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.
On weekend mornings, students from China gather around the tables at Sakura in Squirrel Hill to dip cylinders of crisp, fried dough into bowls of congee. At Royal Myanmar in the North Hills, Myat Theingi and Aye Yee serve a funky, fermented tea-leaf salad called leq-p’eq. Up in Allentown, Leon Rose prepares goat curry and jerk chicken at Leon’s Caribbean just like he did decades ago in his native Jamaica.
“We’re seeing a shift. The true vibrancy of a city is felt through the culture that you see, whether that’s a representation of the culture through food or music, or, more broadly speaking, the arts as a whole. That means a wider representation of people of color and different immigrant groups,” says Betty Cruz, director of Change Agency, a Pittsburgh-based social enterprise organization.
Pittsburgh’s restaurant culture has diversified over the past few years, and diners now are starting to embrace restaurants with owners and chefs who represent a heterogenous group of international cultural identities, while at the same time preserving the cultural heritage of the city’s industrial past.
The selection offered currently is less diverse than it could be — for example, I’d love to see Mexican, Filipino and Vietnamese cuisines making the same inroads here that they are in other cities. “It’s harder when you don’t know the rules, the certifications, the health codes or how to get your business started. The learning curve can be more complicated when you’re not from here and don’t speak the language,” Cruz says.
Even so, we have a strong cross-selection of restaurants for eaters to visit. And, being that more restaurant customers are eager to say, “Yes! Make it how you think it should be made,” it’s just going to keep getting better from here, too.
“There’s a recognition here that the market is not at all saturated when it comes to international food. Like any small business, there’s a risk. [Potential restaurant owners] can take calculated steps from light-level catering and festivals to opening their own small businesses, which is where we are right now,” says Cruz.
I hope that new migrants, partially refugee communities from Somalia, Syria and elsewhere, feel welcome enough to share the cuisine from their homelands, too, as they settle into Pittsburgh.
We searched for restaurants that have owners, head chefs or both with a profound and personal attachment to the particular geography of their establishment. We wanted those who were bold enough to embrace their cuisine as it should be rather than adapt to Americanized tastes. Finally, to narrow down the list to the final selections, we asked the most important question of all: Is it delicious?
This is Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2017 local guide to global eating.
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.
Omar Abuhejleh parents were raised in Nablus in what now is known as the West Bank; his father grew up in a farming village, his mother inside the city. They emigrated to Los Angeles, where Abuhejleh was born, and also lived in what Abuhejleh describes as a “classic company town” in Saudi Arabia. (He went to an American school where everyone’s parents worked for the same company.) Abuhejleh moved to Pittsburgh in 1996 to attend law school and followed his mother’s example and began to cook traditional Palestinian as well as pan-Arabian recipes to find a taste of home. Abuhejleh’s first foray into the professional culinary world happened when he was in college. In 2004, he purchased Allegro Hearth bakery.
Levantine cuisine covers a region that encompasses Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, all of which have rich culinary traditions, and the cuisine also is influenced by the foodways of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, as well as millennia of spice traders and travelers. Levantine food lends itself to a vegetable-forward menu, and Abuhejleh takes it to the next level at B52 by offering a 100 percent vegan menu. Fret not, tahini, the wonderful puree of sesame seeds, will make you forget about butter when eating B52’s selection of hummus, baba ganoush and fried cauliflower. Get an order of manakish; the za’atar-topped flatbread is particularly good (it also is an excellent topping on the non-Levantine but extraordinary french fries). B52’s Falafel sandwiches are perfect for a light lunch, particularly when paired with the amazing lentil soup.
Taiwanese Bistro Cafe 33
1711 Shady Ave., Squirrel Hill
Owners Jenny and Asan Tao
Book Tripe and Vegetables
Jenny Tao and her husband Asan emigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1983. The duo first worked in restaurants in New York, and in 1995 moved to Pittsburgh. Jenny Tao runs the front-of-house, and she says that customers shouldn’t come expecting to eat generic Chinese-American dishes such as orange beef and General Tso’s chicken. Her pleasant staff is happy to help guests navigate head-chef Asan Tao’s Taiwanese menu.
