Dine: Savor gourmet flavors on a student budget

Spice Island Tea House tucks between student residences, a Cuban restaurant and a pizza joint on Atwood Street in Oakland. Inside at a communal table, four friends eat noodles with chopsticks. Nearby, an undergrad looks around while her parents talk over the menu. Yellow sponge-painted walls yield to the room's center, where red syncopated shelves hold glasses, cups and cylinders of tea. The room is full, mostly with students.

At my table, rice noodles ribbon in a mound on a serving plate, dressed in soy and spiked with Chinese sausage, shrimp and chilis. It's the savory meat that lures me to order Singapore Kway Teow, among the first meals I've had as a Pittsburgh resident.

"Are you gonna eat all that?" my server asks as she penned my order. I had also asked for Burmese Mohinga, a stew of fish broth laden with noodles, chickpeas, garlic, and lemongrass, garnished with a heap of cilantro. The two dishes are hearty for a solo diner. And at less than $10 apiece, they're also cheap.

No longer raised on meat and potatoes, students off to college or grad school these days have grown up on Japanese, Indian, Thai and Chinese cuisines. They may recognize culinary icons such as Bobby Flay or Julia Child. The most fluent foodies can even identify Modernist as a culinary genre. You know, the one that's part magic, part science: olive oil transformed into bon-bons or cocktails served as sorbet that tastes like an oyster.

Because of the country's increased preoccupation with food, students are arriving at school with a greater degree of culinary literacy. But exotic foods can come with fancy prices. What's a student on a budget to do?

I asked a handful of Pittsburghers to play sherpa and recommend interesting budget-conscious eats.

"You'd think students would be more food literate than in years past," says Bill Fuller, corporate chef of Big Burrito Restaurant Group. He cites crowds at The Porch at Schenley, 221 Schenley Drive in Oakland, as well as Fuel and Fuddle, 212 Oakland Ave., as student enthusiasm for fresh food, made from scratch.

Another of Mr. Fuller's recommendations is controversial: His very own Mad Mex on Atwood and Bates in Oakland, the only Mad Mex location to offer half-off food for students from 2 to 4 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. It's "ridiculously cheap," he observes, slashing the price of his favorite chickpea chili burrito to less than $5.

What's suspect about $5 burritos? Booze. And with booze comes drunken college kids. "I'd recommend it to your daughter if she's of age," writes a Chowhound member about Mad Mex on one of the blog's message boards. "Margaritas are the big draw there," of course, because they run from $7 for a 22-ounce margarita to $3 for a small one.

Mr. Fuller offers a note of caution in seeking out cheap eats to please a foodie. "Some interesting foods you'd think are inexpensive just aren't anymore," he says. "There are some traps." He cites the popularity of pork and the rise in the price of chicken. "Barbecue is not as cheap as you would think."

Looking for a deal, I headed to Union Pig & Chicken at 220 N. Highland in East Liberty for lunch rather than dinner. Opened in spring by executive chef Kevin Sousa of Salt of the Earth, it is rather spartan. Walls are papered with a riff on the red and white gingham tablecloth. The lone seats are benches attached to massive picnic tables. Meals are served on stainless steel trays.

Dinner here may run at least $11 to $22 a plate for meat and sides. Yet lunch affords decadence for less than $10. Steer toward the $7 fried chicken with golden, crisp skin that sheaths meat so juicy that the Colonel's is no contest. The low price includes a seasonal side, such as heirloom tomato salad crammed with cucumbers and red onion, although mac and cheese is the go-to for a traditionalist.

On the South Side, a newcomer also attempts to lure students with price breaks. Bridge Ten Brasserie offers a Drunken Goat happy hour weekdays from 5 to 7 p.m. and a short list of deals for students dubbed Le Menu Etudiant, the French word for student. Both list French classics from $5 to $7 such as mussels, fondue, frisee side salads garnished with runny egg, or a version of pizza layered with goat cheese, pork belly and watercress.

Despite the restaurant's recent debut, on a balmy evening its landscaped brick patio was filled with couples, enjoying the stunning view of the Tenth Street Bridge. A cheese gougeres wafted steam when torn. A bowl of mussels acquiesced to the simplicity of shellfish, garlic and shallots steeped in white wine.

The wine here is beautiful, too. No surprise because Bridge Ten Brasserie is the first restaurant venture from local wine writer and KQV radio host Dave DeSimone. Though Mr. DeSimone has priced a short list of drinks at $5 or less, a glass of white burgundy is not going to keep the tab down. The key to this exercise, of course, is staying disciplined.

It's easy to do so in the bar at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen at 1150 Smallman St. in the Strip, also a Big Burrito restaurant, where everything is $6 on the happy hour menu. In addition to a refreshing herb collins of Bluecoat Gin, St. Germain, house-made grenadine, house-made sour mix, egg white and local herbs, diners can choose from tuna tartare, mussels, oysters, crispy rock shrimp, charcuterie and oversized pretzels layered with cheese. Happy hour runs between 4 and 6 p.m.

Scott Bricker, a Pittsburgh lifer and executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, offers downscale selections, though no less interesting.

"My first recommendation is Lucy the banh mi sandwich lady in the Strip," he wrote in an email. Lucy Nguyen is the Vietnamese vendor who sets up a grill in front of My Ngoc Restaurant, 2120 Penn Ave. She's usually there seven days a week from early morning until late afternoon, selling banh mi, her take on Vietnamese hoagies, for $5 tofu or $6 chicken sandwiches.

Citing the greatness of a recent visit to Tram's Kitchen, 4050 Penn Ave., in Bloomfield, Mr. Bricker also suggests its $1.95 spring rolls and fried rice with tomatoes, tofu and lemongrass for $5.25.

Mr. Sousa stacks the list of Oakland spots with Lulu's Noodles at 300 S. Craig St. near Carnegie Museum and India Garden at 328 Atwood St. A colleague recommends the Dan Pauk biryani at Burma Tokyo at 320 Atwood. Another notes that the $7.99 lunch buffet at Tamarind Flavor of India, 257 N. Craig St., is "divine."

Back at Spice Island Tea House (253 Atwood), my young server boxed my leftovers. The tab cost me less than $20 for more than two meals. "We'll see you again soon," she says.

Based on the full house here for a menu with much to explore, no doubt there are plenty of regulars, especially students craving a world of flavors at a price point they can afford.

Dining critic Melissa McCart: mmccart@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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