pittsburgh: the pearl of pennsylvania

Like an oyster with a grain of sand, Pittsburgh is fast emerging as The Pearl of Pennsylvania. Long considered the tough and gritty anchor of the state’s western edge, a youthful artistic movement is rapidly re-gentrifying this unique metropolis. Last week I had the opportunity to check out Pittsburgh for myself, and I have to say, the rumors are true.  I found a rapidly growing artisan community that was as optimistic as it was unpretentious. Locals were friendly and genuine, the art was vibrant, and the food delicious. Our aimless wanderings quickly turned into an international gastro-tour of Lawrenceville and The Strip, two little gems that really deserve some fanfare.

Lawrenceville is an area northeast of downtown that is blossoming into a trendy and fresh neighborhood grown from industrial roots.  Along its main drag sprout coffeeshops, art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and more. Near by, accessible by foot, bike, or car, The Strip District is a historic area now home to nightclubs, bars, and oodles of specialty shops and import grocers.

While we couldn’t hit every store on our tour (our wallets and waistlines just wouldn’t allow it) I am sure you will find just as many gems on your adventure as we did on ours.  But if you’re looking for some recommendations, follow along as I recount our recent gastro-tour.

We started out in Lawrenceville at Gryphon’s Tea, 4127 Butler St., with orders of Cold Earl Grey with agave nectar, and Matcha- a powdered green tea drink.  Both were brewed fresh while we waited, and the barista was friendly and filled with recommendations of sights and eats in Lawrenceville.

After a leisurely stroll up Butler St., into a few art galleries, and down to the waters edge, past design studios and consulting firms, we wandered past La Gourmandine Bakery and Pastry Shop, 4605 Butler St., and were betrayed by our noses.  It would take someone with a stronger will than I to walk past that shop and not be lured in with the scents of fresh french bread, buttery croissants, and delicate pastries.  The smell was exactly as a French Bakery should be.  It brought back memories of living in Lyon, rushing past bakeries just taking out their fresh baked goods as I caught the bus to class in the morning, and then picking up fresh baguettes in the afternoons on my way home.  The treats were as delicious as they smelled, with flaky layers that melted in your mouth and left you completely satisfied.

Wandering back down the other side of Butler Street, we took the barista up on her recommendation to eat at Smoke BBQ Taqueria, 4115 Butler St.  Smoke is an unassuming restaurant next to a refurbished movie theater that specializes in bar-be-qua and tacos.  It was while deciding what to order here that we committed to our day of foodie exploration.  So rather than order full meals we each ordered a taco snack. I had a taco with black beans, roasted corn, poblano relish, fried potatoes, and topped with ribs pork. It was an astounding blend of flavors and textures and every bite was a delight.

From there we hopped back in our car and drove the few blocks down to The Strip. I’d like to take a moment here to applaud the geniuses at the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. Their new parking meters are brilliant in their simplicity. Rather than print out tags that one must leave on their vehicle’s front dash, at these meters you simply key in your license plate and you’re done.  Why is this so brilliant? Because it is possible to refill your meter from ANYWHERE in the city. Simply visit one of these parking pay stations, key in your license plate number and viola your meter has been refreshed.

Anyway, back to food.  Our first stop in The Strip was a visit into one of the many Asian Markets along Penn Ave. There we found all our standard favorite spices, deserts, and drinks.  I left with bags of mochi, Tom Kha soup mix, wasabi snacks, and dried seaweed.

Back outside, not two doors down, we found a Polish Deli, S&D Polish Deli, 2204 Penn Ave. Here we ordered a selection of Polish Cheeses, some spinach and cheese pierogis, and a stuffed cabbage.  The cheese was sharp, the pierogis fresh, and the stuffed cabbage just the way babula makes it.

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Pierogis and stuffed cabbage from S&D Polish Deli

Surely they must be getting full, you might think. Maybe a bit. From here we transitioned to some grocery shopping and exploring more of the specialty shops along Penn Ave.

There are Italian Markets, Middle Eastern spice shops, Mediterranean grocers, fresh butchers, outdoor produce markets, and more. The cultural cacophony is deafening, and inspiring.  “If we lived here we could make this and that and more!” we found ourselves saying over and over again.  “I can’t believe they have this!” I exclaimed more than once over rare cuts of meat, exotic vegetables, and hard to find spices.

