hen I moved from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh for grad school in 2012, it was a sort of homecoming, since I’d grown up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, about two hours away. I doubted that the food in Pittsburgh could possibly compete with New York’s — cue the melancholy marathon of one more chocolate mousse cheesecake at Junior’s, a final slice from Joe’s, a last everything from H & H — and in some ways, I discovered that I was right: The best place to start the search for bagels and pizza in Pittsburgh was at the airport, where you can buy a ticket to LaGuardia. But I eventually discovered that Pittsburgh has its own edible charms, from pierogies to burnt-almond cake — and something I’ve not consistently found beyond its borders, the Pittsburgh salad.
You can tell a lot about a person by their first reaction to a Pittsburgh salad — a layered bowl of cool lettuce, some veggies, grilled chicken (or steak), and a sprinkling of shredded cheese, all served with French fries. Some people are horrified that something so densely packed with calories — and the worst carbs of all, fried ones — could possibly be presented as a "salad." Others are delighted that something called a salad could be so hefty, so substantial. And the best kind of people will respond in one way: "Why haven't I been eating salads like this my entire life?"
The Pittsburgh salad’s habitat is mostly confined to its origin and the surrounding western Pennsylvania environs (although I’m told you can find something similar in Chicago and Cincinnati, and the occasional "Pittsburgh-style salad" special pops up on menus as far away as Florida). I’ve certainly never found one in Brooklyn or London, but here we have them everywhere from casual dining spots like Eat‘n Park, a fifties-era car hop that’s morphed into something like a Denny’s, to fancy Dahntahn (that’s how we say "Downtown") restaurants. There’s even a Pittsburgh salad on the menu at Whitfield, the hip, new restaurant in the hip, new Ace Hotel in East Liberty.
My favorite version of the Pittsburgh salad is served at Pamela’s Diner, a popular local chain that’s been featured on several food television shows, usually for its thin pancakes — crepe-like, almost lacy, and studded with chocolate chips. Pamela’s gets my salad vote because it’s delicious, sure, but mostly because it’s convenient to where I work. The Pittsburgh salad is like New York pizza in that sense: It’s simple enough that the one closest to you may not be the best, but it’ll always do. Accordingly, Pamela’s is not an innovator; it simply makes a textbook-perfect Pittsburgh salad. Served in a large aluminum bowl, it consists of a bed of greens with sliced iceberg lettuce; a few tomatoes, green peppers, and cucumbers; a handful or two of shredded low-moisture mozzarella cheese; a grilled chicken breast, sliced; and then, gloriously, a pile of hot, crispy, matchstick French fries. I get ranch dressing on the side, for drizzling and dipping — and to keep the fries crispy the entire time. You can order a different dressing, of course, and they’ll dump it on the salad if you want, but after years of eating Pittsburgh salad, I assure you, this is the best way to do it.
Shoestring fries are acceptable; the perfect size is probably about the girth of a Sharpie marker
Part of the beauty of the Pittsburgh salad is that it comfortably slides up and down the luxury scale. The meat can be free-range, organic, and ethically slaughtered with unicorn horns at Whitfield, or the cheese processed with the entirety of periodic table at somewhere even less reputable than Eat‘n Park, but it always works, as long as the fries are good — and never sweet potato, waffle, or seasoned. They must always be crisp; it doesn’t matter whether they’re fresh cut or frozen, only that they’re fried well, and recently. I have sent back Pittsburgh salads because of undercooked fries. They should also be relatively slender. Shoestring fries are acceptable, while anything thicker than your middle finger is too fat; the perfect size is probably about the girth of a Sharpie marker. The balance between fry and salad is also key, with between six to ten fries per salad bowl being the optimal ratio. I suppose that’s a feint towards the idea that the Pittsburgh salad is somehow healthy.
One possible origin for the salad, as noted in Serious Eats’ culinary history of Pittsburgh, is Jerry’s Curb Service, a drive-in originally located just north of the city, which claims that "on a fateful night in the early 1960s… a customer placed a rather unusual order — a steak sandwich, hold the bun, add fries and salad dressing." Donna Reed, Jerry’s wife, made a version for herself but "placed her sliced steak, fries, and salad dressing atop a fresh bed of lettuce." Jerry’s however, simply calls this "staple in the restaurant industry" a "Steak Salad." Like any restaurant dish whose highly convenient origin story involves a quirky customer order or a chef/owner’s inventive use of constrained ingredients — see: the negroni, the Caesar salad, Buffalo wings — the tale is hard to definitively disprove, but of course, no one really knows.