The nation’s cuisine is influenced by various regions of China as well as Japan. Open-minded eaters should look to offal. Start with tripe with spicy sauce, a delicious stir fry of cow-stomach and vegetables. Pork-blood tofu with garlic-chives soup is a comforting dish that’s perfect on a chilly day. Diners who want to ease in with something a little more familiar should start with Head of Flies, which is significantly less insect-forward then it sounds; minced pork and fermented black beans are stir-fried with garlic and sesame and then served over rice. Everyone should order a flaky, handmade scallion pancake with egg s well as a sauteed vegetable of their choice. Cafe 33 also serves very good xiao long bao (soup dumplings).
4141 Old William Penn Highway, Monroeville
Owner Manjunath Sherigar
Rice Served With A Variety Of Dishes
Owner Manjunath Sherigar is a native of Udupi, an ancient city in southwestern India. He had family living in Pittsburgh and decided to move here in 1996 because he felt that people in this area needed authentic Indian food; he opened Udipi Cafe later that year. The restaurant’s loyal customer base is drawn primarily from the nearby Sri Venkateswara Temple, one of the first traditional Hindu temples built in the United States, as well as from in-the-know diners, particularly people who eat plant-based diets. Udipi isn’t merely a trailblazing delicious Indian restaurant; it also is 100 percent vegetarian.
The restaurant’s team of chefs all hails from India. They craft a menu that’s rooted in southern India, particularly Andhra, Karnataka and Tuluva-Mangalorean cuisines. At the heart of Udipi’s menu is the dosa, made from a batter of ground, fermented rice and lentils and cooked on a griddle to the thinness of a crepe. They’re stuffed with ingredients such as potatoes, onions and chutney. The dosa, tender on the interior and ringed by the best sort of crispy edges, is folded into a triangle and served, flopping, over the side of a plate. Udipi’s menu includes curries, rice dishes and a variety of chutneys and condiments.
242 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside
Owners Watcharee Tongdee and Michael Johnson
Ingredients Assembled Before Cooking
The Tongdee family is Pittsburgh’s first family of Thai cuisine. Pusadee Tongdee emigrated from Tak, Thailand, more than 25 years ago, along with her children, Watcheree, Busaba “Gik” and Tony. The entire family collaborated on Pusadee’s Garden in Upper Lawrenceville. Watcheree struck out on her own with Bangkok Balcony, and, after she sold her stake in that restaurant, opened the now-closed Typhoon with her partner, Michael Johnson. The two now operate Noodlehead, a fast-casual concept inspired by food found at street markets in Thailand. In 2019, Wacheree and Busaba Tongee will, along with Johnson, open an expanded Pusadee’s Garden; there will be two restaurants (modern Thai and family style “baan baan”) and a larger garden.
Noodlehead’s menu features dishes that come from or are influenced by the family matriarch, Pusadee, with a focus, as implied by the name of the restaurant, on noodles. Chiang Mai curry — egg noodles, chicken, pickled mustard greens and crispy shallots in a yellow-curry — stands up to the restaurant’s noteworthy spicy (dishes can be made less spicy) backbone thanks to coconut milk. Green curry linguine is made with semolina-flour noodles and clams; Thai basil gives the dish an herbaceous backbone. Noodlehead’s chefs do a knock-up job with ubiquitous Thai noodle dishes such as pad kee mow and pad see yew, too.
Curry Goat (left) and Brown-Stew Chicken (right)
Leon Rose left his native Jamaica in 1979. The professionally trained chef — he went to culinary school in Jamaica — cooked for 10 years on cruise ships, then worked in Florida and New York before moving to Pittsburgh a little more than a decade ago to help a friend with Fireside Caribbean Restaurant in Wilkinsburg. Rose prides himself on the authenticity of his recipes but also says it’s fun to improvise from time to time. “My food is more outstanding than everyone else’s,” he says. Jamaican cuisine is a hybrid of indigenous Caribbean foodways, African cuisine, Spanish, Indian, Chinese and British cultures.
Rose’s curry goat is a good place to start. It’s laced with warm spice and fall-off-the-bone braised goat. Fiery jerk chicken, one of the best-known Jamaican dishes, is balanced with a side of rice and peas; for something a little milder go for brown-stew chicken, a braised dish prepared with garlic, tomato, bell peppers, onions and thyme. Rose makes a great version of escoveitched fish, a traditional Jamaican dish made with pan-fried red snapper flavored with Scotch Bonnet peppers, vinegar and allspice.
