to have interesting conversations while making sandwiches.”

It’s hard to define the cuisine at Duncan Street, but what I can tell you is that everything I had there was really good and really fresh. Its menu mainly consists of lunch fare like salads and sandwiches (appropriate considering it’s only open four hours a day for five days a week), but it’s the ingredient pairings that make it unique. Its beet/carrot salad is a colorful hodgepodge of vegetables, nuts, whipped lemon ricotta, and a sweet vinaigrette all mixed together, and it’s not unsurprising to find other interesting combinations like goat cheese tomato honey on a sandwich. I’m going to be thinking about its chickpea salad (with pistachio/herb sauce, apricot chutney, and toasted almonds), herb-roasted potatoes (with chimichurri, garlic mayo, and scallions), and goat cheese-smeared focaccia sandwiches for a long time.

Just make sure you call ahead before you arrive, as wait times can be significant if it’s busy. But keep in mind that 2:45 is the order cutoff time.

La Gourmandine (Lawrenceville)

Price range: $

After a delicious lunch at Duncan Street, I craved something sweet — so naturally, I found my way to Lawrenceville to check out traditional French bakery La Gourmandine.

Co-owner Lisanne Moreau and her husband Fabien were both born and raised in France. Three of their parents also grew up in the French countryside, but Lisanne’s mother grew up in Pittsburgh. Lisanne spent her life traveling back and forth between both places, and eventually, she and Fabien decided to relocate and open a bakery stateside. In June of 2010, Lawrenceville’s La Gourmandine — the first of what would become four locations across Pittsburgh and its surrounding area — opened.

“We’re very lucky. Pittsburgh has been awesome for us,” Lisanne told Very Local. “I think it’s a place where people really enjoy food. Since we’ve opened, people have been completely open to something new, but I’m not surprised, because that’s how people in Pittsburgh are.”

I’ll be honest — I’m a tough critic when it comes to bakeries. I’m no Paul Hollywood, but I’ve often found that too many places make their pastries sickeningly sweet or don’t get their bake times right. But La Gourmandine doesn’t disappoint. Carrying everything from Viennoiserie (breakfast pastries) to sandwiches, patisseries, breads, and cakes, everything I tasted was top-notch. In particular, the tarte au citron (lemon tart topped with Italian meringue) left my tongue delightfully prickly, and I could’ve eaten about a dozen choco amandes (chocolate almond croissants) — the almond paste inside was truly incredible.

Cilantro & Ajo (South Side)

Price range: $$

Venezuela-born couple Marlyn Parra and Anthony Goncalves opened their first restaurant, Gusto Criollo, in 2009 on Isla Margarita in Venezuela. But in 2015, the country’s political and social climate caused them to pack up their and their two daughters’ lives and move to the states — and, more specifically, to Pittsburgh. By 2018, they’d opened Cilantro & Ajo. Its bright orange facade is nestled on the corner of a strip of partially abandoned brick buildings on East Carson Street, which is mainly a thoroughfare between the more populous South Shore and South Side Flats neighborhoods. But it’s well worth the trip.

The pandemic hit the restaurant hard, with Marlyn reporting a 50% decline in sales and forced to lay off 40% of her staff. But after months of the couple struggling as the restaurant’s only employees, Marlyn applied and was approved for a PPP loan in the summer of 2020. She was able to bring all of her employees back to work and today the restaurant is well on its way to recovery.

“Believe in what you’re doing,” Marlyn told URA. “I believe in the Venezuelan food and that’s why we opened this restaurant.”

The inside is just big enough to fit about eight four-tops and its brightly colored walls and traditional Venezuelan decor will give you a sneak preview of the punch of flavor packed into every single bite. I stopped by with an old colleague for lunch on my second day in Pittsburgh and we were both stunned by the absolutely delicious meal we had. We both ordered pabellon bowls, each stacked with rice, black beans, sweet plantains, queso fresco, sauce, and a protein of our choice — in my case, a fried egg. The plantains were fried perfectly, the rice was flavored well, and if I could I would’ve bottled that sauce and taken it home with me. Who doesn’t love a delectable condiment? I think I could’ve eaten it alone with a spoon. We rounded out our meals with arepas, their soft interiors — packed (in my case) with chicken, avocado, mayo, and a mountain of cheese — a perfect complement to their crunchy exteriors.

