Think Globally Eat Locally
Pittsburgh slowly is moving closer to becoming a global dining destination while maintaining a culinary connection to its industrial past. PM Dining critic Hal B. Klein profiles 16 international restaurants you need to visit.
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Fresh Tofu Salad
Myat Theingi and Aye Yee, natives of Myanmar (previously known as Burma), opened their restaurant in November 2014. Theingi won a fast-track green-card lottery in 2002 and moved to Pittsburgh in 2008 after living in New York City, Florida and Albany. She worked for five years running a sushi franchise at a Giant Eagle in Irwin; when the grocery chain decided to drop the franchise, she paired with Yee to create a restaurant with a taste of their homeland. The two women share kitchen and front-of-house duties.
Burmese cuisine draws primarily from the flavors of Thailand, Cambodia and India, with some Chinese influence, though it usually doesn’t reach the peak heat of those countries. Royal Myanmar crafts first-rate versions of popular dishes such as leq-p’eq, a fermented tea-leaf salad with crunchy peas, beans and greens. Or try a crispy yellow tofu (Burmese tofu is made with chickpea flour rather than soybeans) salad with shredded cabbage, cilantro and tamarind sauce. For heartier dishes, order traditional items such as mo hin gar (savory fish noodle soup) or the Indian-influenced curried chicken and potatoes served with pratha (flaky, fried flatbread).
Pickled Pork Noodle Soup
Fengping Geng and Feng Gao operated their Squirrel Hill establishment as a generic, hybrid Japanese/Chinese restaurant when they opened over a decade ago. It made sense at the time. The two immigrants from Ningxia — a small, autonomous region in north-central China — both had worked in standardized Japanese and Chinese restaurants since they moved to Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s. However, when northern Chinese professors and students realized that Gao also could cook specialties, they started calling ahead and asking for them. The word got out, and soon there was a handwritten, one-page northern Chinese menu. Then there was a two-page menu and then three pages. Gao returned to China to attend culinary school in Xi’an to expand his repertoire. The expansive menu now includes a significant number of Ningxia and Shaanxi dishes.
Ningxia and Shaanxi provinces are part of China’s wheat-growing region, something that’s reflected in the region’s preference for hand-drawn, hand-pulled noodles (all produced in-house at Sakura) over rice-based dishes. Lamb dishes play a prominent role in the cuisine as a result of the area’s sizeable Muslim population. Xi’an, Shaanxi’s largest city, was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road; centuries of cultural and culinary exchange have influenced the cooking. The menu at Sakura is drawn-out, with lists of sushi, Japanese dishes, Americanized Chinese dishes and some Sichuan cuisine thrown in the mix. The draw, though, is Gao’s regional cuisine. Order dishes such as egg-filled pancake, shredded pancake lamb soup and Qishan minced-pork noodles.
Spicy Crab Special
Wei Zhu, executive chef and owner of Chengdu Gourmet, grew up in Chengdu City in China’s Sichuan province. He moved to the United States in 2005, and to Pittsburgh in 2006 to work as the chef of China Star in McCandless Township. He was head chef of Szechuan Gourmet in Squirrel Hill before opening Chengdu Gourmet in 2014. Zhu’s culinary skills now are respected in Pittsburgh and beyond — Chengdu Gourmet is a Pittsburgh Magazine Best Restaurant, and Zhu was a PM 2016 Outstanding in Their Field Chef; this year he was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards as Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic.
The reason for those accolades becomes apparent when touring Zhu’s Sichuan cuisine menus. Picking a favorite dish is impossible. The important thing to remember when ordering Sichuan fare is that you should aim to assemble a meal that balances the mala dishes (those flavored with the fiery fervor of chili paste and the numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns) with sour, sweet and savory items. For example, you could balance mapo tofu and cumin lamb with mellow dishes such as sauteed water spinach or snow-pea shoots and eggplant with garlic sauce. Or, get the ever-addictive Chongqing crispy chicken, vinegary yam noodles, beef hot-pot and Chinese broccoli with black pepper and napa with tofu and gingko. Return to Chengdu Gourmet and repeat with new items.
Dorota and Slawomir Pyszkowski opened their Strip District market in 2008 as a means to connect Pittsburgh’s Polish community, as well as a broader audience, with food from their homeland. The couple returned to Poland last year and sold the business to Gretchen and Matt McDaniel; the duo plan to continue the Pyszkowksi’s mission to celebrate the cuisine of Poland. In fact, general manager Agnieszka Sornek says that the kitchen’s offerings likely are going to expand over the next few years.
Jadzia Tereszkiewicz and Basia Gątarz run the kitchen at S&D. Pierogi — the ever-popular boiled wheat dumplings stuffed with potato and cheese and finished in butter and onions — are the number one draw, but diners looking for a taste of Poland also should consider going deeper into the menu. Kiszka, for example, is a sausage prepared with a combination of organ meat and grains and then is served fried with onions. Tripe soup is prepared every weekend and forest mushroom soup is made with a selection of dried, imported mushrooms. Stuffed cabbage with tomato sauce, red and white preparations of borscht, kielbasa and potato pancakes also are worth ordering.