April 25, 2005

The Breakfast Problem

by psu

In the almost 15 years that I've been back in Pittsburgh, the food scene here has for the most part expanded and improved in ways that I would not have imagined possible. I personally would not have believed that our humble city could now be the home of a Chinese place as good as Rose Tea Cafe, an honest-to-god Taqueria (Taco Loco in the South Side), or a Moule Frites place (Point Brugge Cafe in Point Breeze) in addition to several regional Italian establishments (Piccolo Forno, La cucina Flegrea, Lidia's). It seems to me that at this point in Pittsburgh's food history, we are finally seeing a growth period in great places specializing in excellent and authentic regional food.

So my question is: Why can't I get a decent "American" style breakfast?

It doesn't take much to make a good breakfast. All you really need are four things:

1. Good eggs.

2. Good potatoes or pancakes or some similar anti-Atkins food material.

3. Good meat.

4. Good strong black coffee.

The fact that these four things are rare in a place that serves breakfast is shocking, since none of these items is particularly difficult to prepare well. For some reason, most every place you try in the Pittsburgh falls down on one or more of these axes, the most common being either the potatoes or the pancakes. Most places can make an egg over easy without killing it, even if they can't do scrambled. However, it appears that there is an art to making pancakes and home fries that is just beyond the average cook. What you want in a pancake is something that is thick and airy without being heavy. What you want in breakfast potatoes is similar to what you want in perfect fries. Crispy on the outside, light and slightly starchy on the inside. Instead, we get a parade of thin and rubbery or thin and greasy or leaden undercooked pancakes to go along with stale, or cold, or boiled and burnt, starchy potatoes.

We have searched up and down the Pittsburgh area looking for the one place that manages it to put it all together, but we have never found a winner on a consistent basis. Here is a list of places in Pittsburgh that have failed me:

- Pamela's: Greasy execrable pancakes and nothing else really going for it.

- Square Cafe: This place is a recent favorite and it gets close once in a while but ultimately, while it has some nice combinations, none of them involve potatoes and pancakes.

- De Luca's: Probably as close as you will get in town. The home fries here are not the ideal potato, and the pancakes are only average.

- Pandolfo's: I had really good pancakes here and a good egg. But the place is 45 minutes south of town, so it isn't worth it.

- That Diner in Millvale: Yuck.

- The Gatto Diner in Tarentum: Generally bad on all fronts.

- The Grand Concourse Brunch: Still great for the cold fish, nothing else good here.

- Lidia's Brunch: A recent favorite. Great potatoes. Good eggs. Overcooked my steak.

- The Rusty Nail in Bellevue: Greasy.

- Plates in Bellevue: Unremarkable.

- Coca Cafe in Lawrenceville: Scrambled eggs that were like custard. Also, completely tasteless chorizo.

If you favorite place is on this list, don't feel bad. Mine is too. If you favorite place is not on this list, give me the address.

Posted by psu at April 25, 2005 06:27 PM | Bookmark This

The only half-decent breakfast in Pittsburgh is Primanti's. Get a bacon and egg sandwich. That's all you need.

If you are willing to eat there, they'll serve you eggs and bacon and toast and fries on an actual plate, if you're all snobby that way.

The really funny part is that I've been in other supposedly hipper towns that I will not name that have even worse breakfast situations.

Posted by peterb at April 25, 2005 08:44 PM

How do you feel about Ritter's Diner (Baum Blvd)?

Posted by Jeff Hunter at April 25, 2005 10:56 PM

Taco Loco's closed; they had some sign about moving, but they've papered over the windows again.

Posted by Mike Collins at April 26, 2005 12:43 AM

'Decent' ... 'American style breakfast'... you see no contradiction here do you?

Posted by roder at April 26, 2005 03:10 AM

I liked the diner across the street from the Rusty Nail in Belleview. They actually did have good scrambled eggs, and the homefries were made from scratch in the style I grew up with. I don't remember the meat as being good, though.

Posted by rmitz at April 26, 2005 04:22 AM

Taco Loco is not closed. They moved to a new location (27th and Jane). They had some dispute with their former land lord.

Posted by psu at April 26, 2005 07:16 AM

I was going to recommend Ritters too. Not the absolute best breakfast I've ever had, but pretty damn good. Haven't had their pancakes tho.

Posted by kimberst at April 26, 2005 07:51 AM

Hmmm...you should try the New Dumpling House on Murray Ave. in Squirrel Hill (their chicken fried rice, house special lo mein and, obviously, pan-fried dumplings are awesome...and cheap). Also, their house tea is a nice jasmine blend.

There's also an Indian place more or less on the corner of N. Craig and Centre (by the ghetto Giant Eagle) with some of the best Biryani I've ever had (even if you get it mild).

Ugh, I've been out of Pittsburgh for about a year and half now, and the food does not compare in the DC region (over-priced, pretentious, and bland, plus no good beer).

Give me a Primanti Bros. sandwich, sushi from Wholey's, a big fish sandwich, heck, I'd just like to be able to get meal after 11pm at a place like Eat n' Park.

Posted by Senzanom at April 26, 2005 08:09 AM

Darn, I forgot to mention Lulu's and, of course, O fries. The thought of my lack of access to O fries makes me cry myself to sleep.

Posted by Senzanom at April 26, 2005 08:12 AM

I asked for some scrambled eggs at De Luca's, just that. They refused me. Apparently that was too hard to make for me. They will never get my business again.

Posted by Dan at April 26, 2005 09:29 PM

I have a friend who won't eat at DeLuca's anymore because he wanted eggs and bacon but no toast, and they refused to not give him toast. So you're not alone.

