In the dining rooms of Squirrel Hill's Chinese restaurants, you're likely to see more red than usual, a symbol of luck and fortune. It's because Friday marks the beginning of the Year of the Horse, with a 15-day celebration that ends on the full moon. The horse stands for adventure and romance, two things that are quite welcome during this stretch of sub-zero temperatures.
Holidays offer an excuse for decadent eating. The Lunar New Year inspires feasts in China, Vietnam and Korea in particular, where noodles, dumplings, fish and pork symbolize longevity, prosperity and abundance. As in any celebration, there is a big role for sweets, which include eight kinds of dried fruits, oranges, tangerines and a chewy cake made from rice flour.
For Asians, the new year is a time to celebrate family over meals cooked at home. "It's very traditional," said Thy Ngo, owner of Tan Lac Vien, which opened last year. "Many of the dishes served at home aren't offered in restaurants."
But for those who won't be cooking up their own Lunar New Year feasts, Squirrel Hill is the most diverse neighborhood to explore, since it has the highest concentration of Asian restaurants.
What's exciting about eating around Squirrel Hill is that there isn't a "best" Chinese restaurant. Instead, diners can visit a handful of places to enjoy homestyle or regional specialties made with such care that it's clear that they resonate with the cook.
How to find these special dishes on pan-Asian menus or among unfamiliar items on "secret" menus? Exercise a little persistence and most servers will guide you to dishes they like rather than the ones they think you'll like.
They include those listed below that deliver authenticity for the new year and beyond.
The back-page Sichuan menu at How Lee (5888 Forbes Ave., 412-422-1888) features dishes from the southwest region of China highlighted by bold flavors from garlic, chili peppers and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. You'll find mala tofu ($9.95), an aromatic dish of hot chilis and chili oil with tofu, scallions and black beans. Ground rather than whole Sichuan peppercorns, which numb the taste buds and momentarily change the flavor of things, raise the intensity of this dish. (As you douse the heat with a glass of water, it will taste faintly of soap.)
But mala tofu isn't the most popular plate. Chengdu dry-fried chicken is a crowd-pleaser, with chicken slathered with an addictive combination of red chilis, Sichuan peppercorns and chili bean paste. The meat dries out a bit as the ingredients caramelize and that's how it's supposed to be.
My favorite is the tiger skin peppers -- papery and blistered, dressed in salt and oil. I dream of this simple dish and its punishing heat. Though the restaurant is open for lunch, the Sichuan menu is only available during dinner.
With its sushi bar and extensive menu that includes Chinese-American dishes, Sakura Teppanyaki and Sushi (5882 Forbes Ave., 412-422-7188) may be confusing to diners looking for Chinese regional cuisine. In fact, the restaurant features a handful of entrees from Yinchuan, the inland city in the Ningxia province.
Fengping "Ping" Geng and her husband, Feng Gao, labor over the shredded pancake and lamb soup ($12.95) with scallions, cilantro and chili oil in a lamb broth that simmers for five hours. They also recommend the most popular regional specialty, the Xinjiang-style chicken ($19.95 for two), with potatoes, green peppers, star anise, chilis and homemade noodles.
Sakura attracts students from the region. They come for the barbecue pork sandwich ($3.95), a snack from Xi'an of braised pork, a sweet and tangy sauce with peppers, onions and cilantro in a bun. They're also drawn to weekend breakfasts (from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) of fermented tofu, congee, donuts, steamed buns and scallion pancakes.
"Students come from Ohio, all over Pennsylvania and West Virginia," said a manager. "And they're all taking photos to show their families back in China."
There's often a line at Everyday Noodles (5875 Forbes Ave., 412-421-6668), the year-old shop from owner Mike Chen. A dining experience during a trip to Toronto motivated him to bring authentic Chinese cuisine to Pittsburgh. Since then, he has worked with the Taiwanese government to bring cooks here for six-month stints. Even with the regular chef changes, the restaurant is in its groove, dishing up value and pleasing diners.
