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.
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.
Taiwanese chunk chicken, a specialty at the Rose Tea Cafe in Squirrel Hill.
A must-have under Fried Rice & Noodles is the traditional beef-stew noodle soup ($8.50). The meaty broth, seasoned with star anise, is packed with chewy, wide noodles; big chunks of tender stew meat and wilted Chinese greens. If you order this dish or other soup dishes to go, the restaurant will thoughtfully pack the noodles in a separate container so they don’t get soggy.
A healthy noodle choice is the rice-cake soup ($7.95), which can be ordered with vegetables alone or with chicken, pork or beef. The chicken features a nice, light chicken broth packed with big chunks of vegetables (mushrooms, carrots and onions), large pieces of chicken breast and al dente medallion-shaped rice cakes standing in for noodles. This dish is very mild and benefits from the addition of some soy or chili sauce.
Under Chef Special, a popular item is kim chi in a hot pot. Request vegetable, seafood mix, pork or beef ($10.95-$14.95), and receive a bubbling pot of the meat and broth of your choosing, vegetables and spicy kim chi (fermented cabbage).
I do not recommend the seafood-mix option. In general, the quality of the seafood at Rose Tea Cafe is lacking; combine the poor seafood ingredients with the continuous cooking of the hot pot, and you get a very tough result.
Note that Rose Tea Cafe does use MSG in some of its dishes. Ask your server to nix the MSG, and your dish will be made accordingly.
Rose Tea Cafe offers more than 50 hot and cold specialty drinks including milk teas, green and black teas, milk shakes, smoothies and exotic drinks, all of which can be ordered with tapioca pearls. The addition of these pearls creates a "bubble tea," also known as "boba" or "pearl tea."
A modern Taiwanese drink (said to be invented in the 1980s), bubble teas can feature various combinations of tea, fruit, milk, powdered-drink mix and sugar, which are then mixed or blended with ice, and complemented by a few tablespoons of cooked tapioca pearls in the bottom of the glass. The tea is served with a fat straw, which lets you suck up and chew the bubbles while you drink the liquid. (Rose Tea Cafe offers two sizes of bubbles; I prefer the bigger quarter-inch bubbles.)
And speaking of bubble tea: Rose Tea Cafe actually started off as a bubble tea shop in 2004 before it became a full-service restaurant. The drink selection here is mind-boggling and allows for a lot of happy experimentation. Once you try bubble tea, you might become addicted.
My favorite drinks are the jasmine green tea, the lemon green tea and the mango smoothie. You can ask for your tea drinks with half sugar or light sugar since they tend to be rather sweet. The teas are a little pricey at $3.50 for 16 ounces and $4.50 to $4.75 for 22 ounces.
A warning: Depending on the busyness of the restaurant, Rose Tea Cafe may not allow you to sit at a table to drink tea without also ordering food.
The interior of Rose Tea Cafe is pleasant enough with wooden tables, yellow walls and stylized metal chairs. It seats about 35 and offers a tiny waiting area for takeout orders. (Although the restaurant offers takeout, it does not deliver.)
It is easy to get a table at lunch, but for dinner, plan on waiting or go early or late. The service is fast: Food often arrives within five minutes of placing your order. Although I have not had a bad experience with the service, I have heard from others that during busy times, diners feel pressured to finish their meal and vacate their table for the waiting customers.
Rose Tea does not offer dessert, so if your sweet tooth has not been satisfied by a bubble tea, venture on to the many ice-cream and frozen-yogurt shops populating Squirrel Hill.