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Munch goes to How Lee

Growing up is hard to do.

Munch often feels stuck in that awkward place in life between growing older and growing up, amply evident in the House of Munch. When is it time for the "Scarface" poster to come down? Is Munch too old for sippy cups and SpongeBob SquarePants dishware? Should the beer bong come out of the china cabinet?

And for a while, How Lee seemed stuck in the same position, its Squirrel Hill storefront the bachelor pad equivalent of a restaurant. The walls and counter were painted stark white, illuminated further by extremely bright fluorescent lights. And its menu was predictable: standard Chinese-American fare. Their motto included the words "reasonably priced."

But then How Lee grew up and became New How Lee. Gone is the white counter that constituted most of the storefront and the bright fluorescent lights that were like a beacon atop Squirrel Hill and seemed to illuminate the entire Forbes Avenue corridor.

Now the dining room is, well, an actual dining room, with sleek tables and warm lighting. There's a host, that's right a host, who seats you in the long, narrow dining room. And there are fancy schmancy menus, encased in plastic.

But this was far from just a superficial makeover. New How Lee has swapped its yawn-worthy collection of hor funs and beef with broccolis for menu items such as twice-cooked pork belly and intestines, things you don't often see served in Pittsburgh. (Or if it is, they don't tell you.) Nope, New How Lee now has grown-up food to go with its grown-up menus.

Munch and FOMs, including the one who insisted on being called Single Tall Redhead Friend of Munch (and who apparently thinks Munch is a matchmaker), Louisiana Friend of Munch, Indian Friend of Munch, Bowling Queen Friend of Munch and Visiting Friend of Munch, stuck with the Sichuan menu, on which the items were annotated with chili symbols to indicate spice level.

We started off with the Chongqing Dumplings ($4.95), perfectly soft starchy pillows stuffed with meat and drenched in a savory, sweet sauce. And they had a curious bite that snuck up on Munch. They got a thumbs up by all.

The Fried Scallion Pancakes ($3.95), which oozed grease with every bite, were up to par to the ones served by their neighbors at Rose Tea, but, complained VFOM, they were hardly like the ones he'd scored in New York City.

Even the Vegetable Tofu Soup ($5.95), a deceptively simple-looking broth chock full of tofu and vegetables, was a standout. The broth was "surprisingly delicious and full of flavor," commented LFOM, quite the compliment from a guy who eats everything with Cajun seasoning.

Then came the entrees. Munch brazenly ordered several dishes with chili annotations next to them to indicate spiciness. It was a mistake.

The innocuous-sounding Tofu with Minced Pork ($9.95) came swimming in a lava of red chili sauce with Sichuan peppercorns, which have a mildly floral taste and a bite of their own. Even IFOM, who's known for drowning his food in hot sauce, remarked that it was "a little spicy."

The Chicken Chili Pot ($14.95), in a metal pot set over a flame, had a similar effect. Swimming in a sauce with dried peppers and more Sichuan peppercorns, it was slightly less spicy. But the peppercorns were tongue-numbing and made water taste almost brassy. LFOM was not a huge fan of this, and BQFOM said it cleared her sinuses.

The Tea-Smoked Duck was a steal at $14.95. Munch hasn't seen them this cheap since Father of Munch started plucking them out of Highland Park Reservoir and cooking them himself. It was a little on the tough side but subtly flavored, a hit with STRFOM who had never had duck before.

Finally, Munch ordered the Honey Walnut Shrimp ($13.95), a Chinese-American classic that provided sweet relief to our spice-scorched palates. Deep-fried shrimp were dressed with a sweet sauce and then topped with candied walnuts. The dish sat atop a bed of gently steamed broccoli. BQFOM said she thought the walnuts added a nice crunch.

The grown-up New How Lee is a vast improvement over the old one, although it could still mature. The food was delivered quickly, but VFOM was left with a mouth aflame with spice with no water, despite having asked for it several times. A dish was forgotten, although the food ordered ended up being ample anyhow.

The experience got Munch thinking about this whole adulthood thing. Maybe it's finally time to give up the "Animal House" poster and the four-day-a-week drinking habit.