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An outdoor produce market on Penn Ave in The Strip 

After stocking up on some Italian cheeses from the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., and some fresh biscotti from The Enrico Biscotti Co. we were ready for a break.  Rather than head home, we wandered into The Beerhive for a seat and a drink.  After a couple of refreshing pints of Octoberfest we were ready for round two of our gastro-tour.

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So many specialty shops all in a row!

We ended the day with Vietnamese sandwiches from Pho Van Vietnamese Noodles & Grill.  A Vietnamese Bahn Mi Sandwich, as I soon learned, is a mouthwatering combination of tender pork, chili sauce, onion, cilantro, and cucumber on top of a french baguette.  Pho Van does Bahn Mi right.

With that, we concluded our delightful gastro-tour of Lawrenceville and The Strip District. Everything was delicious, reasonably priced, and worth every calorie.  By the end of the day we were ready to collapse into a satiated food coma back at our hotel, and we did just that.

Pittsburgh, you hidden pearl, never again will I think of you as a city of steel mills and silly football players.  You are now forever in my heart as one of the most delicious, artistic, friendly and inviting cities in the Northeast.

Until next time, Buon Appetito and Salute!!

Aeri

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the art of the exotic palate, FLiP W November 2014

This article is being re-posted from FLiP Magazine November 2014.  FLiP Magazine is a great publication with insight into pop-culture for both men and women! Aeri Rose is a regular contributor to FLiP W, the female focused half of the magazine.  You should definitely check it out, and subscribe for the free digital editions! Even if I’m quiet here…I’ll always find something to say there!

FLiP W Cover November 2014
FLiP W Cover November 2014

 

The Art of the Exotic Palate: Trying and Declining New Foods

By Aeri Rose

flip w article nov 2014

Being polite can be very similar to knowing an intricate dance. When you don’t know what you’re doing, it is easy to step on some toes. And when traveling abroad, it is easy to feel like you’ve packed two left feet. Just like a ballroom dance, research and practice will help you avoid a misstep, but sometimes you just have to jump in and do the twist. So, to help with those impromptu moments, this month’s travel article is called “The Art of the Exotic Palate: Trying and Declining New Foods”, and we will talk about a particular situation when a polite and graceful demeanor is the most important: during meals. So, enjoy our stories, and our universal tips to help keep you fed and happy on your next vacation.

Tip # 1: Be Inquisitive and open minded! Taste and try everything.

Remember you are on an adventure, you are open minded, curious, and hoping to turn strangers into friends all around the world. If someone has invited you into their home, invited you to share a meal, or even just made a recommendation after seeing you hem and haw over the lunch menu, accept their advice! Even if it ends up being the worst thing you’ve ever tasted…at least you will have a new story to Like the time I was encouraged to try silk worms in a Korean marketplace. They were served in a clear plastic cup with some broth and a toothpick. High in protein I was told. I was able to crunch a few down before they got cold, and they really weren’t even that bad. OK so maybe they were really gross. But I ate them and lived to tell the tale! And you can too!

Tip # 2: Taste but don’t waste!

Some dishes are recognizable, others strange. Some smell amazing, others…strange. When trying new things, take small portions so you will still be able to finish a dish even if it is not to your liking. Please do try to finish what has been served. Your host might have been using your visit as a chance to prepare some specialty dishes with expensive or hard to find ingredients that would be a shame to throw away if the crazy American took too much and couldn’t finish it. Remember, if you like something you can always follow the tiny first helping with a second larger helping, provided everyone else has already served themselves as well.

It is important to note that while food should never be wasted, often leaving one or two bites on a plate is the unspoken signal that your appetite has been satisfied.

Tip #3: Don’t be childish or immature if you encounter unexpected, unappetizing, or visually shocking

My Sicilian grandmother came to America when she was 17, and shortly after arriving in Maryland she was invited to a crab feast. Anyone who has ever shelled crabs knows they are odd, ugly little things that are cooked alive. She screamed when she saw them, and thought she was being made to eat a giant spider. My point is…everyone eats weird things in weird ways. It’s only weird if you aren’t used to it. So contain your gag reflex, control your urge to dissect your meal like a 7th grade biology lab, and keep your screams to a minimum when exploring exotic meals.