Hayrullo and Tahmina Umaraliev emigrated from Uzbekistan to Pittsburgh in 2012 to be closer to family members who were living in the city. They opened Kavsar in 2014 so that they could bring a taste of their country to Pittsburgh. Hayrullo handles business, logistics and shopping, and Tahmina runs the kitchen; she was a home cook before opening Kavsar, but, prior to this, had no restaurant cooking experience. Uzbekistan’s cities were significant points on the trade route from Turkey to China known as the Silk Road. This is reflected in the country’s cuisine, which blends influences from the Middle East with Chinese cuisine, particularly that of its Uyghur Muslim population.
Start a meal from Tahmina Umaraliev’s halal kitchen with lepeshka, a hearty, housemade flatbread. Samsa, crisp pastries filled with beef and onion (or, for vegetarian diners, spiced pumpkin), also are a tasty way to begin. Kavsar’s soup selection ranges from a cold, tangy preparation called okroshka to the rich and satisfying beef soup, shurpa. Manti, juicy dumplings stuffed with either beef or spinach, are a must-get entree. Lagman, an Uzbek dish of handmade noodles, beef and vegetables, is strongly influenced by both ends of the Silk Road.
Nak Won Garden
5504 Centre Ave., Shadyside
Owner Yank-Suk Beondy
Kimchi Scallion Pancake and Other Dishes
Yang-Suk Beondy was born in South Korea and moved to Pittsburgh in 1985. Always an avid home cook and passionate about hospitality, she decided to open Nak Won Garden with her brother, Chung-Chu Yi, a trained chef, in 2014. Her brother has since left the city, but she pressed on. Now, two Korean chefs, one with 45 years culinary experience and the other with 40, handle the kitchen while Beondy, who says she works as many as 18 hours per day, prepares the side dishes. “I don’t want fusion. I don’t want to Americanize. I want to make Korean food the best that we can,” she says.
Start with kimchi and scallion pancakes, gun mandoo (pan-fried beef and pork dumplings) and ddukbokki, tubes of glutinous rice cake stir-fried in a fiery mix with sweet-potato noodles, eggs, fish cakes and vegetables. Nak Won Garden’s kimchi-jjigae, a spicy, flavorful stew with pork, seafood, tofu and vegetables, is a warming and satisfying dish. Share an order of bibimbap, which comes sizzling in a stone bowl, eat some grilled meat and top off the meal with a whole-roasted mackerel. Korean cuisine can tilt hot — and at Nak Won Garden customers who love the burn can top their dishes off with a pure capsaicin sauce.
4401 Butler St., Lawrenceville
Owners/Chefs Domenic Branduzzi and Roger Li
Domenic Branduzzi and Roger Li both have a history of bringing their heritage to Pittsburgh’s tables. Branduzzi was born in Lucca, Italy, though his family is rooted in Pittsburgh — his parents Antonio and Carla ran a bakery in the Strip District, and Carla still makes the pasta at Piccolo Forno, Branduzzi’s 12-year-old Lawrenceville restaurant. Li, co-owner and executive chef of Umami, was born in Philadelphia to parents who emegrated from Hong Kong and has worked in restaurants most of his adult life. The two restaurant owners operate across the street from each other and decided to combine forces on Ki Ramen.
So what’s a restaurant that serves a Japanese speciality that’s run by chefs with Italian and Chinese heritage doing in this story? For starters, it’s very, very good. The duo (plus chef de cuisine Micah Maughan) have a menu of six preparations, all buoyed by three luscious, delicious broths. Branduzzi, who spent his life making pasta in the Italian tradition, here uses his skills (along with a Yamato Manufacturing noodle machine) to craft terrific ramen noodles. And Li harkens back to an earlier part of his career when he was a chef at Morimoto restaurant in Philadelphia, as well as frequent travel to Japan, to craft the broths and the rest of the menu.
Salem’s Market & Grill
2923 Penn Ave., Strip District
Owner/General Manager Abdullah Salem
Massaud Salem was born in Libya and moved to Pittsburgh in 1977 as a political refugee escaping persecution from his country’s government. He opened a halal butcher shop in Oakland in 1981 to serve the needs of customers who desired meat slaughtered according to that religious tradition. Later that decade, he started selling lamb and chicken curries as a way to use unsold meat; the idea caught on, and the menu expanded. In 2010, Salem’s moved to its current — and much larger — Strip District location.
