When Pittsburghers think of comfort food, a meaty sandwich stuffed with fries typically comes to mind. The people behind Onion Maiden have different ideas — like Vietnamese noodle salad, tater tots covered in kimchi, or vegan hotdogs — but they still feel their dishes are comforting.
“We think of our food as comfort food,” says co-owner Brooks Criswell. “Everything on our menu is nostalgic.”
Onion Maiden started out as a pop-up food cart providing vegan festival-style food that could be eaten easily while standing up between shows. (Onion Maiden is a play on the name of metal band Iron Maiden.) In March, Onion Maiden opened up a 35-seat brick-and-mortar restaurant in Allentown’s business district. This gave the owners the opportunity to expand their menu and to pay more homage to chef Diana “Dingo” Ngo’s Southeast Asian and Chinese roots.
New specialties include a rice-noodle salad with peanuts and lemongrass, as well as a scallion-pancake taco filled with slow-cooked jackfruit — both of which, Criswell says, offer indulgent contrasts like sweet and savory, and crispy and chewy. There’s also a platter with sharp cashew cheese, baguette, chutney and apples, and the restaurant still offers a wide variety of the vegan hotdogs it popularized as a food cart.
Criswell says diners might call Onion Maiden’s cuisine Asian-American-vegan “fusion.” But he, Ngo and main baker Elyse Hoffman prefer to avoid labels. “People like to categorize us, but this is really just our take on food,” says Criswell.
Hoffman’s vegan-baked goods will also be given more room, thanks to the extra space a fixed venue provides. These include donuts topped with cookie crumbles, fruit-filled turnovers and muffins.
When Onion Maiden first opened in mid-March, Criswell says he worried many of the food cart’s fan wouldn’t cross a river and visit the Allentown space. But those fears quickly dissipated, as business has been steady.
“A lot of our friends and fans have already made multiple trips up here,” says Criswell. “And there are a ton of people I’ve never seen visiting, too. It’s a pleasant surprise.”