Posted by peterb at April 26, 2005 09:38 PM

Thank the God of Small Things. There's another place claiming to be a taqueria opening up in Squill, but all Pgh. Mexican is guilty until proven innocent.

Posted by Mike Collins at April 26, 2005 11:31 PM

I gotta go with Ritters. The spinach and feta omelette is badass. Order the potatoes crispy.

Posted by Mike at April 29, 2005 07:18 PM

What about Pamela's? Or does that not exist anymore? I think there was one on Forbes Ave in the UPitt area...

Posted by steve at May 2, 2005 03:39 PM

1. I've never been a great fan of Ritters.

2. As for Pamela's, I believe I listed them, but it's worth repeating

- Pamela's: Greasy execrable pancakes and nothing else really going for it.

Posted by psu at May 2, 2005 06:37 PM

There are a couple of places on the CitySearch "Best Of" Breakfest that I have not tried yet.


Grab and Eat in Carnegie? Tom's Diner. Kenny B's. Marge's Place.

What is that deli that shares space with Ben & Jerry's? Well, anyway, they do a good salami and egg. Put it on a garlic bagel.

The Original Pancake on McKnight is yet another chain that you can bash. Actually, I found them to be better than average. The corned beef hash is notable, but not as good as Smallman Street Deli.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at May 6, 2005 11:24 AM

Agreed that the simple, American Style breakast is not well done here. Bruch is also not well done in Pittburgh for the most part. Ritter's Diner is a pit in the ground and should not be allowed to serve food to humans.

But I must take issue with a couple of your comments:

1) Coca Cafe, Lawrenceville: Highly recommended for breakfast, lunch and brunch. It may not be your typical American-style breakfast or brunch (it's eclectic and imaginative), but the food is well-prepared, the menu interesting, service good, prices good, and I don't know when or how long ago it was that you ate there, but I typically show up for eggs/omlettes at least once a week, and I would not describe them as "custard-like," by which I would expect you mean soft and creamy (actually how I make them for myself). Let's not forget that a real custard is mostly egg to begin with. Their scrambled are simply that - scrambled - not too hard, unless you ask for them that way.

That's another thing about Coca - if you want something done a special way, they will happily do it if not prevented by premixed ingredients (frittatas are premixed). But eggs hard or medium or soft - no problem. Egg whites instead - no problem.

They have many options for the non-red-meat eaters amongst us (turkey bacon and soy sausage are regulars on the menu), and if you love sweet instead of savory for your breakfast, they've got great Belgian Waffles, French Toast (the Brunch menu features one that's a combination of sweet and savory), and yesterday for Brunch they had a crepe with mandarin orange and avacado - sounds strange, but it was delicious.

2) Other good Brunch places:

In addition to Sunday Brunch at Coca:
A) Cashbah, Highland Ave., Shadyside - a Big Burrito Restaurant - it's pricey, but great atmosphere and quite good for a special occaision or a splurge. There is NO buffet - everything is prepared to order.
B) Sunnyledge Boutique Hotel and Restaurant, Fifth Ave. at Wilkins, Shadyside. This is the creme de la creme of Pittsburgh Brunch. This little hotel in an old mansion has a buffet with many kinds of cold fishes, fruits, vegetables, salads, breads, pastries, a couple of hot dishes, AND included in the prix-fix (around $28, if I remember correctly), is a hot entree prepared to order, a mimosa or bloody mary, and coffee/tea/soda.

Hope this helps.

Your fellow food lover, Nathaniel

Posted by Nathaniel at June 20, 2005 09:38 AM

When I said custard-like I meant custard-like, which is to say, not like eggs, but more like custard (e.g. overcooked eggs mixed with cream).

Also, soy sausage is offense against God and Nature.

All that being said, I was probably too hard on the place. It's not bad, it's just not good enough to drive out of my way to get there.

Posted by psu at June 20, 2005 10:07 AM

I must say, coca cafe is my favorite place in town...breakfast and lunch. They always have several interesting specials every Sunday. They also just opened up a little satellite cafe in the Mattress Factory museum that is really cool. I always order their soy sausage, which is fantastic. By the way, what DO you like in this city??????????

Posted by Erica at August 22, 2005 11:10 AM

Pittblog mentioned Jo Jo's. Has that been tried?

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at December 6, 2005 07:58 PM

I found a restaurant chain called the Coffee Pot Restaurant
Fabulous. 101 omelettes. Best I have ever had and amazing for the money. Watch for it in your area. If you are ever in Sedona Az, it's at do not miss.

Posted by Fred Wilson at February 16, 2006 05:05 AM

the coffee pot restaurant that fred wilson
mentions is not a chain
while there may be other restaurants named coffee pot this is the only one with 101 omelettes
so if you want to try it you will have to visit sedona which is worth going to for more than just the awesome breakfast at the coffee pot
sedona was voted the most beautiful place in america

Posted by andre at March 10, 2006 12:34 AM

I absolutely agree with you. What I miss most living here is the abundance of tasty breakfast potatoes that one seems to find in every other American city. Even the half-way decent Pittsburgh breakfast places like Square Cafe have sucky, bland, dry potatoes. Coca Cafe's potatoes are even worse (miniature sucky, bland, dry potatoes). Even Casbah's fancy brunch homefries are basically just short french fries.

I doubt too many people will be reading this article so late after its posting, but if anyone knows a good grilled breakfast potato/home fries place in Pittsburgh, please do list it here.


Posted by NRN at July 21, 2006 03:00 PM

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