We’d be lying if we said we’d ever imagined dining in the laundromat behind the Shady Avenue Starbucks in Squirrel Hill. But now that it has become a Taiwanese restaurant, Café 33, we had just that opportunity.
It sure cleaned up nice. The building, a one-story postwar box, doesn’t have much inherent character to play up, but it’s set back from the sidewalk to create a pleasant forecourt permitting that holy grail of Pittsburgh dining, outdoor seating. Indoors, the ambience is stylish without straining at hipster clichés (no barn wood, no Edison bulbs). There’s some elbow room, and it’s not especially loud.
While the decor seemed non-specific in its cultural references, the menu offered an extensive selection of distinctively Taiwanese cuisine. We love this recent (and long-overdue) trend to move beyond generic Chinese-American stir-fries and acknowledge the exciting regional diversity of true Chinese cuisine.
Café 33’s commitment to this approach was evident from the first page of its menu, featuring the xiaochi of Taiwan’s renowned night markets. Of course, potstickers, scallion pancakes and soup dumplings were represented, but there was not an egg roll in sight. Instead, we found a dozen or more options to tempt or challenge the palate, from marinated turnips to jellyfish with celery.
Our table quickly filled with platters and bowls. Potstickers were bite-sized, clearly housemade and well balanced between lightly crisped wrapper and lightly spiced filling. “Mini” soup dumplings were in fact only slightly smaller than most we’ve tried. They contained probably a bit less soup than was ideal, but still delivered that marvelously rich, savory soup-dumpling experience as the pork broth burst into our mouths at first chew. The dipping sauce, with filaments of fresh ginger, provided countering notes of brightness and zing.
A scallion pancake rolled around a thick, tender slice of beef was fantastic. It had a hint of crisp on the outside, a fresh cucumber nestled alongside the beef within, and a sauce akin to mu shu sweetly tying all these flavors together.
Squid in sa cha flavored soup caught Angelique’s attention, and although our server struggled to explain sa cha (“salty and … yellow”), we tried it anyway. Good call: The broth was reminiscent of hot-and-sour soup — clear yet deep brown in color, with a texture far from thin and some of those same sour notes. There was virtually no spicy heat to overpower the good flavors of mildly chewy squid, crunchy batons of bamboo shoot and wilted-yet-crisp shreds of cabbage. It was served in a large bowl with small cups for sharing, and we kept refilling small portions between our other courses.
We ordered “Smelly Crispy Bean Curd” despite the name. Essentially, this was a fermented version of fried tofu served with a kimchi-like pickle and spicy sauce drizzled on top, rather than dousing the curd. Our daughter the tofu enthusiast found it too funky — the title was not a misnomer — but Angelique enjoyed the flavor, even as she thought it was a touch too dry.
Cucumbers with garlic were milder than variations we’ve had at Squirrel Hill’s Sichuan restaurants. Café 33 added some sweet red pepper to the mix, and the whole dish was bright and crispy and cool.
Pork with chives consisted of tiny crumbles of ground pork, stir-fried so as to create both charred and tender bits, mixed nearly equally with snippets of Chinese chive, which was treated as a vegetable rather than an herb. Spicy fermented-black-bean sauce wasn’t fiery hot, but added plenty of zest and dimension to this addictive dish, which was served with a modest portion of white rice alongside.
Pan-fried noodles were the closest thing we tried to a Chinese-American classic. The noodles themselves were ultra-thin, crisp-fried into a sturdy bird’s-nest, and served beneath stir-fried vegetables with chicken and baby shrimp in a light brown sauce. Even with such a familiar preparation, Café 33 stood out for a broad array of perfectly cooked vegetables, clearly not dumped from a freezer bag; for the extraordinary texture of the velveted shrimp (a technique somewhat akin to battering, but with a lighter coating); and for the restraint of the simple sauce.
It’s an amazing time to be a fan of Chinese food in Pittsburgh. Café 33 joins our list of places we are eager to revisit for another taste of dishes we loved at first bite, as well as for further exploration of the delicacies of, in this case, authentic Taiwanese cuisine.