Ah, lunch. Poor, neglected lunch. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, dinner is a chance for a romantic rendezvous, and Sunday brunch is practically a holy institution. But lunch? Most days, the meal gets a big, fat “meh.”

Sure, lunch is often something we squeeze in between meetings or scarf down in the car. But the midday meal doesn’t need to be a big to-do to be something special. We looked all over the city for places serving up lunches that are quick and cheap, yet still offer something a bit out of the ordinary. Take a break from squished PB&Js and vending machine buffets and check out our list of ten great Pittsburgh lunches.

Doce Taqueria
Doce Taqueria photo by TH Carlisle for NEXTpittsburgh.

Doce Taqueria, South Side

Gourmet taco shops are all the rage, filling tortillas with everything from sushi-grade tuna to braised short ribs. But sometimes, you just want a taco that sticks to its humble roots. Doce Taqueria fits the bill. Belly up to the counter at the tiny East Carson Street shop and order a couple of tacos off of their concise chalkboard menu. The meats are juicy, the toppings are balanced and the portions are generous—all the more impressive considering the tacos are just three bucks a pop. And if you’re feeling a bit fancier, grab one of the daily specials, which might feature smoked lamb or Asian shrimp.

Photo by Brian Cohen
Photo by Brian Cohen

Bluebird Kitchen, Downtown

Downtown is chock full of lunch options. But many of them fall into one of two categories: the quick, crappy chain restaurant or the fancy, sit-down joint for wooing a new client. Since opening in 2012, Bluebird Kitchen has helped fill in the middle ground. At their two Downtown locations, owner Liz Moore and her team prepare carefully sourced food with the speed and pricing of a “fast casual” chain. Bluebird serves up fresh takes on staples like Cuban sandwiches and Nicoise salads, as well as an always-changing array of specials. And Bluebird Kitchen excels in all things baked, from homemade ciabatta to killer cookies and cakes.

Tram’s Kitchen, Bloomfield

Tram’s won’t win any awards for ambience. From the blaring television to the rocky service, you might be tempted to judge the book by its cover. But after a few dishes at Tram’s, you’ll see why the Bloomfield fixture has a cadre of devoted followers. Unlike many Vietnamese joints, pho is not the star here (though it is available). Instead, the addictive fried rice and array of noodle dishes will keep you coming back, particularly the sweet-sour-salty sauces that top them. Like the décor, the food is not fancy. But if you’re looking for punchy Asian flavors at rock bottom prices, Tram’s Kitchen is the spot.

The chicken meatball sandwich at Thin Man Sandwich Shop.
The chicken artichoke meatball sandwich with lemon and basil at Thin Man Sandwich Shop.

Thin Man Sandwich Shop, Strip District

In a town filled with quality sandwiches, Thin Man manages to stand out. After years working in Pittsburgh’s fine dining scene, owners Dan and Sherri Leiphart opened their own shop, bringing casual yet creative sandwichery to the Strip District. In addition to a few signature items (the eponymous sandwich comes slathered with excellent homemade chicken liver mousse), Thin Man offers a constantly changing array of seasonal sandwiches and sides tinged with global influences. And while many sandwich shops are content with a ho-hum hummus wrap, Thin Man puts thought into their vegetarian options, crafting meat-free sandwiches that are every bit as satisfying as their carnivorous counterparts.

Everyday Noodles, Squirrel Hill

Squirrel Hill has quickly become Pittsburgh’s go-to neighborhood for great Asian food, with restaurants like Chaya and Chengdu Gourmet offering tastes of everything from traditional sashimi to spicy Sichuan duck. But Everyday Noodles might be the only one that offers lunch and a show. Nearly every seat at the Forbes Avenue restaurant provides a great view of the chefs skillfully stretching the handmade noodles, violently whipping pound after pound of dough behind a glass window. Those noodles make their way into a variety of soups and dry noodle dishes, but the real can’t-miss dish is the soup dumplings. The little liquid-filled pouches are a marvel: I don’t know how they’re made, but I’m sure glad someone does.

Pizza A Badamo's in Mt. Lebanon. Photo by TH Carlisle
Pizza A Badamo’s in Mt. Lebanon. Photo by TH Carlisle
Pizza A Badamo’s in Mt. Lebanon. Photo by TH Carlisle

A’Pizza Badamo, Mt. Lebanon

I first encountered A’Pizza Badamo while “doing research” (otherwise known as stuffing my face) for a guide to Pittsburgh’s best pizza. While other shops tended to really shine in one area (a stellar sauce or perfectly airy crust), A’Pizza Badamo has perfected all parts of the equation. The space feels like it was plucked out of the coolest neighborhood in Brooklyn, complete with white subway tile, a cooler full of craft soda and a steady soundtrack of indie hits. Enjoy the beauty of a classic cheese slice or get fancy with a Wayno, a breath-destroying specialty pie that comes loaded with garlic and anchovies. And if you don’t want pizza, A’Pizza Badamo also makes massive hoagies and a rotating selection of homemade deli salads and sides.

Lunch at Apollo Café. Photo by TH Carlisle for NEXTpittsburgh.
Lunch at Apollo Café. Photo by TH Carlisle for NEXTpittsburgh.

Apollo Café, Downtown

Over the course of nearly 30 years in business, Apollo Café has totally nailed speedy service. Though the line stretched almost to the sidewalk the day I stopped in, I had a hot, to-go lunch less than five minutes after walking through the door. The tiny, family-owned café is not reinventing the meal: solidly familiar soups and sandwiches populate the large menu, along with a selection of Mediterranean fare like stuffed grape leaves and gyros. But my hearty tomato soup and garlicky chicken salad were clearly homemade, and the satisfying meal cost all of six dollars. If you find yourself Downtown with less than ten minutes to spare and less than ten bucks in your pocket, you can’t beat Apollo Café.

Drew Cranisky is a writer, bartender and recent graduate of Chatham University's Food Studies program. He enjoys cats, pinball and fancy burgers.