On this day, 237 years ago, some wily revolutionaries penned the Declaration of Independence, paving the way for the founding of this great United States of America.
And on this day, about four years ago, I wandered into an Indian restaurant in Oakland for some buffet lunch. The man who rang me up for a styrofoam container full of naan, basmati and creamy chicken stew looked at me curiously and said, "Shouldn't you be eating a hot dog or something?"
It got me thinking: Why are hot dogs -- Germanic in origin and enjoyed by people on nearly every continent -- considered so distinctly American? Why can't chicken makhani be a part of the American palate, too?
So it's fitting that today I'm writing about a Taiwanese place, I-Tea Cafe, that serves a Japanese specialty called Shabu-Shabu out of a small, cozy storefront on a leafy street in the heart of Shadyside. I-Tea occupies a space that used to house a homey Italian restaurant. It has been remodeled, making the interior modern and bright with a counter that serves playful bubble teas and cold-brewed coffee from a three-level, futuristic contraption.
If you've never had Shabu-Shabu (also known as hot pot), you might assume it's a special kind of massage or a breed of miniature dog. But, no, it's an enchanting interactive meal experience, the restaurant version of choose-your-own-adventure. For a Goldilocks-like picky eater like myself, it's ideal.
Here's how it works. You've got induction burners (the kind that only get hot when they're touching metal) installed right where a dinner plate might go, with some cryptic symbols that require a little fiddling before you figure out how to turn them on. Next, you order your meal, which all come with a standard, subtly flavored golden broth in a pan on the induction burner. Regardless of what you order, you get a standard setup of accoutrements -- vegetables come in towering dishes that look a bit like vases, Napa cabbage artfully placed alongside long-stemmed enoki mushrooms, with an uncooked egg (still in its shell), a piece of taro root, tofu and other treats nestled inside.
Then comes the entree portion -- in our case beef ($13.95), fresh seafood ($17.95) and vegetarian ($11.95). For good measure, we ordered shrimp balls ($3).
For an extra dollar, we ordered one of our broths "spicy."
Fire it up and start cooking -- leafy vegetables first, tofu next, noodles later and finally, meat. The beef came thinly sliced and marbled with fat; the seafood plate was an elaborate arrangement of raw fish, shell-on shrimp and mussels. It all requires a bit of deftness with chopsticks or, perhaps, a more experienced friend, like Allison, formerly known as Enthusiastic Eater Friend of Munch. This wasn't her first rodeo.
When it's all cooked, you ladle it into your own bowl and top it with more add-ons -- cilantro, scallions, garlic, chili paste, Taiwanese barbecue sauce, Chinese black vinegar -- to your liking. Beware of the spicy condiments, says Julia, formerly Vegetarian Photographer Friend of Munch, who found her mouth on fire.
Our server was exceedingly patient with us. She refilled our broth out of a tea kettle a handful of times and even generously replaced our spicy broth with regular when it was clear our untrained palates couldn't handle it.
Lucas, formerly known as Ultra-Marathoning Friend of Munch, took the endurance route, dumping in everything at once and then fishing it out with his chopsticks while it was still hot. He discovered it was a good way to scald your mouth and overcook your meat.
Brady, the eater formerly known as Sportswriter Friend of Munch, opted for something simpler -- the beef stew noodle soup ($9.95), a rich broth with chewy noodles, chunks of braised beef and vegetables.
The service is fairly swift at I-Tea (after all, you're the one doing the cooking), but our meal lasted a good couple of hours as we savored laughs and conversation over the slow boil of the broth. Perhaps because my company hailed from Cajun Louisiana, from China via Los Angeles and from Monroeville, and perhaps because we literally ate steaming pots of soup, the experience symbolized, in a way, our expanding definition of American.
So on this day, celebrate America, the melting pot. In the end, diversity means freedom for you palate -- the freedom to savor hot dogs, hamburgers or hot pot all within a few blocks of each other.
I-Tea Cafe is at 709 Bellefonte St., Shadyside; 412-688-8330 or http://iteacafepittsburgh.com/.
Moriah Balingit: email@example.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.