Tip # 4: Follow your host’s lead.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do! Preparing and eating foods and drinks like the locals will give you a chance to taste and learn about a new thing, or a new way to enjoy an old thing. Take tea for example. Everyone has a way they like to drink their tea: with lemon, honey, sugar, milk, hot, cold, etc. When you’re traveling don’t drink tea the way YOU like to drink it, drink it the way the locals do. When you’re in England, take tea with milk and sugar and a piece of shortbread. When you’re in Turkey take it strong in a tiny clear glass with too much sugar. In China? Dump some leaves in a cup, swirl them around, and spend the rest of the time trying to figure out how they drink the tea so gracefully without getting mouthfuls of tea leaves. And then call me and tell me what you’ve learned, because I still haven’t figured it out!

Tip # 5: If you absolutely cannot attend or cannot eat a dish served, say “No” as soon as possible, politely, firmly, and perhaps up to three times.

Being a picky eater, or having something else sort of planned that night are not really acceptable reasons to decline. But, if you know that fried crickets and blood pudding will be on the menu and you just will NOT be able to navigate a graceful decline at the diner table, than perhaps declining the initial invitation is your best choice. If you do have to decline, do it as soon as possible. As in, DO NOT accept and later change your mind, and definitely DO NOT accept and then stand them up.

Some acceptable reasons to decline might be because of known allergies or strict dietary restrictions, or because non-negotiable travel plans have already been booked. Like, for example, if you are a vegetarian hiking through the Gobi Desert and a Mongolian nomadic family invites you into their Ger to share their evening meal, you can be certain it will be 99% comprised of various cuts of goat meat, organs, and cheese products with perhaps one onion diced and boiled in your honor. As a vegetarian, you might find it easier to offer them some sweet mint tea and continue on your way.

So to recap, the dinner dance can be intricate, but there are always some general guidelines to keep in mind to help navigate any meal without stepping on too many toes. And when in doubt…say please and thank you and make your mamma proud.

Good luck and enjoy! Buon Appetite!

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Have you ever had the urge to just drop what you were doing, pack a bag, and set out on an adventure? Five years and over two dozen countries later, Aeri Rose is proof that excitement, independence, and discovery await those who are bold enough to say “yes” to life’s craziest choices. When not exploring the world with her little grey backpack, Aeri Rose can be found living a nomadic lifestyle traveling the United States as an artist and entrepreneur. To follow Aeri Rose on all her adventures, check her out online at aerirose.com or travelingwithaeri.com; or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aerirose.”

choo-choo!!

Waiting for the train at one of Moscow’s many stations, with two Finish sisters making the same trek.

“Are you girls sporty?” Asked an old Russian Grandma at the Moscow train station, looking at our bulging backpacks.  Or rather, that is what Sandra later told me she asked.  “Yes, I guess so” replied Sandra.

“Well, then you shouldn’t be smoking.” the Grandma joked, referring to one of the two Finish girls we had recently met.  They too were going to be taking our train to Irkutsk, though they had opted  to ride in the cheapest class, Plackscarta whereas we had decided to splurge on 2nd/Kupe class.  “Have a good trip, and be safe, girls.” concluded the Grandma.  Then she went one way and we went the other, to platform number 1 where our train would be arriving shortly.

And so began the ACTUAL Great Railway Adventure.  The reason for this trip, or rather, the excuse.  The train ride itself would take only three days out of the thirty-two I had allotted for the trip.  The cities before and the Mongolian camping trips after would make up the bulk of the journey, but this promise, to ride the train across Siberia was the impetus behind it all.

So board the train we did, wagon 12, room 6, bunks 22 and 24 (both top bunks, which I came to find would be a blessing).  We would be spending 80+ hours on the train, sharing this room with our two lower bunk mates: an older music professor on his way to a music conference in Ulan-Ude, where he would give a talk on a paper he had written on Russian Folk Music; and a younger man on his way to work, prospecting oil in the vast uninhabited expanse of Siberia.  He would ride this train most of it’s length, then take a small plane to a river where he would board a boat to carry him an hour or so up stream to his final destination.

Home Sweet Home

To be honest, I am really enjoying this forced relaxation, this mobile captivity.  We are over half way into our journey by now and what I thought would be cabin fever is actually contentment.  There has  been a lot of sleeping.  Long nights of quiet, dark, rocking sleep; and short naps after meals and between sessions of reading, writing, daydreaming, and talking to our roommates.  Oh and long views of the passing countryside! And I have to say, I am very glad we decided to go with Kupe Class.  The reports from the Finnish girls confirmed our suspicions: people packed 6 to a room with no privacy, space, or fresh air.  Our moods would be quite different by this time had we opted on 3rd class.  Some things are worth the extra dough.

