Rose Tea Cafe
The charming Rose Tea Cafe arises to add some bubbles and more, including a touch of Taiwan, to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
The interior of the Rose Tea Cafe amid the hustle and bustle of a recent afternoon lunch hour.
Photos by Laura Petrilla
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Everyone has a favorite neighborhood restaurant. Mine is Rose Tea Cafe, a small Taiwanese restaurant in Squirrel Hill's business district owned by a Taiwanese woman named Ya Pint. I love this restaurant because the food is varied and packed with flavor; the service is quick, and the "bubble tea" (more on that later ... ) is addictive.
Bloggers will tell you that Rose Tea Cafe is the most authentic Taiwanese food in Pittsburgh. From inside the restaurant, you'll see buses unloading groups of Asian students from Oakland. Manager Jojo Wu says the restaurant's patrons have become increasingly diverse over the past six years.
Ordering at Rose Tea Cafe can be a challenge because the menu is long and offers about 120 dishes with nondescriptive names such as "string bean with pork," "string bean with beef" and "string bean with chicken." Members of the wait staff are hesitant to make recommendations, but if you press them, they will guide you toward excellent choices.
After almost weekly visits to Rose Tea Cafe for several years, I have finally made a dent on the menu. On one visit, I brought along my college friend who's a Taiwanese immigrant. After a prolonged conversation with the waiter in Taiwanese, she very specifically placed our order, cutting through the mystery of the menu in less than five minutes. A lasting recommendation from her is the salt-and-pepper shrimp, which is shrimp coated with salt and pepper and fried. You can eat the shell or peel it off for a messy but delicious treat.
For appetizers, here are some reliable choices:
Taiwanese sausage ($5.25): Simply a plate of sliced, fried sausage, deliciously sweet and not too fatty.
Scallion pancake with egg ($3.95): A mild pancake made of rice flour and scallions, fried and layered with cooked eggs.
Taro cake ($5.25): Taro root (a tropical root), formed into a cake, sliced and fried, is sweet and starchy like a potato dish.
Steamed pork dumplings ($4.95): The pork dumplings have thick, doughy skins and tasty pork filling, making them a great choice for kids.
For the more adventurous palate, try the marinated seaweed ($4.95): half-inch strips of seaweed tied in knots and marinated in vinegar. Not recommended are the very oily vegetable spring rolls ($1.50).
On the appetizer and main menus, you will find some interesting ingredients, including fresh lily, loofah and lotus flowers (some only available seasonally).
The main dishes are divided into Taiwanese Special, Chef's Special and Fried Rice and Noodles. My absolute favorite, must-have dish is the Taiwanese chunk chicken ($12.95) found in the "Taiwanese Special" section. This signature dish from Taiwan is nicknamed "three-cup chicken" because the sauce includes equal parts of three ingredients-soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. It combines chunks of chicken thigh, an abundant quantity of whole garlic cloves, ginger, hot peppers, fresh basil and the sauce. You (and your taste buds) will be thrilled by this dish's amazing balance of pungent, spicy and sweet flavors.
Another favorite choice in the Taiwanese Special section is shredded beef with Chinese hot pepper ($12.95). It's a simple dish consisting of two components in almost equal parts-strips of beef and strips of Chinese hot green peppers. Warning: It's hot. But the spiciness of the peppers is tantalizing, and it's hard to stop eating.
At the opposite extreme are the traditional Taiwanese-style meatballs ($13.95)-a plate of giant creamy meatballs with no spiciness at all.