The first time I discovered the delicious flavor burst of pork broth in xiao long bao (soup dumplings), I was hooked. Now they’re a “must order” dish when I see them on any menu.
A willingness to be adventurous often pays off when it comes to food. Lately, in Pittsburgh, that’s especially true when it comes to a broad range of Asian cuisines.
It’s still possible to find places with Pan-Asian menus where you can pick and choose dishes from different countries and regions. But there’s a definite movement toward specialization — a drilling down to a more specific cuisine, or sometimes, dish.
In Oakland and Squirrel Hill, which have the city’s largest concentration of Asian and Asian fusion eateries, some credit the growing population of international students at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon as having an impact on local Asian menus.
“The growth in international students is an important factor, but it’s also entrepreneurs finding opportunities to introduce more authentic dishes to neighborhoods willing to support them,” says Brian Deutsch, the creator and author of PennsylvAsia, a website focusing on Asian news and events in Pennsylvania.
“You have more diners, international and domestic alike, open to — even demanding — real, authentic food,” says Deutsch.
Some local restaurateurs are demanding it, too.
Phat Nguyen, owner of the newly-opened Ineffable Ca Phe says of bahn mi, “I want people to experience how that sandwich is made in Vietnam, not someone else’s version of it.”
Whether you’re on a hunt for new experiences or gravitating toward something more familiar, here’s a list of some of the Asian eateries that should be on your radar. (For now, I’m not including Indian or other South Asian foods because there’s enough for another post. Stay tuned.)
Chengdu Gourmet, Sichuan Chinese (Squirrel Hill)
A trip here can be an eye-opening culinary adventure filled with bold flavors, spiced up with chili oils and peppercorns for that signature Sichuan heat — especially when you order from the Sichuan menu. James Beard nominee Chef Wei Zhu is known for his modern takes on classics like cumin lamb, spicy chicken, Dan Dan noodles and dumplings in chili oil. Family-style dishes are easily shared. The atmosphere is simple, nothing special — it’s all about the food. Be daring — dive in and experience the daily specials.
Nak Won Garden, Korean (Friendship)
A family-run Korean restaurant, it features a traditional menu with classic entrees including Bibimbap, a mixed rice dish with marinated beef or chicken served with a fried egg in a hot stone bowl, and Galbi Tang, tender beef short ribs in savory beef broth. Ban Chan, small side dishes of pickled radish, fish cake and kimchi are served along with the meals. Get a taste of the popular Korean street food Ddukbokki — hot and spicy Korean rice cakes stir fried in a sweet and spicy sauce with sweet potato noodle.
How Lee Chinese Food, Chinese (Squirrel Hill)
Here’s a place to go when you’re looking for familiar classics. Old favorites like Kung Pao Shrimp and pork fried rice are served alongside Sichuan special dishes with next-level spiciness (from the Chinese menu). Chengdu Fried Dry Hot Chicken and eggplant with mala chili sauce (numbing-like spice level) are highlights. Feeling brave? Go for more fiery options.
Taiwanese Bistro Cafe 33, Taiwanese (Squirrel Hill)
Tucked into a clean tight space in the home of a former laundromat, Cafe 33 has been packing in customers since it opened last fall. Seafood figures prominently in Taiwanese cuisine, which also draws influences from China’s southern provinces. Squid in spicy sauce and plump shrimp in black pepper sauce are highlights, and there’s even jellyfish on the menu. Other popular choices here: beef noodle soup, mini soup pork buns (like small soup dumplings) and Taiwanese sticky rice.
Everyday Noodles, Chinese (Squirrel Hill)
This is a local favorite for noodle dishes, dumplings and dim sum of all kinds. Watch skillful chefs stretch dough into homemade noodles at the front of the restaurant. Restaurateur Mike Chen regularly rotates cooks from Taiwan for six-month stints to help train staff and share expertise.
Remember those pork soup dumplings I talked about earlier? Try mastering the art of eating them carefully, almost in one shot like an oyster, without letting the soup spill out.
Ineffable Ca Phe, Vietnamese (Lawrenceville)
Easily my new favorite place, and it’s been open less than a week. Ineffable Ca Phe is a spacious coffee shop that offers a small selection of banh mi sandwiches. But traditional Vietnamese coffee is the real attraction here, and owner Phat Nguyen brews it with the intention of introducing an authentic Vietnamese coffee experience.
Contrary to a rushed American coffee shop experience, customers are encouraged to savor exquisitely prepared coffee at a relaxed pace in a comfortable environment — with an option for some light things to eat. Take in the last days of summer with an iced Vietnamese coffee while you hang out on a patio that feels like it’s tucked away on a side street in Hanoi. (Check out our profile of the shop here.)
Ki Ramen, Japanese, Ramen (Lawrenceville)
The recently-opened ramen house is all about putting “soul in a bowl.” Vegetarian curry, pork-based shio and chicken-based shoyu make up the three broth options. Noodles are made in-house. Add in the soft-boiled egg and the porcini butter bomb to your ramen bowl.
Chaya, Japanese, Sushi (Squirrel Hill)
Chaya is a Japanese-owned neighborhood restaurant featuring fresh sushi and authentic Japanese dishes. Multi-course traditional Japanese dinners like Kaiseki that spotlight unique skills and techniques can be requested in advance.
Tram’s Kitchen, Vietnamese (Bloomfield)
Prepare for a small authentic menu featuring outstanding Vietnamese classics in a no-frills spot. It’s also a great place to satisfy cravings for delicious broths. Sate soup, Saigon soup, wonton soup and pho are all featured, along with freshly made spring rolls and vermicelli noodles. It’s got some of the best pho in town.
Nicky’s Thai Kitchen, Thai (North Side, North Hills and Downtown)
Here’s a popular spot for traditional Thai dishes featuring all your favorite classics: curries, fried rice dishes, and noodle entrees like Pad See Ew (flat rice noodles stir fried in sweet dark soy sauce). While Nicky’s has outposts Downtown and in the North Hills, the North Side location features a welcoming patio with a great atmosphere.
Bánh Mì & Tí, Vietnamese (Lawrenceville)
Sisters Kellie and Tuyen Truong, co-owners of Bánh mì & Ti which opened in Lawrenceville last year, felt a special connection to the sandwich they remembered growing up with in Vietnam. But they had a hard time finding the traditional flavors they loved unless they made the bánh mì themselves. “Our mom, who is also a chef, helped us get the traditional flavors right, and we add our own spin,” says Tuyen. The eatery has become a go-to destination for bánh mì lovers and something that for them “was missing” in Pittsburgh, they say. It’s an excellent place to try bánh mì made with bread that has the perfect crunch.
Top Shabu-Shabu and Lounge , Chinese, Japanese, Korean (Oakland)
Here you’ll find a blend of Asian influences featuring the Japanese “hot pot” style of cooking, where food is cooked piece by piece at the table. After selecting broths and ingredients, you dip the ingredients into burners. This is where to go with a group of adventurous friends for fresh ingredients prepared in a unique cooking style.
Umami, Japanese Street Food & Sushi (Lawrenceville)
Experience an Izakaya (Japanese pub) with street foods dedicated to umami flavors, robatayaki BBQ dishes and a late-night menu. Check out chef Roger Li’s beautiful creations on Umami’s instagram page for inspiration.