There is a grandpa a few cars down who has taken a liking to us. We met him walking on a platform during a longer stop.  He is on vacation, returning home now after having watched his daughter’s apartment in the city while she traveled in Europe.  Today he bought tomatoes, piroshkis, and a strange smoked fish from the grandmas on the platform, a lunch feast full of “things to try” while traveling the railway.  The fish was a bit much, but like always the potato and cabbage filled piroshkis were amazing.  There is something about deep fried dough wrapped stuff that is good in every culture.  Dumplings, pirogue, piroshkis, boutza, ravioli…call it what you will, they’re yummy and you know it!

I’m just about ready to settle down into another nap actually, after said lunch.  Sandra is down below chattering happily in Russian with our “roomates”.  She is certainly getting the practice and language refresher she was hoping for.

Hopefully the second half of our trek will pass as pleasantly as the first has.
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I’ve relocated! I took a walk through the train to find the food car, and discovered it wasn’t a far walk at all. It was one car down, and so having passed through several sets of doors and an extremely shaky car joint, I now find myself at a little table with a red table cloth and an extremely overpriced cup of black coffee.

The rest of my cabin is napping after an exciting class in electrical engineering earlier today.  The musical professor’s extension cord stopped working, so the oil prospector said he could fix it.  Which he did.  After taking the thing nearly completely apart and re-wiring it.  Luckily ever ready Swiss Sandra just happened to have a Swiss Army Knife and black electrical tape on hand. My favorite comment so far came from the prospector, after going farther and farther up the line looking for the problem with the cord.  He told the professor that “he shouldn’t have gotten this cheap Chinese plug.  He should have gotten an old Soviet one.  They are big and ugly and old but they are robust and work forever.” Now, I don’t know if that is opinion or fact, but it was funny enough to hear while he slowly hacked away at the plastic plug.  Whatever his opinion, I really can’t complain- I wouldn’t have charged the laptop and been able to type right now if not for his ingenuity and Sandra’s over-prepared packing!

It’s not too much longer now, before this train journey is at an end.  Before it does, I’ll leave you with something a little more practical than my silly anecdotes: a packing list for your own Ttrans-Siberian train trip.

You’ll certainly want to bring:

1. comfortable, soft, loose fitting clothes
2. small change for buying things from the grandma’s at the platform stops
3. fresh fruit, bread, cheese, and other relatively non-perishable foods
4. cup of noodles soups (there is unlimited hot water in each car. You’ll use this to drink, cook, and wash fruit and flatware.  Don’t use the water in the bathrooms for anything!!)
5. a cup or bowl, spoon, knife
6. napkins/tissues
7. babywipes
8. slippers or sandals/flip-flops
9. hand sanitizer/hand lotion
10. a good book and a pack of cards
11. a light (the lights in your rooms are turned on only after dusk, and it can get quite dim in there in the afternoon, especially on a cloudy day)
12. snacks to share with your cabin mates
13. tea (rather than try to stock up on enough bottled water to last the journey, just bring along a box of teas and enjoy the hot water on board)

Coming ’round the bend! A view of the train and countryside through my dirty window pane.

Choo-Choo-CHEERS!

 

~Aeri

teahehe party

A few days ago I turned 5 years old. Fairie years that is.  We fairies like to take things slow.  I think in human counting it was 25 years old.  That’s quite a bit older. I guess. To celebrate, my friends threw me a tea party and it was WONDERFUL!!!

 

They were so nice and it was so fun.  We had tea, and cake, and coconut macaroons, and cucumber and creamcheese sandwiches.  And there were boys that got dressed nicely, and girls that were so pretty. It was in a wooded, shady, sun dappled glade with a light breeze through the warm summer day.

 

Even though we didn’t technically “Go” anywhere, I wanted to talk about my tea party in my travel blog.  Because it was AMAZING!! I love my friends.  I love that I said “tea party” and they said “yes, absolutely.”

They came to play. They liked the wings and the silly fabrics and the tiny sandwiches.  They let me feel like a princess whether I was turning 5 or 25.

When I travel I meet some amazing people, people with strange stories and new perspectives. But it has been a long time since I’ve had good friends to ground me at home.  Friends who love me because of my stories, and friends whom I love because of their stories.

 

So this post is dedicated to all my homies.  Who make the return flights worth while.

Thank you, I love you.

 

Aeri