Sesame Inn a safe haven
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Chinese restaurants were, before fast-food chains, America's best source of interesting, quick and inexpensive meals in cities with Chinese populations. Pittsburgh was one, with its First Side Chinatown. San Francisco, where I grew up, was another, and my family went often. Though it wasn't an issue in those days, we were probably consuming as many calories and as much fat as we would today in a quarter-pounder with cheese and fries.Amazing Chicken at the Sesame Inn in Mt. Lebanon is their most popular dish. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)
715 Washington Road
Hours: Mondays-Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sundays noon-9 p.m.
Basics: A Chinese menu of impressive breadth served in four locations. Reasonable prices for both food and wine. Appetizers, $1.75 (soup) to 11.95; entrees, $5.95 (lunch) to $16.95 (lobster), dessert, $4.50. Parking is either validated or in restaurant lot. Wheelchair accessible. Mt. Lebanon is a nonsmoking environment, but the other locations have smoking sections. Each has a full bar.
Most Chinatown restaurants of that period were simple, large, brightly lit dining rooms filled with the actual Chinese residents of the city. A family of four could eat an exotic and satisfying meal for less than $5. Since the menus were written in Chinese, most patrons would let the waiter decide what they should order. New York and San Francisco were meccas for Chinese food lovers, but small neighborhood Chinese restaurants were found in many towns across the country.
George Lee, a Taiwanese-American, opened the Sesame Inn in Mt. Lebanon in 1987. It was quickly recognized as Pittsburgh's best Chinese restaurant. The mother restaurant soon spawned babies and now there are Sesame Inns in Station Square, McMurray and Ross. The Mt. Lebanon location on Washington Road is on the second floor of what once was Horne's Department Store. The interior is spacious and attractive though not especially Asian in decor. Lights are bright. There are booths along one side and large tables in the center that are equipped with Lazy Susans. We all know that the absolutely best way to enjoy Chinese cuisine is in a group of six or more diners who order an assortment of dishes to share. One of the great mysteries of Chinese restaurants is how one kitchen can prepare all the dishes offered on the vast menus. The Sesame menu lists a whopping 133 entrees, 40 of them designated "Chef's Specials." Add to that seven varieties of fried rice, eight soups and 15 appetizers and it becomes nearly impossible to decide on the best choice. Even though these days all of it is in English, I can't help wanting to ask the waiter to order for me.
Chinese soups are excellent. The Chinese do not consider them a start to a meal but instead more as a beverage or a complement to the entree, and they are consumed intermittently throughout the meal. I tried Sesame's hot and sour soup ($1.75), a classic Asian combination of sharp and peppery tastes. The chicken velvet corn soup ($4.25 for two) is a delicious combination of creamed corn and chicken chunks seasoned with ginger, scallions and cilantro.
My experience with appetizers was less satisfactory. A pu-pu platter for two ($11.95) came with an assortment of shrimp, chicken, beef spareribs and egg roll. This should have been a perfect way to taste an assortment of appetizers featured on the menu. Sadly, everything on the platter seemed old and dried out and verged on being inedible. Our waiter did notice that this order was left largely untouched and offered to bring an alternate appetizer. We declined, but he did not remove this item from the bill.
Four kitchens at four Sesame Inn outlets, each serving the same myriad dishes prepared by four different chefs, makes it difficult to do a fair evaluation of each. My visits were to the Mt. Lebanon and Station Square locations. At both of these, the rooms were filled with patrons who seemed to be regular customers. A high percentage of return customers is normally a great sign that a restaurant will provide a positive dining experience. A lunch with soup, fried rice, entree, tea and fortune cookie for $5.95 has to be the best value in Pittsburgh. In spite of the low price, the portions are huge, meaning that most diners leave with half of their lunch in a Styrofoam box. There are no less than 50 entrees on the luncheon menu. The sterile room and perfunctory service felt more like a cafeteria than a restaurant. In spite of the bargain prices, I would not return.
Dinner in Mt. Lebanon was an improvement on the lunch experience. The wait staff was attentive and knowledgeable. The results from the kitchen were patchy. Crispy scallops with zesty sauce ($12.95) were neither crispy nor zesty. Sesame beef ($12.95) sauteed in a spicy/hot sauce and served with fried bean noodles was well executed even though again the hot sauce was less fiery than expected. General Tso Chicken ($9.95) is the restaurant's most popular dish. Chunks of dark meat chicken are marinated in egg white, cornstarch and oil before being fried. This produces a crispy outside and a smooth and tender flesh. The Chinese call this process for meats "velveting," as that is the sensation of the meat on the tongue. The General Tso sauce is sweet, tangy and easy to like.
Since the Chinese use so much sugar in many of their sauces, dessert is often overkill. I did try the Apple Fritter, which was more savory than sweet. Six thin slices of peeled and cored apple were coated in Panko bread crumbs and deep-fried, then sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and chopped peanuts. One order will serve two, but next time I will skip dessert.
A wine list, with most labels available by either glass or bottle, has a good selection of moderately priced wines. Glasses are $5.50-$8.75; bottles are $22-$34. A dinner for two without wine can easily be less than $30.
On a Sunday night, the Sesame Inn dining room is filled with family groups. They appear to appreciate the opportunity to enjoy one of the world's great cuisines at an affordable price and in a comfortable setting. My own appreciation of dinner at the Sesame Inn was diminished by sauces that lacked the punch and individuality of the classic Chinese recipes. Entrees marked as hot and spicy on the menu were in most cases insipid. If the kitchen insists on taming the seasoning it might at least provide soy sauce and garlic chili oil at each table. Instead it provides salt and pepper, a perfect indication of the difference between a Chinatown experience and Chinese food reconfigured for a Pittsburgh audience.
First Published May 14, 2004 12:00 am