Found in the Strip. Photo by Tom O'Connor

Photographer Tom O’Connor recently moved to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn and is on a quest to get to know his newly adopted city. One way to do it: map out where to find those hard-to-find things (that he clearly enjoys finding). In this first engaging piece, the avid cook goes exploring. We’re happy to follow along. 

I like the way moving to a new city puts you in discovery mode. You spend time exploring all the neighborhoods, check out all the bars and restaurants you’ve been reading about, find the best markets to shop — in other words, you get to be a tourist in your own town. My love for good food and cooking tends to put food destinations at the top of my list. While living in Brooklyn, I put together a pretty solid list of “go-to” markets all around the city where I could find almost anything I needed at any time of the year. It might involve a couple subway transfers and long walks to some out-of-the-way places, but at the end of the day, I headed home with that hard-to-find item in hand.

I wondered what it would be like here in Pittsburgh as I set out in my first test to find everything I needed to make two of my summer favorites: summer rolls and larb.

I like Vietnamese summer rolls made with a lot of fresh asian herbs like rao răm (vietnamese coriander), ngò gai (sawtooth herb), and shiso to add along with basil and mint.  This combination of aromatic herbs adds an intense flavor perfectly suited to spicy dipping sauces.  Collecting a nice bunch of these herbs to put inside the rolls gives them a more authentic taste and a nice crunch.  For larb, a traditional Thai dish that is essentially spicy minced chicken served in lettuce cups, I like to look for fresh galangal.  Galangal looks a lot like ginger because it is a similarly shaped rhizome, but it is actually quite different.  It has a very distinct piney, sharp and citrus flavor that really kicks up the flavor in Thai dishes.  It’s a very unique ingredient that is commonplace in many Thai dishes including curry pastes, but it doesn’t really have a substitute.  It can also be a little tricky to find.  With my wish list in hand (and figuring they wouldn’t have rao răm dahn at the Giant Eagle) I made my way to the asian markets in The Strip District.

Most of my visits to the Strip have been in the middle of the day and on weekends when parking is tight and the sidewalks slow to a crawl.  So I was happy to discover mid-morning shopping in the middle of the week is a breeze.  I aimed for Tuesday because I heard the markets stock up for their restaurant customers with fresh herb and veggie deliveries on Tuesdays and Fridays.  It’s easy to hit both Lotus Food Co. and Wing Fat Hong Oriental Food Market (both on Penn Ave.).  Between these two markets, I was able to find everything on my asian greens list and a couple nice chunks of fresh galangal.  Of the two markets, I would probably give the edge to the newly relocated and slightly bigger Wing Fat Hong because it had a fresher and larger selection of herbs, but both markets are definitely worth exploring.

I know Pittsburgh’s globally diverse food scene is getting more of a buzz thanks to some very creative chefs, restauranteurs and entrepreneurs working here.  It’s one of the things that attracted me and I’m not all that surprised that I was able to track down these very specific ingredients.  The real surprise was the ease with which I was able to do so and in such a short time.  It was a much more enjoyable shopping experience not having to navigate my way through hot and crowded subway stations, market aisles crammed with push carts, and the proliferation of amped up baby strollers that seem to be unique to Brooklyn neighborhoods.

I’ll admit, I like to step out of my comfort zone when it comes to cooking and I like to inspire other people to do the same.  I can become easily obsessed with tracking down that one hard-to-find ingredient mentioned in a recipe that is supposed to add a specific flavor or authenticity to a dish.  (The Golden Mountain Sauce that Bon Apetít raved about last month, for example — Yep, you’ll find it in stock at both Lotus and Wing Fat.)  It’s all part of the adventure of cooking and I enjoy the experience of seeking out new flavors and discovering new things.  I’m looking forward to getting to know Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods better and building a new list of the best places to find all those “hard-to-find” things.  But right now, I’ve got beers to chill and summer rolls to whip up.

Check out Tom O’Connor’s very cool website, Little Island Kitchen, where he compiles the best of small batch food across the country, connecting talented food makers with adventurous home chefs. Warning: it’s addictive. 

Tom O'Connor

Tom O'Connor is a photographer and writer currently based in Pittsburgh.