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Dining Review: Spice Island still holds its flavor

Friday, July 11, 2003

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In a town that's busting out all over with new Asian restaurants -- nine of them opened in 2002 alone -- it's sometimes important to check back with some of the earliest contenders to see how they're keeping up.

Patrons at the Spice Island Tea House get pan-Asian cuisine with a slight

hippie vibe. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)


Critic's call:

253 Atwood St. 412-687-8821

HOURS: Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; closed Sunday.

BASICS: Unpretentious, charming, inexpensive pan-Asian restaurant popular with Pittsburgh's student population; for vegetarians, any meal will be made vegan upon request. Children are welcome. Entrees range from $6.95 to $12.50. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible. No smoking. Street parking. BYOB.

The Spice Island Tea House, which the Lee family opened in 1995, gave Pittsburghers one of their first chances to taste the fresh, clean, aromatic flavors of Southeast Asian cooking, and it's still holding its own today, even with the advent of more sophisticated (and slightly-to-much-more-expensive) eateries like Soba or Bangkok Balcony.

In fact, if I could just choose one inexpensive place to go to, week in and week out, for food that gave me plenty of bang for the buck, Spice Island would probably be it.

Located in a dingy looking storefront on Atwood Street, Spice Island still has that slightly faded/seedy/hippie aura -- as if Alice's Restaurant had decided to go pan-Asian -- with its sagging wicker sofas, flea-market lampshades and waitresses who all look like yoga instructors. There's even a little Buddhist shrine toward the back of the restaurant, with daily food offerings. The windowless space, with its "distressed" terra-cotta-colored walls, can seem cavelike, but when candles are lit, there's a romantic glow. Spice Island was charming then, and it is charming now, especially because the food -- so bright with lemongrass, kaffir lime and coriander -- can't help but put you in a good mood.

Spice Island still attracts a heavy student crowd -- it was recently described as one of the top five "date" restaurants in the University of Pittsburgh student newspaper. But it's not a particularly rambunctious clientele -- it can be noisy, but not deafening (unlike Cafe Asia, where, on one night, we had to strain to hear each other over the noise from five fraternity brothers at a nearby table, pahnding dahn the Irons with their Penang curries).

During one visit, when my husband and I brought our three kids, there were children at two other tables enjoying the exotic yet family-friendly fare: curried vegetarian samosas ($3.50), Sumatran corn-and-shrimp fritters ($3.50), and their choice of not one but three kinds of fried rice: Java, Burmese or Indonesian (all $5.50). My daughters, initially dismayed to see no chicken fingers on the menu, were wolfing down the fritters and the fried rice in no time.

And unlike some of the newer, sleeker pan-Asian places, where service can be chaotic, Spice Island's experience shows: Even on a crowded night, meals were served with efficiency and cheerfulness. The iced tea of the day ($1) is one of the big attractions: Spice Island takes its tea seriously -- just look at the jars upon jars of loose-leaf teas up on the shelves -- and you can order pitcher after pitcher of freshly brewed Oolong or perfumed apricot tea to enhance the meal. (Otherwise, you'll have to settle for an interesting selection of sodas, or bottled water, or BYOB.)

Some of the dishes may lack the "finish" of those served by Bangkok Balcony, Soba or other more expensive places, but don't be deceived by appearances: The tea leaf salad ($4.25) (with just a few tea leaf strands sprinkled on top) is addictive, combining the crunch of cabbage and peanuts with the tang of tomato and onion in a spicy garlic lemon marinade -- even if it did arrive dumped into a small, unprepossessing oval dish, the kind your grandmother used to serve celery in.

The aforementioned fritters are a tantalizing mix of sweet corn and savory chopped shrimp, fried until golden, accompanied by a tart dipping sauce ($3.50). The samosas, filled with curry-flavored mashed potatoes and vegetables, are light as a feather, as are the two tiny vegetarian spring rolls ($1.50). For those averse to fried foods, the steamed vegetable roll ($2) in a rice noodle wrapper is a good, if somewhat bland, alternative -- as were the Burmese squash fritters, batter-dipped fried calabash, an Asian squash. The flavors could have been kicked up a bit in those last two selections.

The entrees featured plenty of noodle dishes as well as what the menu calls the "ever famous" Pad Thai. There's also beef, chicken and seafood of best quality -- no "mystery meat" here or fatty poultry, despite the low prices. Spice Island serves one of the best satays in town -- skewered chicken or pork ($7.95), beef ($8.95), shrimp ($11.95) or a combination of all four ($9.50). They're all marinated in peanut paste, garlic oil, soy sauce and coconut milk, cooked over a lava rock grill and artfully presented with peas and rice over which translucent crescents of cucumber float.

For heartier appetites, there are some substantial, slow-cooked beef dishes: the lemongrass beef ($8.50) was so tender I could have eaten it with a spoon. Served in a "Burmese style" tomato-based curry sauce, the beefy flavor seemed to overpower the delicate, soapy lemongrass seasoning. I couldn't tell much of a difference between it and Rendang ($8.50), also a beef dish -- strips instead of chunks -- where the predominant flavoring is coconut milk. A stir-fried shrimp dish, Sambal Goreng Udang, ($12.50) featured kaffir lime leaves -- perhaps my favorite of all Asian seasonings for its indescribable fragrance -- in a tamarind coconut sauce. It was good, if not stunning, unlike a similar dish featuring kaffir at Cafe Asia, where the chef boasted of buying the leaves fresh. Could that have been the difference?

While Dave and Andy's incomparable ice cream shop is just a block or two down the street, it's worth hanging on here for dessert: Order a square of the warm, dense, eggy coconut cake ($1.50), whose plainness belies its richness; then top it with a delicately flavored mango ice cream ($1.50).

When Spice Island's thirtysomething owner, Ron Lee, says pan-Asian, he means it: His mom is Burmese (and cooks at one of the family's other restaurants across the street, Road to Karakesh), and the menu lists other dishes from India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. What that means, exactly, is another story for another time -- this is a complex cuisine whose methods and ingredients vary even within countries. Still, my bible on the subject -- "Hot Sour Salty Sweet" by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid -- describes a region surrounding the Mekong River's watershed with a "shared palate," just as Moroccan, Italian, Spanish, Israeli and Greek cooking shares the moniker "Mediterranean."

Suffice it to say, if you love fresh food and the perfumed flavors of lemongrass or lime or curry mixed with the earthiness of garlic, plan a visit -- or a return visit -- to Spice Island. It's still awesome after all these years.

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.

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