Neighborhood restaurants like People’s Indian are some of the most treasured and special places in Pittsburgh. Located right on the main street of the entire city at 5147 Penn Avenue, People’s Indian Restaurant exemplifies what it means to be a neighbor and cornerstone of the community. Not only providing delicious Punjabi dishes from classic Tandoori Chicken to Channa Masala to their customers, when Garfield needed them most, they provided free meals for children to anyone who needed them.
For the community
When the pandemic hit Pittsburgh the hardest, when residents were furloughed or outright laid off, People’s gave away their food to hungry families and those greatest in need. That is the gold standard in what makes a neighborhood restaurant: kindness, charity, and giving back. It’s a true treat to have People’s in Garfield and as an option for those hungry for Indian in the North-Eastern part of the City.
Many restaurants have come and gone in that area, but it’s a testament to People’s and the citizens of Garfield that the mainstay has survived for so long. The service has consistently been wonderful, but unfortunate staffing issues has led to the restaurant being almost solely takeout for dinner, with lunch available to dine in from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
(All dishes were eaten either pick-up or delivery, so your mileage my vary)
What we ate
Easily my favorite part of their menu has to be their “House of Rice” with every variety of Biryani imaginable, from chicken and lamb to goat and shrimp. If you can’t decide (or want a little bit of everything like me), the People’s Special is the right way to go. Combining the best parts of spicy, savory, saffron biryani rice you get the large pieces of moist chicken breast and thigh, impressively fresh sweet shrimp, tender chunks of lamb, from fatty pieces of melt-in-your-mouth to succulent chunks of sirloin. The container was absolutely packed to the top with generous pieces of the proteins intermixed with the rice, carrots, peas, and topped with fresh cilantro. I went with a middle-of-the-road spice and I could have been a little more daring, but the flavors were all there, balanced harmoniously in an outstanding dish. The yogurt raita was on the right side of just the tiniest bit too sour, which went perfect with the sweet shrimp and spicy chilis.
Breads, appetizers and sauces/sides
I feel like you can really get to know the heart and soul of an Indian restaurant through their chutneys and breads. The aforementioned raita was consistently a delicious addition to any meal, with sizable chunks of cucumber and carrot, mixed with that lovely crushed cumin and garam masala. Their specific blend was definitely more approachable and milder than some I’ve had, but still added a lovely earthy base to the thick yogurt sauce. Far more aggressive were the achar, with huge chunks of sour lemon and lime, spicy mustard oil, and mango pickle – great palate cleanser between bites of fattier or greasier dishes.
Easily my favorite of the chutneys, the mint and cilantro chutney was a vibrant, herbaceous sauce that went perfect on anything from a samosa to a slice of pizza (but more on that later!). The beautifully green sauce was so refreshing that I had to order another side of it each time I placed an order. Less successful were the tamarin chutney, which lacked any kind of central focus, and the onion chutney which quickly overpowered anything I tried to pair it with and hung around far longer than I would have liked. Similarly, the naans, paratha, and roti we ordered left a lot to be desired and went mostly unutilized in favor of their tasty house rice to pair with the curries. The shining star of the bread offerings was the Poori, crispy flaky deep-fried discs reminiscent of an elephant ear or heavier papadam. Instead of the smaller, hand-sized puffy discs, these were perfect for scooping into the mint chutney, raita, or just eating plain. The vegetable samosas were giant pyramids, stuffed with a heavy mixture of spiced potatoes and peas and crisped up nicely when reheated in the oven at home.
Pizza at an Indian spot?
Some of the most unique offerings on the menu come in their form of their recently launched pizza offerings. With such unique and tasty names as the “Straight Outta Punjab” and the “Singh is King” it’s hard not to be drawn in. While other Indian restaurants in the area offer some very unique takes on pizza, it’s nice to see that People’s takes the best elements and creates their original take on pizza. Using a much yeastier, crispy crust, topped with traditional Indian flavors, the pizzas allow the flavors to all come together with that additional buttery lusciousness usually provided by the ghee in traditional recipes. We sampled the Sing is King which, as advertised, tasted exactly like a deconstructed samosa with potato, peas, curry, and cheese instead of your traditional sauce and pepperoni, drizzled with that incredibly delicious mint and cilantro chutney overtop.It was a very craveable bite and left me very excited to sample the rest of the pizza menu.
While the city has grown and diversified greatly since the mid-90s when People’s first opened, it’s so refreshing to see a traditional Indian restaurant not only survive, but thrive in one of the area’s quickly-gentrifying area. A food desert for quite some time, it’s interesting to see how the area will adapt and evolve as the surrounding real estate is replaced or modernized. It’s an ironic note that just a mile down the road, closer to the nigh-unrecognizable “Bakery Square” lies a Choolah, a regional fast-casual Indian food chain started by Pittsburgh-based Wholesome International. The Pittsburgh food scene is a complicated, ever-evolving landscape but it’s so comforting to know that a restaurant concept born out of a grocery can last 30-plus years and still continue to give back to the community that has nurtured and supported it from the very beginning.