Hong Kong Style: Squirrel Hill's Kamei fills a niche for Asian cuisine
Share with others:
The Year of the Pig will dawn on Feb. 18, and Pittsburgh's Asian community will begin a two-week celebration which is laden with history, traditions and superstitions.Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Looking for a way to celebrate Chinese New Year? Drop into KaMei in Squirrel Hill, owned by Carol Cheng.
Click photo for larger image.
2209 Murray Ave.
Hours: Noon-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.
Basics: A casual, family-run restaurant serving Hong Kong cuisine including many noodle dishes frequently served as street food in Asia. The interior is clean and uncluttered. The napkins are paper, and you are welcome to bring your own wine or spirits. This restaurant is an exceptionally good value. Take-out available.
Prices: Appetizers, $1.35-$3.95; entrees, $6.95-$14.95; BYOB.
Summary: No smoking; accessible; cash or checks only. Parking available in public lot with meters directly behind the restaurant.
Food customs are an important part of the New Year festivities. Families come together to eat foods that are reputed to bring happiness, wealth and longevity. Bamboo shoots are a symbol of orderly life. Lotus seeds will bring male offspring. A whole fish represents togetherness and abundance, and a whole chicken symbolizes prosperity. Dumplings are eaten because their shape resembles the ancient Chinese gold ingot and so are thought to bring great wealth to those who consume them. Superstitious Chinese will always wear red for the New Year dinner since red is thought to bring good luck. They will also wear new shoes to step into the new year.
The annual New Year's banquet by the Organization of Chinese Americans in Pittsburgh will be Feb. 24 at the Syria Shriners Center in Cheswick.
To pay homage to Chinese New Year in a more simple fashion, I suggest a visit to a Squirrel Hill restaurant that specializes in Hong Kong-style cuisine.
KaMei, the newest addition to the Forbes and Murray collection of Asian restaurants, is owned by Carol and Kwok-wah Cheng, who came from Hong Kong to Pittsburgh in 1985 and previously owned Tasty in Shadyside. This Squirrel Hill location seats 50 in a bright and cheerful room with white walls and framed art. I love the floor-to-ceiling wall in the vestibule which is entirely covered with color pictures of most of the foods on the menu. In Tokyo, restaurants regularly display faithful plastic reproductions of foods from their menu, but this is the first time I have seen a menu reproduced in color photos.
There are two menus at KaMei: One is pan-Chinese and the other is Hong Kong cuisine, where you will find dishes not normally served in other restaurants. For example, there are a number of congees, a rice porridge that is considered not only food but also a part of traditional Chinese medicine. It is easily digested and acts as a cooling agent if there is fever or inflammation in the body. The Chinese believe that congee is a positive influence on "q" (pronounced chee), the life force. Perhaps that explains why many San Francisco friends swear by a late-night stop in Chinatown for a bowl of congee to ward off the effects of too much partying. Some congee ingredients are chosen for their therapeutic value and added to the thick, viscous rice preparation; ginger is for stomach ailments, and sugar for vomiting or indigestion. At KaMei you can have congee with spareribs, beef, chicken, shrimp or preserved egg with pork. All are $6.95 for an entree-size portion.
There are a number of noodle soups that also could be considered entrees. My favorite is the flavorful Shrimp Wonton Soup ($6.95), loaded with wontons stuffed with minced shrimp and ginger. If you love shrimp, don't miss Salted Shrimp ($11.95), which are served Hong Kong style, which means with heads attached and in their shells. I have never forgotten the first time I spied a table of "ladies who lunch" at a famous Hong Kong restaurant dining on shrimp still in the shell. I couldn't take my eyes off those elegant-looking women who were swallowing shrimp, shells and all. When presented with my own salted shrimp, I did what I thought was the lady-like thing and removed the shrimp from the shell with a knife and fork before eating them. Little did I know that I was missing the great flavor of the salty shells as well as the crispy texture they provided. Only after I was taught the right way to eat salted shrimp did I get the full pleasure this dish provides. At KaMei, an order consists of 24 large shrimp, enough for a table of four.
The best beef dishes are the ones with the meat referred to as "steak." I particularly like Steak with Black Pepper Sauce ($14.95). Sauteed steak slices are coated in black pepper and sauced in a peppery brown sauce with bell peppers. The assertiveness of the black pepper, although not overly hot, brought out the sweetness of the green peppers and complemented the steak. It also benefits from having fewer rather than more ingredients. Eight Treasure Hot Pot ($9.95), on the other hand, has eight ingredients, including pork, shrimp, chicken and beef, plus a number of vegetables in a bland sauce. The pork tasted slightly old, and the overwhelming number of ingredients reminded me of what my mother called "refrigerator hash" when she served some dish she concocted from all the leftovers in the fridge.
Eggplant with Garlic Sauce and Ground Pork ($8.95) is made with the delicious, small Chinese eggplant that never has a bitter taste. The garlic in the sauce is just enough to add an interesting punch without overpowering the mild-flavored eggplant. Water spinach in bean sauce ($9.95) is an opportunity to taste an unusual Chinese vegetable that Westerners do not know. It is not actually spinach, but a vine that grows to heights of 60 feet and has leaves that that Westerners do not know. It is not actually spinach, but a vine that grows to heights of 60 feet and has leaves similar to morning glory vines.
Hong Kong or Cantonese cuisine is noted for noodle preparations, and KaMei's menu has no fewer than 43 noodle dishes. You can have them braised or pan-fried and served with a number of toppings. If you have never eaten chow fun, now is your chance. Chow fun are wide, flat, rice noodles that have to be eaten fresh. The chewy texture of this noodle is unlike any pasta or noodle you know. Chow fun can be ordered with a number of sauces and additions. Singapore Chow Fun ($7.95), with a touch of curry, is my favorite.
By the time Carol Cheng brings the fortune cookies to your table, you will feel that you have been on a magic carpet voyage to Hong Kong. The only thing missing was the firecrackers. Gung Hay Fat Choy in the year of the pig!
First Published February 15, 2007 12:00 am