Pillbox

Strip District

Sometimes it feels like all there is to do or see lies between the Cathedral of Learning and Beeler. Craig and Walnut are good enough. Who needs to get on a bus that isn't a 61, 71, or 28X? This little region, dare I say "bubble," is safe and comfortable. But alas, there is life outside of Carnegie Mellon, and it's pretty damn cool. You might have to take a bus you've never ridden to a street you've never heard of, but it will be worth it.

Let's say for example, you take an inbound 54 from Craig and Winthrop to Liberty and 25th. You get off and it feels unsafe for a second. Abandoned-looking brick buildings, a big empty parking lot behind wide empty sidewalks, smoke pouring out of a stack. But then you locate the chrome bastion of the Pittsburgh Opera. You look around again and begin to notice smaller signs of life. This is the Strip District.

The heart of the Strip lies in just about a half square mile, from 16th to 25th between the Allegheny River and Liberty Ave. The other heart of the Strip is food.

Back when Pittsburgh thrived on manufacturing, the Strip was prime real estate — right on the river and the railroad. Giants like U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, and Heinz did their business on those streets, and they brought with them all the people who work there. Produce merchants, restaurants, and groceries stores opened up to feed all of the busy people walking through the streets. Today you can still walk those same streets and eat at one of the same spots, and even the newer spots are filled with an authenticity that makes them feel like they've been there just as long.

If you want the old world experience, there's Penn Mac, or Pennsylvania Macaroni Company. Back in 1902, the three Sunseri brothers, newly immigrated from a village in Sicily, started out manufacturing and selling pastas, and then the store grew to include all kinds of delicious Italian imports, like olive oil and cheese. The store is still in the Sunseri family, and, be sure to stop by if you get to the Strip before they close at 4:30, well-worth the trip, if only to ogle all the treats before going to dinner. Penn Mac itself is an experience.

Down a couple blocks is another specialty grocery store, Lotus Food Company, reflecting a more recent influx of people. Lotus is an incredible and expansive Chinese-run grocery store on Penn Ave. They have over 20 aisles of kitchenware, packaged foods, candies, spices, noodles, produce, seafood, and more. The store has an undeniable, yet unidentifiable, smell, a blend of anise and something I couldn't figure out. And even better than the smell is the budget. You'll never get vegetables at Giant Eagle for these prices. They even offer discounts if you show your student ID.

You can also go to Labad's Mediterranean Grocery for incredible gyros from a man with an incredible moustache, S&D Polish Deli to score some crispy, buttery pierogies, or Reyna Foods for their famous tortillas and tamales.

Even though the Strip is at its most lively in the late morning and early afternoon, there are some awesome dinner and drink spots.

For dinner I decided to splurge a little at Kaya, a part of the Big Burrito restaurant group. I got there at 7 p.m., a half hour too late to partake in the best happy hour in Pittsburgh: all single serving drinks are half off from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday to Friday! Regardless, I still indulged in a cocktail called Smoke and Ginger, which I highly recommend to tequila lovers and no one else. The smoky mezcal and spicy ginger liqueur are offset by hibiscus, lime, and orange bitters. Not to mention, the bright hibiscus pink is a really exciting drink color!

For dinner, I wanted to try more than one thing. I picked a small plate of bright citrus-y shrimp and scallop ceviche paired with a bowl of warm and creamy conch and corn chowder. I've never had conch before, but years of watching [ITAL]Top Chef[ITAL] have made me curious. Not only was it the perfect amount of food, but I felt like I was a block away from bright blue waves, home to tomorrow night's dinner! The next time I go back I've already decided on the fish tacos. And if you ever make your way to Kaya, ask to sit in Chas's section.

Other awesome dinner spots include: Bar Marco for a stellar selection of wines and cocktails with modern decor and cuisine, Penn Ave. Fish Company for high quality seafood dishes and affordable sushi like the Sexy Señorita or Lollipop rolls, or Smallman Galley, an incubator that features four different restaurants on a rotating basis.

If you're feeling some withdrawal from your comfort zone, Pamela's is there to serve up a tall stack of hotcakes. La Prima is there to roast, grind, and brew espresso to its normal level of perfection. Primanti Brothers is there to pervert the boundaries of a sandwich.

But in a neighborhood like the Strip, there are too many boundary-pushing options to settle for something you've already tried. While you're out of your Carnegie Mellon Bubble, do as many things as you can that feel weird to you. Stop and talk to a stranger. Walk down an empty alley and check out the graffiti. Try a food you've never tasted, or a food you've never heard of. Don't settle for what you know when what you don't know could be so much cooler.