No, a Pittsburgh salad isn’t when a high school bully makes you eat the contents of a trash can. It’s not a sex thing, and it’s definitely not something they say in the Mafia even though it sounds like it should be: “Jimmy, I want you to turn him into a Pittsburgh salad. Capeesh?” A Pittsburgh salad is, quite predictably, a salad with French fries on it.
Whenever I mention this, someone understandably does a spit-take directly into my face. The concept breaks brains. Served in a giant bowl with iceberg lettuce, mixed vegetables, fries, chicken or steak, and cheese, you might say this isn’t a salad at all. It’s a classic Western Pennsylvania idea (see: fries on a sandwich) that’s meant to streamline the dining experience. I’m sure in the eyes of the elite it lies somewhere between hyper-regional niche cuisine and total culinary abomination. There’s not much nuance, and attempting to “elevate” this dish would be a fool’s errand. The Pittsburgh salad knows its place.
That’s not to say there isn’t technique at work here. You need a foundation of iceberg lettuce to withstand the heat of the French fries. Spring mix or arugula alone would wilt under the pressure. Welcomed but not necessary are salad veggies such as cucumber, tomato, and raw onion. Raw bell peppers add some texture and depth. Personally, I’m always on the lookout for pepperoncini to carry some wanted acidity. The fries should be hard fried or at the very least not soggy. The protein is usually grilled and best when it rests for a few minutes (anything piping hot will upset the surprisingly delicate balance of this dish). Dressings can be mixed and matched, but my preference is equal parts Italian and ranch.
All of these components leave room for invention or at the very least, swapping. The fries can be curly, waffle, or shoestring. Steaks range from New York strip to filet, and salad dressing will forever be the people’s choice. It’s like ordering a hoagie at a sandwich shop; you’ve got some options and if it tastes bad, well, it’s probably your fault. Assembling a Pittsburgh salad is a balancing act of temperatures and textures that when done right, will defy scholarly logic.
Simply put, the Pittsburgh salad tastes good. A bite of grilled chicken and onion, some fries in lettuce and dressing—this invention takes a relatively boring institution (protein, potatoes, and side salad) and saves the day by recklessly jamming them all together. It shouldn’t work, but it does. You wouldn’t put Italian dressing on steak, and you wouldn’t eat French fries with cucumbers and tomato, so why would somebody put it all together in a bowl? Here’s the best way I can explain it: The Pittsburgh salad is the shoot-first detective who nonetheless nabs the bad guy. So, before you cry “food crime,” I’d ask you to calm down, Chief. The city’s safe, ain’t it?
In Pittsburgh, no one calls this a Pittsburgh salad. Don’t say, “One Pittsburgh salad, please,” or they’ll know you’re an alien. You’ll see it on menus as a “steak salad” or “chicken salad” as if it’s a foregone conclusion that all salads have meat and potatoes on them. (Visiting Pittsburgh is like traveling to an alternate reality where everything has fries on it.) They throw it like confetti at weddings and toss it onto caskets as they’re being lowered into the ground.
Because I grew up there, I’m sure the first time I had a salad without French fries, I was confused. One day you wake up and realize salads are actually full of light vinaigrettes, dark green leaves, and raw vegetables. Salad, you find, isn’t supposed to make you tired. In 2011, I moved to Austin, Texas where there are no Pittsburgh salads. Desperate for comfort, I would recreate them in defiant fits of rage, drunkenly stumbling through the doors of Whataburger, demanding their grilled chicken salad and fries, and then assembling my own Pittsburgh salad.
If you’re not in Western Pennsylvania, here’s my gift to you: Sit down at a restaurant, order whatever salad is on the menu and a side of fries, then assemble. The worst they can do is ask you to eat outside. You’ll be a genius in exile.
Whose idea was the Pittsburgh salad? Well, I don’t put too much stock into restaurant claims. Salad lore says that Jerry’s Curb Service in Beaver, Pennsylvania was the first to invent a Pittsburgh salad, but honestly, who could even prove such a thing? Which brings me to my next point: Lie. Say you did it. Nobody can prove otherwise, and I doubt anybody will question you, either. (I’ve been telling people I invented manicotti for years now.)
To be clear, my interests aren’t with the culinary pioneers; I want to know how the dish evolved, and the Pittsburgh salad has. It’s such a longtime beloved staple that it’s changed about 14 different ways. People have molded it to fit their specific culture and taste. Pittsburghers have taken the concept and applied their own history. In short, residents have redefined what comfort food means to them, which is what the Pittsburgh salad is all about. It’s about you. You, and French fries on a salad.