I was so nostalgic for the meal I even stopped at another Venezuelan spot a few days later once I was back home in Brooklyn. It couldn’t compare.

Carnegie Coffee Company (Carnegie)

Price range: $

On my third and final full day in Pittsburgh, I took a bit of a drive southwest of downtown and found myself in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. Searching for a solid coffee shop to post up in while I got some work done, I stumbled upon Carnegie Coffee Company. “Shop” doesn’t do this place justice — it’s more of a coffee mansion, if you ask me. Perched on the historic and quaint East Main Street, it’s actually housed in Carnegie’s old post office. The bright and airy two-floor space has no shortage of eclectic seating options, nooks and crannies to hide away or get lost in, books to borrow, board games to play, and even an old phone booth to poke around in (or at least snap a photo of).

Voted Pittsburgh CityPaper’s second-best coffee shop of 2022, it lives up to the hype. Serving Lavazza coffee, made-to-order salads and sandwiches, and a wide array of tasty and sugar-filled baked goods (try the blueberry cake with lemon icing), it’s easy to spend hours inside. On the morning I visited, the staff was finally testing out the shop’s long-awaited new kitchen. This meant food wait times were a bit longer than usual as they got the hang of things, but owner Ashley Comer — who recently spent a year abroad, traveling to seven different countries with a home base in Nicaragua — was there to connect with customers personally. She and I chatted for a bit and it was clear how passionate she was about her business and how much she cared for her customers’ experiences.

“My love of hosting parties, creating beautiful spaces, and especially coffee and cafe culture, led me to creating Carnegie Coffee Company,” she recently wrote on Instagram.

Casa Brasil (Highland Park)

Price range: $$$

Casa Brasil head chef and co-owner Keyla Nogueira Cook calls herself a chefpreneur because she “work[s] just as hard on the business as the food, and there is not one without the other.” Born and raised in Juquitiba, São Paulo, Brazil, she learned how to cook as a teen before moving to the states in 2006. In 2012, she settled in Pittsburgh, and by 2014, she was sharing the flavors of her home country with her local community through catering, supper club dinners, and pop-up events. Her dishes are most heavily influenced by the three primary cultures she grew up around: Afro, Native Brazilian, and Portuguese. By 2019, and with the help of her business partner, local DJ Tim Guthrie, and 80 local investors, Casa Brasil was born.

When asked by Next Pittsburgh why she wanted to open a restaurant, she gave a simple answer: “We were hungry,”

The restaurant occupies what looks like a quaint ivy-covered painted white brick house, complete with a grassy yard, on the corner of a residential street. It was the perfect tucked away spot for my final meal in the city on a balmy Saturday evening. Inside we found a small space with wooden accents and just six tables (don’t be surprised to overhear other diners’ conversations when you visit). A small front patio also hosted an extra table or two.
While you’ll find dishes like pão de queijo (cheese rolls) and mandioca frita (yucca fries) that you might see at a traditional Brazillian steakhouse, Cook’s menu is an assortment of unique and flavorful small and large plates that are all (in my opinion) perfect for sharing. My date and I ordered four appetizers and two entrees to share, and each was better than the last. In addition to the aforementioned rolls and fries, we got the coxinha (chicken croquettes), batata ao vinagrete (potatoes in vinegar), moqueca banana-da-terra (plantain stew), and frango com quiabo (chicken and okra stew). We also loaded up our plates with the restaurant’s house-made molho de pimenta (hot sauce). And the best part? Casa Brasil does bottle and sell its sauce, so you can take some home with you. Coating our yucca fries in it was an otherworldly experience.