Cafe 33 in Squirrel Hill serves authenticity, consistency

When I went through the long list of appetizers, meat, noodle and vegetarian options on the menu at the Taiwanese restaurant, Cafe 33, it was daunting — I didn’t know where to begin.

Do I start with the familiar soup pork buns or order something I know nothing about such as the Drunken Chicken Leg? Do I give a nod to the island nation and make a meal of its famed street foods or save space for at least one seafood entree? Do I brave it and try the stinky bean curd or play it safe and stick to the scallion pancake with beef?

Owner Jenny Tao opened the restaurant near the busy intersection of Forbes and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill last September, and has transformed what used to be a laundromat to a simple yet attractive space inside out.

The parking lot in front of the building is gone and has become an al fresco dining area. Wood floor-looking tiles have replaced the worn-out checkered blue-and-white tile floor. Fresh orchids on counter spaces add a pleasing floral touch.

Instead of the large storefront window, there are two smaller windows at the entrance. A glass garage door, which is rolled up on pleasant evenings, makes the space seem larger and draws in plenty of natural light. At nightfall, mini pendant lights woven with wood weaves and a soft red glow from behind the cushioned seating along the wall elegantly illuminate the dining room.

Horizontal artworks don the walls, along with a beautifully framed mirror that faces the entrance. Ms. Tao, who grew up amid rice fields in eastern Taiwan, explains that the mirror not only wards off negative energy as per feng shui, but also the round shape and the nearby square window connotes the ancient money of China, which was made with a square piece of metal and attached to a ring.

A brown string curtain with silver sparkles is the divider between the waiting/takeout area, where the bubble teas are whirled, and the dining room, which seats 40.

The clean and tasteful concept extends to the food, too. The kitchen delivers what the menu promises — something that some of the pricier restaurants in Pittsburgh don’t.

Textural contrasts make the scallion pancake with beef ($8) a pleasing way to begin the meal. Tender meat with a hint of spices is layered and rolled in a flaky, crispy and chewy pancake. Fresh crunchy pieces of cucumber tucked in pancake are a nice surprise.

The waiter cautions me about the smell when I order the smelly bean curd ($6.50), and for a brief minute, I regret for not having listened to him when the fried fermented tofu arrives with a tomato-garlic sauce. It has a sour, foul stench — something like wet garbage garnished with rotten eggs. The smell, however, seems to mellow when I have my second piece and by the third one, when topped with spicy pickled cabbage and carrot, it becomes enjoyable.

Cafe 33
1711 Shady Ave.
Squirrel Hill

    • Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
    • Prices: Starters: $1.50-$8; seafood: $12.95-$15.95; meats: $9.95-$15.95; vegetarian: $8.50-$12.95; noodles: $8.50-$12.95.
    • Sound level: Conversations drown soft music especially when the room is packed.
    • Details: BYOB. Wheelchair accessible. Parking on street and in parking lot behind Dunkin’ Donuts on Shady Avenue (but not right next door to Cafe 33 — that’s private property).
    • Wild card: Gelatinous tapioca pearls are freshly made twice a day for the light refreshing green tea with mango milk flavor and black tea with coconut flavor. Keep your fingers crossed that they are not sold out on busy nights.

Served cold in slices, the Drunken Chicken Leg ($8) is steamed, then dropped in ice to tenderize it and finally let to marinate in Chinese rice wine. I barely taste the alcohol, but the delicate chicken simply melts in the mouth. An added treat is the sweet dried red date that sits all by itself on the plate.

In Taiwan, when a baby turns 1-month-old, sticky rice is typically given to friends and family as part of the celebration. But there’s a gastronomic reason to celebrate Cafe 33’s version. Studded with dried black mushrooms and tender pork pieces, the plump sticky rice ($5) is pleasantly chewy and comforting.

Head chef Asan Jr. Tao, Ms. Tao’s husband, delivers another standout in the steamed mini soup pork buns ($8), which come piping hot in a bamboo basket. It’s important not to poke the delicate dumpling before eating the whole thing at once because then when you bite into it, the soup will flow out copiously without any mess. For additional flavor, don’t forget to dip the bun into the black vinegar-ginger sauce before popping it in the mouth.

The couple owned a Chinese restaurant in Rutland, Vt., before moving to Pittsburgh in 1994. He has been cooking in restaurants since 1983, and she worked in Osaka (Green Tree) and Sushi Too (Shadyside) before starting the solo venture. Mr. Tao’s father, Asan, was also a chef, and Cafe 33 is named after the father and son. “In Chinese, Asan means three,” Ms. Tao says.

Authenticity, heat level and seasonings are consistent in the entrees, too. Don’t dismiss the fluffy Pan Fried Egg ($8.50) laden with basil as just another omelet. The Taiwanese cousin speaks the language of its nemesis but only more eloquently. I could literally taste the delightful perfume of the Chinese basil.

The lovely basil appears also in Squid with Basil in Casserole, aka three-cup squid, named for the one cup each of sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine in it. The sauce didn’t taste like it used those measurements, for it wasn’t greasy or salty; only wondrous. But sadly the squid was overcooked and chewy.

Order the pork intestine in spicy sauce ($11.95) with an open mind, and it could become your BFF. It’s a profile in contrasts: spicy and tangy, and soft and crunchy. Absurdly tender meat is tangled with bamboo and garlic shoots, pickled mustard greens and steamed pig’s blood cake, a first for me but not the last.

On the other hand, I consider the pork chops over rice ($7.50) merely an acquaintance. The minced pork on top of the rice pops with spices and the soy-sauce marinated egg on the side is intriguing, but the boned pork chop is dry and rather bland.

Ginger hits a home run and the tender beef pulls a similar feat, too, in the Ginger Scallion Beef ($12.95). But there is an onion overload that I don’t care for.

Kim Chi Hot Pot with vegetables and bean curd ($10.95) has plenty of crunch and spicy punch going for it. It arrives bubbling on a table-top gas burner, along with white rice. Chestnuts, carrots, green bell peppers team with bean sprouts, broccoli and tofu in a thin sauce, and they will make any vegetarian happy.

Cafe 33 does not dumb down anything, and that’s such a relief. You don’t have to request a separate Chinese-language menu for specialties. And there’s none of that ubiquitous crab rangoon or heavily sauced and sweet General Tso’s chicken. The meal doesn’t end with fortune cookies either.

The place is busy every night of the week. But on Fridays and Saturdays when it’s bursting at the seams, service continues to be courteous and accommodating. On all my visits to Cafe 33, the parting comment from the waitstaff is “come back again.” And I will — again and again and again.




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