Squirrel Hill is one of the great urban neighborhoods in America, and has been for a long time. It was literally Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, where the television host — the ultimate good neighbor — lived.
Squirrel Hill was the first place in Pittsburgh — well, anywhere — that felt like home to me. For more than 20 years, I’ve lived in and around it (now in next-door Greenfield), and I’ve come to revel in its timeless rhythms — from the Orthodox families walking slowly to shul each Shabbat, to the shrieks of joy of kids skidding down the hill at Blue Slide Park on flattened cardboard boxes, to the thrill of the hunt in the dusty stacks at Jerry’s Records, perhaps the greatest used record store in the universe.
My girlfriend and I (before we got married) spent countless sweltering summer evenings walking to Rita’s Italian Ice to cool off before we could afford a place with air conditioning, and down to Kazansky’s to watch Pens playoff games before we could afford cable. We knew the main usher at the Manor Theatre, and the clerks knew what we liked at the wildly eclectic and eccentric Heads Together video store.
We argued the merits of the eternal question forced upon all who enter Squirrel Hill: Mineo’s or Aiello’s for pizza? (You may choose but one).
It’s a place traditionally defined by its Jewish character but wide-open to smart, young people from all over the world who spill noisily out of its nearby universities to quaff coffee and bubble tea. It wears its cosmopolitan diversity effortlessly because everybody seems to like the same things — Asian food, pizza, ice cream, books, tea.
To the wider world, unfortunately, the Tree of Life shooting in 2018 will be forever associated with Squirrel Hill. I covered that dark day as a journalist for the Times of Israel. The outpouring of love and mutual support from the neighborhood — and Pittsburgh at large — bound us together in grief. We didn’t let it destroy us.
Then, the pandemic happened. Suddenly, without much thinking, my world got much smaller. I no longer wandered up Murray Avenue, hoping to see old friends on the way. I rarely ventured past the post office for nearly a year.
In the meantime, Squirrel Hill changed. A lot.
Face covered with a KN95, I walked up Murray Avenue and across Forbes and marveled at the changes on a recent Saturday. Favorite stores had moved and expanded. The culinary takeover of Asian cuisine — even things such as Laotian and Dongbei Chinese that you rarely see anywhere in America — had accelerated to an especially delicious extent. And there’s a tea shop every few steps, it seems.
Most (not all, but most) of the changes are for the better. If the pandemic has been killing off restaurants and local brick-and-mortar retail, nobody told Squirrel Hill.
Not that Squirrel Hill is perfect or has emerged completely unscathed from the pandemic. There are still a substantial number of vacancies near the bottom of Murray Avenue. The much-missed Squirrel Hill Theater on Forward Avenue still sits empty after 10 years, despite ample chatter about redevelopment. That weird former butcher shop on Murray has been empty for at least 20 years, the only change a new set of graffiti (yet, mysteriously, the lights are often on).
Here’s what’s new, in the past year or so in Squirrel Hill:
Baskin-Robbins: Squirrel Hill loves ice cream and can have five or six places for frozen treats at any one time. One of those was Baskin-Robbins, which disappeared from one end of Forbes, only to reappear recently on the end of Forbes closest to Shady Avenue. This is supposed to be the first all-kosher ice cream shop from the chain. It’s not the best ice cream but it’s better than Cold Stone Creamery, another chain at the corner of Forbes and Murray. Some ice cream > no ice cream (it’s just math).
Games Unlimited: Once upon a time, Games Unlimited dwelled in a comfy, shabby little nook on Murray Avenue, the kind of place where hobbits and elves and the like would be comfortable hanging out quaffing mead and tossing the occasional 20-sided dice. Now, it has moved to a gigantic new space on Forbes in the former Pro Bike + Run (which will regroup and expand soon in the Strip) store.
Games have helped our family get through the isolating year of the pandemic, and this place has all of our favorites — board games such as Ticket to Ride, Axis & Allies and Trekking the National Parks, as well as card games such as Sushi Go! and Ramen Fury — plus hundreds of games we’ve never seen before. If you’re into role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons and its myriad descendants, there’s a table in the front of the shop where there always seems to be a game going on. There’s also been a huge boom in puzzles during the pandemic (my parents have completed 37 so far), and this place has an entire section in the back dedicated to them.
Amazing Books & Records: Pittsburgh doesn’t have a giant signature destination bookstore, like Boston, Columbus or Portland. But it’s got a few nice little ones, all with their own specialties, that together add up to something substantial. Amazing Books may now be the biggest, after recently moving from a cluttered, disorganized little shop on Murray Avenue to this bright, orderly new spot along the busiest part of Forbes.
