“…everything is delicious when you’re hanging out with Rick Sebak” – A fish sandwich from Emil’s, a cookie from Nancy B’s and a side of Pittsburgh history
Rick Sebak picks me up for our lunch at Emil’s Lounge and we take the scenic route – which is what you’d expect from Rick Sebak. Our drive quickly becomes an incredibly informative tour of Squirrel Hill, Regent Square and Swissvale as he points out restaurants and landmarks and even the top floor of the house where Willa Cather wrote her acclaimed book, “O Pioneers.” Spending time with Rick Sebak feels like you’ve magically entered one of his beloved WQED documentary shows. He’s been telling stories about Pittsburgh since the late ‘80seighties and has no plans to stop. A fall at work last August (and the knee surgery that followed) slowed him down briefly, but now he’s back in the editing room and doing physical therapy a few times a week. The brief drive with Rick is full of amazing history (I learned that Duquesne was the governor of New France) and facts (did you know that Prince Charles visited Pittsburgh in 1988?) and recommendations (Handel’s Homemade Ice Creams serves up some of Rick’s favorite scoops in town).
Our destination was Emil’s Lounge, an old steelworkers bar in Rankin which looks much the way it did when it opened in 1961. It’s also the home of one of Rick’s favorite sandwiches. As we walk in, he points out a stage in the corner that used to host go-go dancers a few decades ago. Tara comes over to take our order. Naturally, Rick knows her – he’d interviewed her over a decade ago for one of his WQED shows.
How long have you been coming to Emil’s?
A friend took me here over 20 years ago. On my second or third time here, a guy saw me walking in and here asked “You’re the guy from QED, right?” and I said “yeah.” And he said, “You tell anyone about this place and I will kill you.” So I waited a few years before I put it in a show.
And what sandwich are we going to eat?
I love the classic fish sandwich. They fry up three planks of cod loin. They say there’s a full pound of fish in every sandwich and they bring it with homemade tartar and cocktail sauce. I prefer the fish on a hamburger bun. Otherwise, it will come on a hoagie bun, which I think is too much bread. Often, I don’t even eat the bread. And then we can all take a few pieces of fish home because it’s really good.
What do you remember doing as a kid around Pittsburgh?
As a little kid, I took lessons at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. Really early on, I learned how to take the streetcar from Bethel Park into town and then get a bus out to Oakland. In high school, that seemed like a big deal. Kids would say, “Sebak knows how to get to Oakland on the bus!” It was outrageous that I knew how to do that.
Did Pittsburgh seem different when you came back as an adult?
I hadn’t lived here for 15fifteen years, and when I moved back I realized there was so much interesting stuff here. That’s probably because as the 19th century became the 20th century, we were one of the most important cities in the world. And we still profit from the richness of that.
If you were stuck on a desert island but you could somehow get one Pittsburgh restaurant to deliver, what restaurant would you choose?
That’s tough. But there’s a little Thai place I love called Maenam Thai in Blawnox. It only seats eight people. It’s tiny. They do quite a bit of takeout business, but I always just go there to eat. The chef, her name is Supannee but she goes by Nee. If she’s five foot, I’d be surprised. She’s tiny. I love her very much and she always has a surprise for me at the restaurant. She’s married to an American guy and when I was in the hospital with my leg, they were one of the first people to show up. She brought me this giant collection of handmade rolls. They were so good. And a spicy Thai sauce called Nam Jim. And I’ve never seen either of these things at the restaurant. It was so nice.
There are so many great festivals in Pittsburgh. Do you have any favorites?
I love Open Streets. It has a real festive atmosphere. Also, there are two guys that do a podcast called Drinking Partners and they talk a lot about craft beer and then last year they put together this beer festival called Fresh Fest and I thought it was amazing. It was the first Black brew festival in America. And then just last week they got recognized as the second best beer festival in America by USA Today. And they’ve only done it once. But Pittsburgh loves a beer festival.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another half-hour special from our 1988 Kennywood footage. It’s called “Don’t Stand Up.”
Are those roller coaster instructions?
Yes, there’s a big sign on the ride with those instructions. You know, listening to interviews you did thirty years ago – it’s mind-boggling. Last year we did “That Kennywood Summer,” but we still had so much great footage. We filmed at the park for around 25 days during that summer of 1988.