The most popular orders (at $9 to $12) are soup dumplings, also known as xiao long bao, which were difficult to find in these parts before the shop opened. The variations on noodle soup are also terrific, with its noodles pulled to order and flavorful cuts of meat. More adventurous diners should order the braised beef tendon over rice ($10), a gelatinous dish doctored with a sweet and savory glaze.
At Rose Tea Cafe (58741/2 Forbes Ave., 412-421-2238) peanuts, chicken and chili meet whole cloves of garlic served in a cast-iron skillet. It's chunk chicken, a dish that will sear the memory with the aromatics of garlic, ginger and basil.
Rose Tea Cafe was started by Mike Wu and his sisters in a tiny storefront in 2001, serving Taiwanese bubble tea and a limited menu of snack foods. It expanded to a second location in Oakland last year. Both restaurants offers green or black teas with or without tapioca bubbles, as well as milkshakes in exotic flavors such as red bean and papaya.
In keeping with a Taiwanese penchant for snacking, the restaurant offers plenty of smaller dishes such as the infamous "smelled bean curd" ($6.25), aka stinky tofu that's fermented then fried and dressed in a sweet and spicy sauce.
In Cantonese cuisine, there's a rhythm from bland to more assertive courses, though no dish features too much spice, said Carol Cheng, owner of Ka Mei (2209 Murray Ave., 412-422-2828). Having moved from Hong Kong to Pittsburgh in the 1980s, she and her husband, Kwok-Wah Cheng, have been cooking home-style meals at Ka Mei since 2006.
Start with some of the city's best pork dumplings, followed by whole fish layered with ginger, scallions and soy. Ms. Cheng will serve it tableside, removing the head and spine with a few deft knife cuts.
Don't miss crunchy noodles, a tangle of curls that grows as it absorbs broth. Dolloped with shiitakes, pork, bean sprouts and carrots, it's a balance of savory, salty and umami flavors. It's quite a complement to dow may -- sweet, bright pea greens with garlic.
New Dumpling House (2138 Murray Ave., 412-422-4178) is one of the few Chinese restaurants in Squirrel Hill that serves alcohol, from retro tiki drinks such as mai tais and scorpion bowls to Sapporo (to pair with sushi) and Tsingtao beers. Though hybrid dishes such as mala edamame with hot chili and Sichuan peppercorns are novelties, the classic Peking duck ($28) is a specialty, with its crackly, golden skin. Diners dress pancakes with hoisin sauce, then stuff it with roasted breast and thigh meat, scallions, cucumbers and bean sprouts. The skin is a terrific garnish, but my table inhaled it before it made its way into pancakes.
At Sichuan Gourmet (1900 Murray Ave., 412-521-1313) co-owner Wei You said the "Year of the Horse is a good year for China." He came to Pittsburgh from Shanghai because of his wife's scientific research three years ago, when he opened the restaurant with two partners.
He suggested starting with sauteed duck tongue with scallions and pepper sauce ($8.95), "a very traditional preparation." Eating duck tongue is similar to eating an artichoke leaf because of cartilage that runs down the center.
For an entree he likes beef with hot peppers ($15.95) for meat eaters and one of several spicy preparations of whole fish with chilis ($26.95), his favorite.
At Tan Lac Vien (2144 Murray Ave., 412-521-8888), which opened last year, diners order pho dac biet ($13), an aromatic beef broth with star anise, layered with tripe, beef, tendon and meatball. The runner-up is bun dac biet, a noodle bowl with grilled pork and shrimp. Doctor the dishes with fish or hot sauce, basil, mint and bean sprouts. Neither order reflects home cooking, but they're the most popular items on the menu.
While a trip to Squirrel Hill may not offer a Lunar New Year adventure as encompassing as a trip to China, it can be a journey of discovery -- and even romance -- for diners with a curious mind and a daring palate.
Melissa McCart is the Post-Gazette dining critic: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.