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Dining Review: Chinatown Inn keeps it fresh and made to order

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

By Woodene Merriman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Chinatown Inn today is a mix of the new and the old. The new: Chinese karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights, 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Wei Yee manages the Chinatown Inn, on Third Avenue, in what was once the heart of Pittsburgh's Chinatown.
Click photo for larger image.

If You Go

Chinatown Inn is located at 520-522 Third Ave., Downtown. Phone: 412-261-1292. Full range of Chinese dishes, with emphasis on Cantonese cuisine. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Fridays; noon-3 a.m., Saturdays; 2-10 p.m. Sundays. Free parking in lot next door after 6 p.m. Monday-Friday, all day on weekends. Smoking permitted in bar area; full bar; wheelchair accessible.

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The old: Chinese specialties individually prepared in the large Cantonese wok. No buffet-style steam tables here.

Those in the know can order dishes that are not on the menu, too, like chow har lok, a shrimp dish on a tomato-chili base.

"Those in the know" include customers like former Mayor Sophie Masloff (she gets chop suey take-out) and Chicago Cubs' infielder Sammy Sosa (fried rice and hot and sour soup).

Then there is the customer who takes a cooler packed with 30 or 40 Chinatown Inn egg rolls every time he flies to Florida, and the former Steubenville police chief and his wife, who drive to Pittsburgh regularly to eat here.

The egg rolls are worth carrying to Florida. They're as good as you can get -- big, fresh tasting, a little crispy outside but not hard, with a savory mix of vegetables, shrimp, pork and/or chicken, in whatever combination you order. It's the Chinatown Inn pastry, "more demanding in the preparation," that makes them special, says Jonathan Yee, proprietor.

Yee, who grew up in Mt. Lebanon and graduated from Duquesne University, and his wife, Wei Yee, a native of Wuhan, China, and a Robert Morris graduate, now run the restaurant started by his grandfather in 1943. Jonathan's late father, Soolim Yee, took it over in 1945 when he came back from serving in the army during World War II.

Today, Jonathan usually is in the kitchen, Wei is behind the cash register for the midday lunch rush, and sometimes Mom is in the restaurant to greet friends.

Jonathan's brother, Leong, is in the film business in New York City, and his sister, Ming Na Wen, is a film and TV star. Remember her in "As the World Turns," "E.R.," "The Joy Luck Club" and as the voice of Fa Mu Lan in "The Legend of Mulan"?

Ming Na once waited tables at the Chinatown Inn while she was a student at Carnegie Mellon University. "But she was not a very good waitress," Jonathan says, adding with a laugh: "She knows it."

The Yees are Cantonese, and traditional Cantonese woks are still used in the kitchen. The Cantonese wok is bigger -- 18 to 20 inches in diameter -- and the cook stir-fries with chopsticks in both hands. Modern woks are smaller, 12 to 14 inches in diameter, and the cook works with one hand. (Yes, Chinatown Inn also has a smaller wok in the kitchen.)

Barbecued spare ribs, sweet and meaty, are a long-time favorite at the Chinatown Inn. And hot and sour soup truly is both, with a heat that sneaks up on you. The wonton soup, with big floppy wontons and almost-clear broth, is made to order for the wimps among us.

Not surprisingly, General Tso's chicken, beef or shrimp is one of the most popular dishes. But the menu has much more to offer, from lamb que Hunan style to Chinese hot pot with seafood. Having a problem making up my mind one day, I asked for help. I specified only that I would like pork, and I like a little "heat." Out came a beautiful, colorful dish of sliced pork, baby corns, Chinese pea pods, zucchini, mushrooms, water chestnuts and green peppers. The pork was fork tender, the veggies slightly crisp. My sinuses opened, my nose watered, and I was a happy eater.

His Honor, the man who never saw a green bean he didn't like, ordered the string beans with beef, naturally, and was impressed. The dish was made with fresh green beans.

In two recent visits to the Chinatown Inn, I had one major disappointment: No Peking duck. The restaurant prepares Peking duck only if it is ordered days in advance, Jonathan Yee says.

More changes are on the way. Like the old Chinatown, the Chinatown Inn keeps changing. With so many law offices in the neighborhood, lunch is the busiest time of day. He's reworking the menu now, Yee says, and plans to offer much more seafood, in keeping with current trends. But he has no plans to put in a buffet line, like so many other newer Chinese restaurants. "Everything must be prepared to order," he says. That includes the fried rice.

Lunch is a busy time in the 150-seat restaurant. Take-out and delivery is popular. Dinner is a little unpredictable. Weekend karaoke draws a young crowd.

One of the best ways to sample the Chinatown Inn fare is to order the daily lunch special, served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 3 p.m. Saturday. The price ranges from $6.45 to $7, depending on whether you order vegetarian, beef, poultry or seafood. The price includes wonton soup, hot and sour soup, egg drop soup or egg roll, the shrimp, chicken or vegetable entree and steamed white or plain fried rice. I'll bet you'll ask for a take-out box, too.

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