No Chinatown? No Problem! Part VIII – Pittsburgh

David R. Chan

Photo by Bob Collins / Flickr

In this multi-part survey of Chinese food in different cities across the United States, a number of distinct models arise. Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York have a 19th century core Chinatown that still exists today, but where the best Chinese food has migrated to the suburbs. In cities like San Diego, Phoenix, and St. Louis, the historic core Chinatown became extinct, but the Chinese community was later revived in the suburbs, as the repeal of Chinese exclusion laws brought in a new wave of Chinese immigrants. Cities like Las Vegas, Dallas, and Atlanta never had a historic core Chinatown, but developed Chinese communities in the 20th century post-immigration reform years. In Houston, a small downtown Chinatown developed during the period of immigration exclusion, followed by a larger suburban Chinese community later in the 20th century. And in Chicago, the historic core Chinatown still dominates.

Pittsburgh does not fit any of these patterns. While it did have a historic center city Chinatown that thrived in the early 20th century, Pittsburgh’s Chinatown all but disappeared by the 1950s. There is but one remnant of the historic Chinatown in Pittsburgh: the still-operating Chinatown Inn spanning two buildings and serving predominantly old-time Cantonese favorites to the downtown lunch crowd. Unlike the other cities visited in this series, there was no late 20th century revival of the Chinese community in Pittsburgh. And yet, the past four or five years have seen numerous authentic Chinese restaurants popping up in the Squirrel Hill and Oakland neighborhoods. What happened?

The answer to the 21st century emergence of authentic Chinese food in Pittsburgh is actually related to another phenomenon I recently chronicled: the appearance of authentic Chinese restaurants in college towns. The surge in mainland Chinese college students has brought authentic Chinese food to dozens of towns like Storrs, CT, Tallahassee, FL, and Lawrence, KS, for the first time ever. Today’s Chinese foreign students from mainland China are more numerous, more well-heeled, and less inclined to compromise their eating habits than prior generations of international Chinese students from Hong Kong and Taiwan. While Pittsburgh is not a college town in the traditional sense, it is home to major universities like the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne, and Carnegie Mellon, which have brought thousands of mainland Chinese students into Pittsburgh in search of education… and authentic Chinese food.

Not surprisingly, the neighborhoods of Oakland and Squirrel Hill, about two miles apart, book-end an area of Pittsburgh that contains both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, with Oakland on the west and Squirrel Hill on the east. Perhaps the leading Chinese restaurant in the area is Sichuan Gourmet, with locations in both Oakland and Squirrel Hill. The Squirrel Hill location opened four years ago, catering to Carnegie Mellon students by delivering lunch boxes of authentic Sichuan-style food. The Oakland branch opened in the summer of 2015 for Pitt students. The menu of over 150 items would satisfy any Sichuan food partisan who’s eaten in the San Gabriel Valley, San Francisco, or New York, including items such as spicy frog, rabbit with vegetables in chili broth, Chengdu-style beef, and rice balls in wine soup. The original Squirrel Hill location also serves egg rolls and crab Rangoon, but the new branch dispenses with the Americanized menu.

A number of Squirrel Hill’s authentic Chinese restaurants can be found along the 5800 block of Forbes Ave. Perhaps the most popular eatery here is Everyday Noodles, which skews to the Shanghai and Taiwanese end of the spectrum with goodies such as xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), Taiwanese sesame noodles, and beef noodle soup. Xi’an-style food is served at the unlikely named Sakura Teppanyaki and Sushi, whose owner-chef is from Xi’an and serves local dishes such as lamb skewers and egg pancakes, quite amazing considering that Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco each have no more than a handful of restaurants serving this style of Chinese food. Sakura also serves a wide variety of Sichuan-style hotpots, along with Americanized Chinese food and Japanese favorites. Another Sichuan-style specialist is How Lee Chinese Food, with dishes such as Chongqing chicken, Sichuan string beans, and spicy Sichuan fish. Rose Tea Café is a favorite for Taiwanese dishes, such as stinky tofu, marinated dried bean curd, Taiwanese sausage, and of course boba tea, as well as its signature kimchi fried rice. And perhaps the only place to get a wide variety of dim sum in Pittsburgh is Sun Penang, which also serves Malaysian food. Though it’s not a Cantonese restaurant, Sun Penang does have a nice selection of dim sum items including chicken feet, fried shrimp balls, and water chestnut cake.

Among Chinese restaurants elsewhere in Squirrel Hill, there is Chengdu Gourmet, another Sichuan specialist known for its Chongqing beef, while New Dumpling House’s menu includes Sichuan dumplings and Peking duck.

You may have noticed that there has been little mention so far of Cantonese food. As I have noted in the past, Cantonese food has declined significantly in relative importance in Chinese American communities in recent years, and this is especially the case in Pittsburgh. Though there had been a couple of Cantonese dim sum places in Pittsburgh, they closed down, including the restaurant that previously occupied Sichuan Gourmet’s Squirrel Hill location. Fortunately, one Squirrel Hill restaurant, Ka Mei, does a brisk business serving authentic Hong Kong fare such as jook, steamed fish, and fish ball noodle soup.

While there are fewer authentic Chinese options in Oakland, they are sufficient to keep Pitt’s Chinese students happy. A totally unique restaurant is Hunan Bar, which has a full menu of Sichuan-style items, and also Hunan favorites like red braised pork belly and beggar’s chicken in Hunan sauce. But what makes Hunan Bar different is that on top of the Sichuan and Hunan dishes, it also serves Cuban food including Cuban sandwiches and empanadas. Keeping with the Sichuan trend in Oakland are Tong’s Cuisine and Szechuan Express, as well as LuLu’s Noodles for noodles and boba drinks.

One caveat is that most of the restaurants mentioned here also serve Americanized Chinese food, and in most cases that portion of the menu should be avoided. It will be interesting to see if more authentic Chinese restaurants continue to open in Pittsburgh, or whether it’s a one-time jump relating to the corresponding increase in international Chinese students. In any event, lovers of Chinese food in Pittsburgh are thankful for this sudden turnaround in the local Chinese food scene, in yet another manifestation of the new face of Chinese dining in the United States.

"No Chinatown? No Problem! Part VIII – Pittsburgh" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.