Used books are the specialty here, so don’t go in expecting to find something — just browse and let that special book find you. They’ve also got a decent amount of used records, so between this place, the nearby Exchange and the cavernous Jerry’s, you can easily spend all day flipping through albums in Squirrel Hill. Amazing Books (which has a branch Downtown) is also known for giving you a free book or record for every three that you buy.
Avalon Exchange: If you want to look like you just stepped off a yacht in 1982, like a long-lost Rose relation on “Schitt’s Creek” or just go full-denim Canadian tuxedo, you can probably find the clothes to do so at Avalon. The shop recently moved a few doors down into a gigantic new space that was absolutely packed on a recent Saturday afternoon for some kind of $1 sale. Avalon is probably not going to take your grubby, unwanted old T-shirts (unless, of course, they’re old and weird enough to be hip) for resale; they just want the good stuff.
Panda Supermarket: They haven’t moved yet, but there’s a new sign for this indispensable Asian grocer a few doors down on Forbes at a significantly larger building, the former Squirrel Hill Professional Suites. They’re supposed to take the basement space as well as the ground floor. Currently, they’re still open at their old location, and our family loves to shop here for everything from ramen to kimchi to fresh tofu to strawberry cheesecake-flavored Kit Kat bars (Asian markets always seem to have the most fun flavors).
Tsaocaa Tea: The latest thing Squirrel Hill cannot get enough of is tea– Bubble Tea, specifically. Invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, it combines tea with a wide straw for slurping tapioca balls/boba/pearls from the bottom. Tsaocaa is a small franchise that claims “each loose leaf tea is brewed fresh-to-order in an espresso-like machine, which sets Tsaocaa apart from any other shops in America.” Then organic milk, almond milk, soy milk or coconut water is added, and it’s shaken until the “bubbles” rise to the top. Some flavors seem to be straightforward, such as Peach Milk Tea, but others such as Ruby Milk Tea and King of Milk Tea are left unexplained. You can also get several types of non-bubble tea and fruit tea. I have no idea how to pronounce the name of this spot, but apparently word has gotten out anyway — it was bustling on a recent Saturday afternoon.
ChaTea: A very elaborate sign went up at this spot several months ago … and then, nothing. Word is that it’s going to be a bubble tea spot — and the saturation point for that has clearly not yet been reached in Squirrel Hill. Compounding the irony (and redundancy), the word “cha” means “tea” in Chinese, so the name of this place equates to something like “Tea Tea.”
Jian’s Kitchen: In Squirrel Hill’s continuing quest to supply just about every variety of Chinese regional cooking style (which are at least as abundant as American regional styles), Northeastern Kitchen briefly specialized in Dongbei cuisine, rarely seen in the U.S., from the cold region bordering Siberia and North Korea. It’s now called Jian’s Kitchen and has kept some Northeastern specialties, such as Northeastern Mung Bean Clear Noodle with Shredded Vegetable, and Steamed Sliced Pig Knuckles. The menu is massive and features both a full “authentic Chinese” menu and a more Americanized Chinese menu (Kung Pao Chicken, etc.). This place is in a not terribly inviting basement space below Forbes Avenue that feels sort of hidden. But if it’s anything like Northeastern Kitchen, it’s worth finding.
Dagu Rice Noodle: Apparently based in Shanghai, Dagu Rice Noodle is growing its American presence, without catering much to old-fashioned American tastes (there’s no General Tso’s on the menu). That’s perfectly fine if you’re open to more adventurous flavors, such as Spicy Duck Tongue or the number of Crossing Bridge Rice Noodle dishes (a specialty from the Yunnan Province in southwestern China). Yet again, they serve bubble tea (and regular tea).
Kung Fu Tea: More bubble tea! Another chain — this one boasts more than 100 locations all over the U.S. — with specialties including Mango Green Tea, Coconut Milk Tea and Winter Melon Milk Tea. They also combine fruit and lemonade with tea, such as Rosehip Lemonade, which combines fresh-squeezed lemonade with hints of rosehip and blueberry. They even sell slush teas, with flavors ranging from strawberry to Oreo, blended with ice. They’re not afraid to put some unfamiliar (to most Americans) flavors out there, such as Taro (kind of like a sweet potato), Longan Jujube tea (sweet red date with longan honey) and Purple Yam Latte (sweet purple yam).