Regardless of where, precisely, it took shape, it seems safe enough to say that the pile of plant matter, meat, cheese, and fried potatoes that has become known as the Pittsburgh salad owes its branding as least in part to the fact that it’s easily recognizable as a variation of the Pittsburgh-style sandwich. An overstuffed monstrosity of meat, cheese, cole slaw, and, of course, fries, compacted into a mouth-sized bundle — barely — between two thick slices of Italian bread, it is most commonly reported to have been created in the 1920s by Joe Primanti, who sold sandwiches to working men out of a street cart in the Strip District. Somewhere along the way, Joe started cutting up potatoes to make fries, which migrated onto the sandwich, probably for ease of consumption. Eventually, he opened a storefront with his brothers and nephew, where they served sandwiches to hungry truckers and steel workers from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m., according to the official history of the Primanti Brothers restaurant, which now has some 17 locations spread across the Midwest.
The Pittsburgh salad tames the sandwich beast, stripping it of decadence: no giant slices of Italian bread, no coleslaw, no triple serving of beef, and less likelihood that you’ll be wearing half of it smeared across your shirt when you leave the restaurant. A salad requires a modicum of refinement — a knife and fork, maybe even a table to eat on. These render the excesses of the sandwich suitable for a wider variety of venues, allowing it to pass as a normal meal at a nice restaurant in a way that the sandwich, dripping grease and slick shreds of cole slaw, just can’t.
It’s probably not so surprising that nowadays the salad is the more frequently ordered food item named after Pittsburgh, at least during daylight hours. The Pittsburgh sandwich remains popular, particularly for soaking up the sins of a Saturday night, but it’s harder to fit that kind of caloric cluster bomb into daily life today. The steel mills and the factories closed long ago, and while Pittsburgh retains a blue-collar attitude, a job in the city these days is more likely to involve tapping away at keyboards at Google, Carnegie-Mellon University, and Uber, or wearing scrubs and Crocs at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The salad tames the sandwich beast, stripping it of excess: No giant slices of Italian bread, no coleslaw, no triple serving of beef
The Pittsburgh salad is the perfect Pittsburghian compromise: mostly sensible, but a little indulgent; modern, but of the past; the stuff of lunch hours and last-minute dinners, but also worth looking forward to after a long morning of desk-sitting, or as a small-scale reward on a Friday night out with friends. What was once practical for powering the physical labor that drove the city has maybe become a bit ludicrous, but never pointless. And, frankly, 90 percent healthy, ten percent indulgent, strikes me as a reasonable guideline for eating. When I travel, I'm always a little sad that most restaurants don't include fries on their salads. It's the perfect bit of absurdity to make healthy eating more like healthy living.
At this point, you may be desperately craving a Pittsburgh salad, even though you’re nowhere near Allegheny County. No worries, I’ll explain how to make one at home. My method is more shopping than amazing culinary skills, but each item must be perfect for the salad to work.
First, you’ll need to assemble your ingredients. You need crisp, fresh iceberg lettuce and some of other kind of greens, like a mesclun mix. Other veggies are a personal choice. (I dice some tomato slices and half a few cucumber rounds; I also like to add orange bell pepper rounds.) My fridge usually offers up mozzarella for shredding, but any melty, semi-bland cheese will do. Freshly grill a chicken breast, perhaps with a mild Italian dressing marinade; don’t let it cool down too much, since it needs to be warm enough to help the cheese melt.
Finally, while I know people who run out to Wendy’s for an order of fries as the last step, I am not that devoted to this salad. I prefer to keep my freezer stocked with Trader Joe’s "Handsome cut" French Fries, and I usually leave them in the oven for about three minutes longer than the bag suggests, to get them very crispy and brown.
From here, the salad is a matter of layering. Lettuce, then veggies, followed by the chicken breast, sliced into half-inch strips, and the cheese. When the fries come out of the oven (or the drive-thru), dump them on top. For the dressing, you need a real, flavorful ranch, or at least Hidden Valley. (Some people prefer Italian dressing, but they're disgusting and wrong.) I prefer this recipe for Buttermilk Ranch, which you can make this in a jelly jar in a matter of minutes, and makes enough for at least two Pittsburgh salads. I serve it on the side.
As you enjoy your salad, you can ponder the nature of change and tradition, how a guy who wanted to drive a truck and eat at the same time maybe lead to the mess of vegetables, protein and French fries, or why it seems like we never know where food comes from, exactly, even when it's so distinct that it comes to stand in for the cultural sensibility of an entire town. For me, the salad reminds me of the joy of the unexpected: I didn’t expect to move to Pittsburgh until I did it, and French fries don’t belong on salads until they do.
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Shannon Reed has written for The New Yorker, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Buzzfeed, and The Washington Post, among others.
Kit Mills is an illustrator, designer, and graveyard enthusiast based in NYC.