Massaud’s son, Abdullah, now runs the business, which includes an international staff of butchers and cooks who emigrated to the United States from countries such as Yemen, Gambia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tunisia, Iraq, Algeria and Libya; newly settled refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia work here as well. Grab a quick and delicious lunch by choosing dishes such as lamb curry from the hot bar. Those items are served with heaps of pillowy rice and a side dish, such as creamy spinach paneer. Or, order from the grill menu of shish and seekh kebabs, lamb chops and shawarma. Specials such as goat biryani and tandoori chicken always are worth ordering. Salem’s also serves a knock-up version of perhaps the most typically American dish — the hamburger. Why? It gives the restaurant’s halal-diet clientele an opportunity to try something they can’t eat just about anywhere else that serves them.
Fish and Chips
British cuisine has taken broad strides toward destination dining in the past few decades, rooting itself in both time-honored recipes, thanks to the influence of chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fergus Henderson, as well as the global reach of its immigrant population. But for Drew Topping, whose maternal grandfather emigrated from Scotland, the role of the chip shop remains relevant as well. “I’ve been to the UK enough that I understood chip shops and their role in society,” he says.
Topping opened Piper’s Pub, a timelessly popular beer, whisky and pub-grub establishment, in 1999. When the building next to Piper’s Pub became available, Topping decided to offer something new rather than expand the concept. He opened The Pub Chip Shop in 2013. The fast-casual concept is based in a particular — and favorite — branch of British food: the local fry-up and pie shop. Its fish and chips — hand-battered haddock fried fresh every order served with crispy fries — are terrific doused in a bit of malt vinegar. Or, go for a bap — a simple sandwich served on a soft, buttery housemade roll. Still hungry? Order a savory pie; they begin with a lard-laced crust and are filled with mixes such as beef and ale, chicken tikka masala and pork and stilton.
Tea, Uni, Sashimi, Kobe Beef
Fumio Yasuzawa ended up in the United States because of a bad breakup. He was 23, living in Tokyo, feeling blue and looking to get away. “I was young and didn’t realize how far away New York City was,” he says. He spent the next two decades working in sushi restaurants in New York and New Jersey. By 1995, Yasuzawa was ready to escape the hectic pace of the NYC restaurant trade and felt like Pittsburgh had an ideal mix of opportunity and pace. Now, he has time for his hobbies, which includes carpentry — he built all the woodwork at Chaya except for the chairs — and gardening; Yasuzawa grows an array of Japanese fruits and vegetables on his 5-acre lot.
Yasuzawa opened Chaya in 2001 and moved it three doors up the block to its current, larger location in 2008. He serves sushi and sashimi — quality of the fish is solid and, just as importantly, Yasuzawa takes care to ensure that the rice is properly seasoned and served at the right temperature; Chaya also is one of the few restaurants in Pittsburgh to offer fresh wasabi as an accompaniment. Embrace the casual (and BYOB) atmosphere and order dishes such as broiled fish and chilled udon noodles. There are multiple permutations of multicourse dinners such as kaiseki, omakase and nabemono (hot pot); aromatic matsutake mushrooms are celebrated with a feast of their own in the autumn months.
Taste of Huszar Platter
Judy Torma’s father was active in the anti-communist Hungarian Uprising of 1956. As refugees, her parents escaped first to Austria and eventually resettled in Pittsburgh; her mother didn’t know it at the time, but she was pregnant with Judy when they fled by dump truck and through the woods. Torma’s mother worked as head chef in a catering business in Green Tree. Her father ran a North Side shot and beer joint. Torma, who has visited Hungry nearly 50 times and has a house in her family’s village, inherited the space after her parents both passed in 2015 and transformed it into Huszar. Hungarian cuisine often is lumped into a generic descriptor of “hunky” food, a now embraced, but once a derogatory, term to describe eastern and central European culture. But Hungary has its own proud culinary traditions, which include paprika-laced dishes, river fish, the marvelous Mangalitsa hog and a pastry tradition originating from Budapest’s role as co-equal capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Huszar is, reflective of its long history as a bar, a place to gather with friends and share home-cooked style food, stories and drinks. Start with a bowl of goulash, a paprika-rich infusion of beef and vegetables that’s quick to warm the bones. Chicken paprikás is a classic Hungarian dish, as are the tender homemade noodles they are served over at Huszar; pair it with káposztasaláta (red cabbage slaw) to add a contrast in texture and a punch of acidity. Huszar’s Hungarian menu tilts a little heavy, so, if you imbibe and it’s available, finish with a shot of Unicom, the country’s delightfully bracing digestif.