2021 was a year of transition and contradiction. The Pittsburgh hospitality industry’s coronavirus-induced tumult ebbed and flowed as takeout menus and outdoor dining eased into cautious and then celebratory vaccination engagement, which all too quickly gave way to renewed wariness and pandemic fatigue in the wake of the delta variant. A long-overdue reckoning focusing on the humanity of people who choose a career working in restaurants and bars (or are just passing through) was met with compassion and enthusiasm from most diners yet also found blowback by a small but vocal group of restaurant-goers engaging in sometimes horrific behavior toward front-of-house staff.
As the year wore on, the industry and its guests faced headwinds of staffing shortages, increased prices, limited hours of service, longer waits for reservations and constricted menus once you were at the table.
In the face of all that, Pittsburgh restaurants kept opening. Good restaurants.
I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective this year. I’m bullish on establishments run by people who are enthusiastic about sharing their particular culinary point of view; as a city, we benefit by celebrating a diversity of taste. As staffing and supply chains remain thorny, I’m not as focused on service and design as I might otherwise be inclined to (though some establishments on this list excel at both). What’s more important to me is an overall energy of lean-forward hospitality.
And, of course, you’re going to find delicious things to eat at all of these Best New Restaurants, presented here in the order that they opened.
Best Reimagined Restaurant
Pittsburgh’s 2021 restaurant season kicked off with a bang in January with the long-anticipated re-opening of Pusadee’s Garden in Lawrenceville. Although a popular restaurant with the same name operated in the exact location for nearly a decade until 2017, the establishment that owners Watcharee Tongdee, Bootsaba Tongdee and Michael Johnson opened is a radical reinvention, and their gamble to reimagine what Pusadee’s Garden was paid off with the most exciting opening in the city in a long time.
It’s a family affair in the kitchen, with Bootsaba Tongdee leading the way as primary chef and family matriarch Pusadee Tongdee working daytimes to prepare items such as curries. The kitchen crew puts out a dizzyingly delicious array of regional and homestyle Thai dishes, some of which are cooked on tao grills over rambutan charcoal. The menu changes frequently but not frenetically, which means there is always something new to explore while still allowing room to enjoy a few of your favorite dishes (grilled pork belly with sweet chili garlic caramel and khao soi short rib with pickled mustard greens and yellow curry are some of mine). Local architecture and design firms mossArchitects, Ground Stories and Toadflax contributed to the elegant atmosphere. And the bar program here is top flight.
Nearly a year after it opened, the restaurant is still booming, so be sure to make a reservation in advance if you know when you want to go — or sign up for the waitlist as close to 5 p.m. as you can if you’d like a table day-of (they hold a good number back for walk-in guests).
I’m glad that Pusadee’s Garden leaned into itself with the menu rather than play it more conventionally. I’d love to see even more Tongdee family recipes in 2022.
Lawrenceville: 5321 Butler St.
There is an abundance of tasty flavors and textures to dig into at African Cuisine in Squirrel Hill. Saudat Lawal’s restaurant, opened in February, is a deep dive into Nigerian cuisine. I’m borderline-obsessed with her fresh fish pepper soup, a beguiling, spice-infused fish broth with a hunk of juicy, meaty seabass. And African Cuisine’s chicken drumsticks in red sauce — giant, remarkably crispy and tasty legs coated in a spicy, slightly fruity sauce — ranks among the best chicken dishes in town. Among the other highlights on the menu are lovely versions of West African starchy staples such as fufu and jollof rice and tasty mixed vegetable stew.
Lawal comes from a restaurant family — her great-grandmother, grandmother and parents all cooked professionally in her native Nigeria. Lawal initially chose a different path, working in the petroleum industry and nursing prior to opening African Cuisine. Lawal and her family keep to Nigerian culinary tradition and employ whole animal cooking, which means you’ll also find menu items such as the sticky, gelatinous bar snack nkwobi, cow foot simmered with ingredients such as palm oil, ehuru (calabash nutmeg seed), edible potash, onions, peppers, bittersweet utazi leaf and ugba (fermented oil-bean seeds) that are hard to find elsewhere in Pittsburgh.
