Though home to an increasing number of upscale eateries, Pittsburgh's dining scene is probably best represented by the rich variety of inexpensive ethnic restaurants that showcase our culinary and cultural diversity. Despite a relatively small Asian population, our city has no shortage of eastern cuisine.
Of course, as in many other cities, cheap Chinese take-outs and hip sushi bars dominate the mix. But the number of family-owned Thai and Vietnamese restaurants has grown over the past decade, piquing local diners' tastes for the exotic, aromatic flavors of Southeast Asian fare. One of the first places to expand the city's palate beyond the realm of General Tso's and sushi was Oakland's Spice Island Tea House, opened by Ron Lee in 1995. For the past 12 years, this beloved pan-Asian bistro has been a mainstay of both students and professionals, who fill the tables for crowded lunches and dinners six days a week.
Operating in an unassuming little building on Atwood Street, the place offers charming ambience in a subtly sultry, casually exotic setting. Eastern-influenced décor, dark wood tables, a warm color scheme, and dim lighting create a cozy, inviting atmosphere that's just right for intimate conversation with a good friend, or a romantic backdrop for a first date.
Spice Island serves a creative mix of cuisine that defies the trendy fusion label, with Indonesian, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese and Malaysian dishes among the offerings.
Colorful presentations of fresh, flavorful cuisine along with friendly and efficient service have established the restaurant as a hot destination for travelers as well as locals.
"People think we just serve a lot of students, but our customers come from everywhere," says long-time employee Ira Sudjana. "We even have people from New Jersey and Philadelphia who visit us regularly when they come to town on business. They always appreciate that we remember them, so they remember us."
As its name suggests, Spice Island Tea House also features an intriguing selection of loose-leaf teas that run the gamut from smoky and earthy, to fragrant and floral. Customers can order small or large pots of delicately perfumed oolong, jasmine, Himalayan and raspberry spice teas, among numerous others, or try the iced tea of the day. Those who want a harder beverage with their meal can choose from a varied selection of bottled beers and wines by the glass.
Very little has changed at Spice Island since 1995. The same artful cardboard and paper menus list an array of noodle dishes, slow-cooked curries and plenty of vegetarian and vegan options -- plus many dishes you won't easily find at other Asian restaurants. Unique appetizers like chewy, texturally pleasing corn and shrimp fritters with a sweet and tangy dipping sauce; tea leaf and ginger salads full of crunchy cabbage, peanuts and caramelized garlic; and tiny vegetarian samosas filled with soft curried potatoes range between $3.50 and $4.25, making it economical to order more than one.
Savory-sweet and replete with fresh vegetables, "The Ever-Famous Pad Thai," (as it's billed on the menu) is a house favorite, but it's worth your while to branch out and try the Burmese Lat toke -- a wheat noodle salad with fried tofu, crispy onion and fresh cilantro in a spicy tamarind dressing. Chiang Mai noodles with ground chicken are another specialty of the kitchen, contrasting the starchy comfort of spaghetti and meat sauce with the deep, fiery flavors of red curry and jalapeno peppers.
Most Asian restaurants aren't known for their desserts, but it's impossible to pass up the warm, eggy coconut cake, made even better with a scoop of rich coconut or mango ice cream. For a perfect finish to your meal, top it all off with a pot of tea.
Spice Island regulars and City Paper readers alike know one of the city's not-so-well-kept secrets: Generous portions and reasonable prices make this the best place in town where two can share a multi-course meal of high-quality Southeast Asian fare for under $30. Here's to another 12 years, and counting.