Dining Review: Orient Kitchen and Rose Tea Cafe serve authentic Chinese cuisine

Made in China

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John Heller, Post-GazetteThe Orient Kitchen in Shadyside keeps fresh sea bass in its tanks, which can be ready in 20 minutes.

Orient Kitchen

4808 Baum Blvd.

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily.
Prices: Appetizers, $3-$10.95; entrees, $7.95-$16.95; wines, $3.95-$12 for a 5-ounce pour.
Summary: Smoking; accessible (two small steps); major credit cards accepted. Free parking on the grounds.

Rose Tea Cafe

5874 1/2 Forbes Ave.
Squirrel Hill

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays.
Prices: Appetizers, $1.25-$6.95; entrees, $7.25-$17.95; bubble tea, $3.25.
Summary: Nonsmoking; accessible; Visa, Mastercard accepted. Metered parking on Forbes Avenue.

I recently read that more than 30 percent of toys, apparel, shoes, batteries, suitcases, lamps, pillows, furniture, computers, cameras, televisions and small electrical appliances sold in the United States are tagged "Made in China."

Even such American icons as Stanley tools, Fedders air conditioners, Huffy bikes, Sunbeam mixers and Radio Flyer wagons are now made there. Wal-Mart alone spent $12 billion last year on "Made in China" products.

People are talking about the Chinese invasion of the United States but from a restaurant perspective, the Chinese invasion of our country began in the 19th century in California Gold Rush country, where Chinese immigrants opened canteens serving miners a modified version of their native cuisine. Today, according to the Chinese Restaurant News, there are close to 36,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States. That is more than the number of McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King franchises combined.

Sadly, what is served in many of these restaurants is more American than Chinese. Chop suey, sweet and sour pork and fortune cookies are purely American inventions unknown in China. I still remember restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown that had two menus, one for Americans and the other for Chinese customers.

In Pittsburgh, we are lucky to have some authentic Chinese restaurants that have only one menu, a traditional Chinese one. No sweet and sour pork. No chop suey. Though they look like most other neighborhood Chinese restaurants, these restaurants will open new taste experiences for those wishing to explore beyond the familiar.

The Orient Kitchen in Shadyside is the favorite of UPMC's famous orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Freddie Fu. Dr. Fu and his wife, Hilda, are from Hong Kong, also the home of Orient Kitchen owners Simon and May Yip. The dining rooms here are clean and brightly lit but otherwise unremarkable. It is the vast menu and the unusual offerings that separate this kitchen from its more mundane cousins. Mr. Yip receives deliveries of produce and fish from New York's Chinatown twice a week. The fish are kept live in tanks in the dining area, and guests can choose an individual fish just as they would in the best restaurants in Chinatown or Hong Kong.

Among the most unusual soups on the menu are those made with fish maw. Crabmeat and fish maw soup for two ($7.95) gets its intriguing subtle flavor from fish maw, the dried air bladder from a large fish. A broth with fish maw is considered a health tonic. Steamed whole sea bass (price varies, but a small fish was $24.95) is infused with ginger and scallion, which imparts a gentle perfume without overpowering the delicate fish. Salt-baked squid with hot pepper ($10.95) is actually lightly battered and fried with just a hint of garlic and enough heat from the Chinese chili to make it interesting. I've never tasted a more tender squid.

May Yip recommended Shrimp with Mayonnaise ($12.95). Nothing in that dull-sounding name prepared me for the exciting dish that arrived. The sauce was not mayonnaise at all but something creamy, sweet and lemony at the same time. In the center of each shrimp was a candied walnut. The combination of that crunch with the crisply fried shrimp and creamy sauce was a unique taste treat.

Other dishes one would encounter in Hong Kong would be Short Beef Ribs with black pepper sauce ($12.95). The plate contains about 12 small ribs in a peppery sauce laced with honey for a delightful taste bomb. From the vegetable menu May steered us to Stir-fried Chinese Water Spinach ($10.95) and Stir-fried Bean Leaf ($12.95). These unusual vegetables are rarely found on restaurant menus outside of a major city's Chinatown. If they seem pricey, it is because the raw ingredients cost upward of $12 a pound. The water spinach has hollow stems and grows in ponds. Although it is leafy and green, it is not related to spinach but to Morning Glory vines that grow in tropical swamps. Bean leaf is the leaf of young and tender snow peas. Both are sauteed with garlic.

Orient Kitchen has a full bar. The wine list of 100 wines includes sakes and Chinese plum wine in addition to the usual assortment of reds and whites. Among the 15 beers sold here are Chinese and Japanese brews. Wine is available by the glass, priced from $3.95 to $12. Orient Kitchen is as close to Hong Kong as Pittsburgh is likely to get.

A totally different but equally authentic Chinese meal can be found at Rose Tea Cafe in Squirrel Hill. Helen Wu and her four sisters opened the cafe in a tiny storefront several years ago to serve Taiwanese "bubble tea" and a limited menu of snack foods. Bubble tea is a Taiwanese invention that has developed a large following in many parts of the United States. It is green or black tea flavored with sweetened fruit syrups and a dollop of milk, shaken with ice and served over "bubbles," which are black beads of pearl tapioca. An extra fat straw allows the chewy bubbles to be slurped along with the icy tea. It is more a dessert than a beverage. Helen claims that hers is by far the finest in America.

The cafe recently moved a few doors away, where a full-size kitchen permits the sisters to offer a complete menu of Taiwanese specialities. A distinguishing characteristic of Taiwanese food is the relatively large number of ingredients in the sauces and the number of different sauces they enjoy.

Nor Yu, the cafe's chef, is 70 years old, has been cooking professionally for more than 50 years and is a master at creating sauces, which are layered with complex flavors. His Shredded Pork with Pickled Cabbage Soup ($4.95 for two) is a memorable example of this talent. The vinegary vegetable is as much a part of the flavoring as it is a primary soup ingredient. A hint of black pepper gives a spicy edge to the whole. Scallion Pancake with Egg ($3.25) is equally impressive. A light crepe flecked with green onions is rolled around a flat omelette and sliced into pretty pinwheels of green and yellow. Fried Dumplings (eight pieces, $4.25) are plump pillows of gingery pork and water chestnut stuffing served with a great dipping sauce of soy spiked with sugar, vinegar and garlic.

I passed on the Pork Intestine, a big hit in Taiwan, and followed the waiter's advice instead. His excellent suggestion was Chunk Chicken ($10.95). This sizzling crock of white chicken pieces baked in a sauce seasoned with ginger, basil and garlic will easily serve two people. He also recommended Shredded Beef with Hot Pepper ($9.95). The stir-fried beef is covered in a very spicy sauce with a strong hint of garlic. Vegetarians will find a number of unusual bean curd and fried noodle dishes on the menu.

As long as Mr. Yu remains in the kitchen, I will make regular pilgrimages to Rose Tea Cafe to taste his unusual and authentic Taiwanese creations. This is the kind of "Made in China" invasion you have to love.

Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.


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