I’d like to see service tighten up a bit. The family-run restaurant has an all-hands-on-deck vibe, with people juggling multiple tasks simultaneously. Sometimes, this means tables can be left to fend for themselves for a little too long.
Squirrel Hill: 2032 Murray Ave.
“When is Gi-Jin opening? Gi-Jin is opening soon? What’s happening with Gi-Jin?” were frequent questions Pittsburgh restaurant-goers asked me in the years following restaurateur Richard DeShantz announcing the Downtown restaurant in 2017. DeShantz and his team grew the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group empire with Poulet Bleu, Fish Nor Fowl and Coop de Ville as Gi-Jin’s flowing, ebbing, raw wood design (it’s like you’re inside a giant whale) remained inactivated. Finally, in April, Gi-Jin opened as the seventh restaurant in RDRG’s growing empire. (Some establishments remain temporarily shuttered due to fallout from the coronavirus pandemic; another new restaurant, täkō tôrtä, opened in Bakery Square in November.)
Chefs Ryan Hart and Michael Taylor stepped in to bring DeShantz’s vision of a restaurant focused on raw fish to life. Their menu tilts much more heavily to sushi-style (nigiri, sashimi, hand rolls) than to DeShantz’s early conceptualization of Gi-Jin, which also imagined an array of crudos, ceviches and pokes. The quality, selection and preparation of the fish is excellent, and rice generally (but not always) is appropriately seasoned and served at the right temperature. All in all, it’s a level up for Pittsburgh sushi. Some non-fish items, such as beef tataki and matcha misu, are excellent, too. As is a signature for RDRG establishments, the bar program is fantastic, particularly its focus on sake, and service is upbeat and attentive.
With Hart now departed to oversee other DeShantz projects, it’s up to chef de cuisine Taylor to keep things moving forward. The chef’s commitment to the craft and artistry of sushi makes him one of Pittsburgh’s rising stars, and I hope he’ll have the space and support to keep pressing forward.
Downtown: 208 Sixth St.
Taqueria El Pastorcito
Jose Tecuanhuehue, a native of Puebla, Mexico, worked in Pittsburgh kitchens for more than 20 years prior to launching Taqueria El Pastorcito with his wife, Bernice, in May. Street tacos are a fixture on their menu, and you mustn’t miss the juicy, crispy al pastor carved from the rotating trompo; spicy chori-pollo and tantalizing carnitas are terrific choices as well. Top your tacos with onion, cilantro and a dollop or two of one of the house-made salsas. While tacos are front-and-center, the Tecuanhuehues always prepare a handful of other offerings such as quesadillas, esquites and, as the weather gets colder, a variety of soups. Look for tortas as a menu addition this winter. They’re not above having a little fun, too, even serving crunchwraps, that trendy fast-food-influenced spin on Mexican food, from time to time.
The Taqueria El Pastorcito food truck pops up regularly at breweries Trace Brewing, Strange Roots Gibsonia and Old Thunder Brewing Company, but it’s best to check the business’ Facebook or Instagram pages for the latest updates as to where it’ll be any given week.
Tecuanhuehue says a standalone location and a second truck, helmed by his brother, are in the works for sometime in 2022.
Yue Bai Wei
In June, Zhiyuan Tang, Li Tang and Alice Fu moved into the Forbes Avenue space abruptly vacated by a beloved Taiwanese restaurant, Rose Tea Cafe. The three — all formerly associated with nearby Sichuan Gourmet — were ready to realize their dream of offering a deeper menu of Sichuan dishes (as well as some pan-Chinese ones) to Pittsburgh. Led by Zhiyuan Tang, a chef with more than three decades of culinary experience, primarily in China, the restaurant is a bright feather in the cap of Squirrel Hill as a destination dining neighborhood.
The move here is to go with a group and share a bunch of items. (Yue Bai Wei is a lovely place for just a couple of people to dine and I’m into that, too … but you get to maximize the fun with a bigger group; be sure to call ahead to secure a table in the small-ish restaurant.) Hot and sour yam noodles with beef; bone-in, cumin and Sichuan pepper-crusted lamb chops; smashed eggplant with hot pepper; Chongqing-style dry-fried chicken with chilies; and Lion’s Head meatballs are among my favorite dishes on the lengthy menu. The restaurant’s name roughly translates to Hundreds of Satisfying Flavors and that translation speaks truth.
