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5 things not to miss on Penn Avenue in the Strip

A stroll along wildly popular Penn Avenue in the Strip District on a Saturday afternoon reveals an embarrassment of riches: Food, drink, crafts, gifts. How to choose? Let us help, with our top five spots listed here. Yes, there are plenty more--and we're happy to hear from you about yours--but you won't go wrong with this group.
At Bar Marco near 22nd Street, subway tiles line the walls, a marble-topped bar cozies up next to industrial gray metal stools and a narrow strip of marble at the front window allows patrons to set down their drinks as they gaze upon the scene that is Penn Avenue – or are they gazing at each other? Could be the latter as this is the hipster hang of the moment, a relatively spare space where the people are the attraction. Pair that with expertly-prepared craft cocktails and an interesting menu that just got exponentially better with the addition of chef Jamilka Borges and you have an unbeatable combination.

A gin basil smash is what a mojito would be if it were a smooth seductress, and the cocktail pairs beautifully with appetizers including buttery empanadas, crunchy strips of fried spelt, and patatas bravas, Spanish-style home fries. The chef's meat and cheese platter is another thing of beauty, house-made cheeses and cured meats nestled alongside edible flowers. Mains vary daily and, on a recent day, featured a dish of petite goat chops astride a plate of pesto-coated pappardelle dappled with ramps. “This is a bar with good food,” understates Borges.
The Penn Avenue Fish Company is steps away from Bar Marco and sets the table as a mod underwater fantasy. No fish tanks here, rather, flying fish sculptures, glass orbs, wavy surfaces and a palette that calls to the deep blue sea. Owner Henry Dewey is chief fishmonger and the talent behind dishes including hearty fish tacos (Taco Tuesdays!) an excellent English cod sandwich and the Sneaky Pete, a medley of grilled salmon, hearts of palm and arugula drizzled with an avocado crème, the whole placed between hunks of Ciabatta bread. The sushi shines, and regulars flock to the Crazy Tuna Roll, showcasing shrimp tempura that's been rolled with tuna, caviar and avocado and delivers spice in every bite. All that and free wifi, too. We love.
Right outside the front door of Reyna Foods, a Strip District grocer at the corner of 21st and Penn known for its homemade corn tortillas, sits Edgar's Tacos, a cart that's not much larger than your average kitchen counter. Even so, this taqueria churns out a remarkable amount of food on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Edgar take the orders while his sidekick mans the grill and, together, the two men turn out delicate taco pairs (you'd be silly not to order two) that can be plumped with barbacoa (marinated lamb), lengua (beef tongue), chorizo (dry sausage), fish or shrimp. Each taco is topped with lettuce, tomato, onions, sour cream, cheese, a spritz of lemon and a dusting of cilantro and a piping-hot, folded-over corn tortilla from Reyna's seals the deal. While aficionados would argue the point over an ice-cold agua fresca (fresh-squeezed fruit drinks flavored with, say, cantaloupe or watermelon), these could easily be the best tacos in western Pennsylvania.
The sprawling Italian grocer that is the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, affectionately known as Penn Mac, takes up much of the east side of Penn Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets. Inside this 100+ year-old store, the air is redolent of pungent cheeses and an olive bar counts 30 varieties while further down the makeshift counter, Italian meats including capicola and sopressata beckon taste buds. Owner David Sunseri suggests raiding the shelves thusly for a quick pasta dinner: a bag of Setaro pasta (consider the rigatoni or penne rigate), La Valle peeled tomatoes, and Paesano olive oil, with a can of Illy espresso the perfect grace note. If you can't seem to make up your mind here, Sunseri's favorite cheeses are the parmesano reggiano, bocatelli romano and Beemster (Dutch cheddar), and he swears you can't leave his store without an armful of As do Mar canned tuna. “It's the best tuna in the world!” This place is a classic, one of the most famous in Pittsburgh.
Admit it: you've long wondered about that griddle in front of Sam Bok, the Korean grocer at the corner of 18th and Penn. Alternately referred to as “Sam Bok” and “chicken on a stick,” the kindly ladies manning the operation report to Sunhui Knight, who purchased the store two years ago. A Strip District staple, Knight worked in the store for years and even owned her own candy store before becoming top chef under the royal blue awning. Her stand sells four items and they're all stellar: consider the saucer-sized mung bean pancakes, which crackle and pop on the griddle and pack a wallop on first bite. Soften the blow with fluffy shrimp fried rice or a vegetable lo mein (spelled “main” here) whose glistening, peppery noodles are smothered in chopped cabbage and shredded carrots. The biggest winner, however, is the eponymous chicken on a stick, a nearly foot-long skewer of slightly sweet chicken that is positively addictive. Regulars squirt most everything with ever-present bottles of Sriracha hot sauce.

(p.s. Did you hear Lucy is back? She was in Vietnam when we were writing this or she would have made the cut, too. Look for her outstanding bahn mi sandwiches on the grill outside of Bar Marco.)

This is the Strip, everyone's favorite, so yes, we're interested in your favorites. Comment below or email us here.

Elaine Labalme is a contributing editor to Pop City with a weekly travel show every Thursday at noon on WESA 90.5.

"Bar Marco exterior" copyright Tracy Certo.

All other photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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