Did you ride a lot of roller coasters that summer?
I was watching the Strip District show the other night and it became a game to try to guess what year it was filmed.
I saw part of it the other night and so much of it is historic now because I talk about the produce yard and that’s not there anymore. But then there were a few things that made me think it might have been a little later. Maybe in the late 90s?
I actually looked it up because I was so curious. You made it in 1996. They’re almost like little time capsules.
It’s very odd. Because you like to make a current reference and now those current references are so old. The Banana Company or Benkovitz Seafood – they aren’t there anymore. But there’s a place called Penn Avenue Fish and it’s run by a guy who used to work at Benkovitz. Henry is his name. So the spirit of Benkovitz is still at Penn Avenue Fish, which is right on Penn Avenue by Bar Marco, which is also a nice restaurant in an old fire station. I like Penn Avenue Fish very much. Usually, around this time of year, they have soft shell crab sandwiches, which I love.
Do you have a favorite movie that was filmed in Pittsburgh?
I’m tempted to say “Silence of the Lambs” because it’s never identified as Pittsburgh but the whole thing is shot here. Neighbor Aber from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood – he’s one of the DAs or something like that and Chef Brockett is in it too. He’s in the cell next door. He says something scandalous and then he dies? That’s Don Brockett. “Flashdance” came out when I was living in South Carolina and that was cool because that’s all Pittsburgh and was identified as Pittsburgh. Although if you know Pittsburgh, the way she gets around makes no sense at all. She takes the incline to go places you couldn’t get to on the incline.
What bars or restaurants do you visit most often these days?
There are two little bars I love in Squirrel Hill. Hidden Harbor and Independent Brewing – they’re side by side and they’re owned by the same guys but they’re two very distinct bars. They’re right on my way home. Hidden Harbor is a tiki bar and then Independent Brewing is a beer bar that specializes in local beers. At one point at Independent Brewing, they surprised me and named a drink after me. It was essentially an old fashioned with bourbon but it had some maple syrup in it and a little piece of candied bacon as the garnish. It was a really good drink.
People love following your latest food discoveries on social media but when it’s a quiet night at home, what do you like to make for dinner?
I do love to cook though since I’ve gotten out of the hospital I haven’t had anyone over. But I’ve continued to cook. I love to go to the East Liberty Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. I was there a couple of weeks ago. The Kennedy family has the meat counter and almost everything was gone but they had some short ribs so I made some beef stock. It was wonderful. I like to bake cookies and pies. That day I fell last August, I’d made a pie and I took it into work and finished it in Chris Fennimore’s kitchen in Studio C. I whipped fresh cream for it. It’s called an Atlantic Beach Pie a North Carolina specialty. It’s kind of like a Key Lime Ppie except it’s lemon and it has a saltine crust.
Is there one documentary that you’d love to make but haven’t gotten to yet?
I’d like to do a show about dumplings. It’s instantly multicultural. There are Eastern European dumplings and Irish dumplings and Asian dumplings and ‘chicken and dumplings’ down South. I think it would make a good show. Locally, I’ve always wanted to do a show about Pittsburgh cemeteries. But if I could do one thing for the rest of my life, I’d do shows on numbered highways. Highways connect everything so you can do any story – if it’s not on the highway, then it’s right off the highway. There are little ones like Route 88 and long ones like Route 19 that goes south and becomes Peach Tree Street in Atlanta, Georgia. That would be my dream assignment.
The ride home from Rankin turns into a 90-minute scenic tour of the area as we drive by Kennywood and Homestead. Along the way, Rick points out a few more favorite spots like Groceria Merante, Page Dairy Mart (“watch out for the long line at night”) and St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish (home to one of his favorite fish fries).
As our tour is winding down, I mention that I love chocolate chip cookies and almost seamlessly, Rick pulls into Nancy B’s Bakery. As soon as we walk in the door, Nancy herself welcomes us with a chocolate chip cookie, fresh out of the oven. And naturally, it’s delicious. Because everything is delicious when you’re hanging out with Rick Sebak.
**This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.
[Lead photo: Rick triumphantly holds his leftovers in front of Emil’s Lounge. With a pound of fish on every sandwich, you’re pretty much guaranteed to leave with some leftover cod. ]