Fu says the kitchen pulled back a bit on heat levels in some dishes to offer a broad appeal. Although you can ask for them to be made spicier, I’d like to see the dial turned back up a notch as a baseline. Look for the introduction of new dishes such as a-choy with sesame dipping sauce (ask about specials) that will further add to the restaurant’s flavor satisfaction.
Squirrel Hill: 5874 Forbes Ave.
Ariel Alexander and Cody Maze are serving some of the best sandwiches in Pittsburgh, most of which are built on a foundation of beautifully smoked meat, from a mobile food trailer called stuntpig, which they launched in June. Among my favorites in their rotation — which typically includes three or four sandwiches at a time — are the packs-a-punch-spicy Mr. Orange (smoked chicken, piri piri, briny cucumbers and chimichurri aioli) and after-school-comfort-food vibes of the pressed sandwich Mr. Blonde (house-cured rosemary ham, swiss, bread and butter pickles and mustard). Sides include crispy, savory pig wings (ribs tips that’ll have you sparring over who gets the last bite) and blistered carrot salad (burnt eggplant tahini, crumbled feta, mint, sunflower seeds and flax). Expect an expanded menu of comfort food dishes from what they’ve nicknamed “The Pig Rig” this winter.
The trailer barnstorms the region up to six nights a week, wowing crowds from its regular appearances at locations such as outside Old Thunder Brewing in Blawnox and Trace Brewing in Bloomfield (check the stuntpig website or Instagram for its weekly schedule). Alexander trained as a butcher and later the executive chef of Marty’s Market, cooked at Spak Bros. and was assistant butcher at Whitfield. Maze was the longtime chef of Spak Bros. and worked at primo Pittsburgh restaurants Cure, Salt of the Earth and Casbah. Just six months in, Alexander and Maze time and again delight an already loyal following — count me in — and continue to earn new fans with their well-rounded offerings.
The duo is already dipping into the late-night food scene with semi-regular Saturday night service at tina’s in Bloomfield, often until 2:30 a.m. It’s a big ask to want more of it, but in a city where not-fast-food options after 10 p.m. are scarce, I’d be thrilled to see more stuntpig in the wee hours.
40 North at Alphabet City
40 North at Alphabet City is the third restaurant to try its hand in City of Asylum’s multipurpose Alphabet City building (it also houses a performance venue and a bookstore). The establishment, opened in July, is a new North Side gem. I’m consistently impressed with executive chef Bethany Zozula’s menu, which is rooted in eastern European culinary traditions and leans heavily on Western Pennsylvania foodways and farmers. The former Whitfield chef’s menu is restrained yet wide-ranging enough to offer a lot of deliciousness for omnivores and vegetarians alike.
Starters such as the cheese-filled delight khachapuri and delectably layered seasonal salads are a terrific place to begin (and fantastic for sharing). Dinner platters such as perfectly fried falafel and juicy pan-roasted steaks are served with rotating sides that include delectably crunchy potatoes and roasted cauliflower. Zozula purchases at least one whole halal lamb, sometimes two, every week and uses everything from the chops to the offal (don’t miss the grilled heart if it’s offered on your visit). And don’t skip dessert — coeur a la creme and its ever-evolving seasonal accoutrement is one of my favorites in Pittsburgh, and I’m still thinking about late summer’s warm peach pie.
Front of house is firing on all cylinders, too, with a top-notch vibe (including an always entertaining music playlist), bar program and service. With all these factors combined, 40 North is a refreshing demonstration of how a well-run, well-rounded restaurant bolsters the fabric of our city.
I’d love to see more bar snacks during evening service.
North Side: 40 W. North Ave.
Sagun Asian Restaurant
Pittsburgh’s burgeoning community of refugees from Bhutan (as well as a smaller community of Nepalese immigrants who came here alongside them) are making their mark in the South Hills. As a result, their food culture is beginning to grow, and it’s my prediction that restaurants specializing in Himalayan cuisine will become a signature of Pittsburgh’s dining landscape in a few years. Leading the charge are Sachin Kunwav and Deepshika Ghimire. Sagun Asian Restaurant, which they opened in Baldwin Borough in July, is their third restaurant in as many years (they have sold their interest in the other two, Namaste Momo Corner and Himali Kitchen, to family).
Kunwav and Ghimire prepare my favorite momo in the region. The straightforward steamed version of the juicy dumplings stuffed with fillings such as pork and chives, chicken and finely diced vegetables is terrific comfort (or order them as j-momo for a spicy kick), and they are an indulgent treat when fried, particularly when served as fiery, vegetal chili momo. It was almost all momo early on at Sagun Asian Restaurant, but the kitchen has expanded the menu significantly in recent months and it’s all the better for it. Go for noodle dishes such as chow mein (with substantially more Indian influence than the version you might be used to from Chinese restaurants) and thukpa. Round out your order with a selection from a variety of curries offered and one of the restaurant’s soups; the earthy, warmly spiced mutton soup is outstanding.
I’d love to see Kunwav and Ghimire use hand-made wrappers, as they did early on at Namaste Momo Corner, for their momo. The already terrific dumplings would be stratospheric if they did so.
Baldwin Borough: 4871 Clairton Blvd.
Con Alma Downtown
Best New Hybrid
Joshua Ross, Aimee Marshall and John Shannon made a splash when they opened the gorgeous-in-every-way Con Alma in Shadyside in 2019. But the intimate venue, home to some of the best jazz in Pittsburgh, is limited in capacity upfront (there’s more room in the back of the establishment for dinner and drinks, but it means you have to watch the live music on a video feed). Why not double the fun? When the old Peter Allen space became available Downtown, the three (along with a fourth partner, Kumar Nandan) jumped on the chance and in July opened a second location of Con Alma. Spacious, timelessly elegant and comfortable, the space is a welcoming port of call for Downtown entertainment.
Much like its sister space, Con Alma Downtown is a triple-threat. Ross is the executive chef, and his globally influenced menu tilts toward a focus on pan-Latin dishes. Of those, my favorite dish is the lechon asado plate, which features luscious roast mojo pork, flavorful black beans, garlicky mojo de ajo, avocado, pickled red onion and rice. Marshall’s bar program hits all the right notes for a Downtown music venue, with an assortment of cocktails that’ll appeal to a wide variety of tastes, an approachable wine list and a solid beer selection. And Shannon’s music curation is out of this world — his deep roots in the Pittsburgh, national and global jazz scenes mean that every night (except Monday) at Con Alma is primed for enjoyment.
Ross added a wok station to the Downtown kitchen, but, as of late, it hasn’t been used much. I’d like to see more wok. And, once Downtown picks up again, music and bar snacks until midnight on weekdays would be a dream.
Downtown: 613 Penn Ave.
Mike McCoy and Derek Stevens opened Moonlit Burgers in Dormont in November, and smashburgers are front and center on the menu. Moonlit’s double stack of lacy-edged griddled patties have a brawny, beefy flavor; American cheese, pickles and “moon sauce” served in a potato roll lands center square in an ideal fast-food burger diagram. Also on the limited menu is an outstanding pickle-brined crispy chicken sandwich that packs a bit of heat (you can also get those tasty tenders as a standalone order), as well as sides such as picnic-perfect seven bean salad and shoestring fries. Top it all off with Millie’s soft serve, which is custom made for the restaurant (and much improved from Millie’s former Bakery Square soft-serve spot) and a locally brewed draft beer or cocktail, and you’re in for a treat.
The duo, who first worked together in 2004 as part of the opening team at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen (where Stevens would serve as executive chef for more than a decade), have had some time to get it right. In July 2020 they decided to smash some burgers outside of Millie’s Ice Cream in Shadyside to pass the time and earn a little money as the coronavirus pandemic lingered on, particularly for Stevens, whose Downtown restaurant Union Standard was an early casualty of the pandemic. The two were back the following week and soon were popping up at locations such as The Vandal in Lawrenceville and Churchview Farm in Baldwin Borough before settling into a short-term residency at IO Deli in Mt. Lebanon. By then, the plans were in the works for a Moonlit Burgers restaurant. Now, it’s a Dormont destination.
While eating in the bright, casual space with upbeat music in the background, I couldn’t help but think I was seeing the prototype for a new local hamburger chain. I’m into it.
Dormont: 1426 Potomac Ave.