Long time readers will no doubt remember that my favorite Asian food restaurant in Pittsburgh is Rose Tea Cafe in Squirrel Hill. Rose Tea is so good that you can come back to Pittsburgh after a week in a city with a real Chinese Food community and eat there without blinking. If this was all they had achieved, the place would represent a true watershed in the food history of our fair city. But, Rose Tea has actually achieved much more than this and is therefore an even more important entity in the city. The reason is simple: they are teaching the locals how to eat real Chinese food by only serving them real Chinese food.
Serving people what they should be eating instead of what they think they want to eat can be a tricky business. There is that famous scene from the movie Big Night where the two Italian brothers, trying to make a living by running a restaurant in New Jersey, are completely befuddled by the idea that someone would order a side of pasta with their risotto. It’s not easy to break free of food inertia.
American Chinese food is full of tropes like these. The landscape is filled with “Pick your meat, pick your sauce (as long as it’s brown), pick your rice plus wonton soup and egg roll on the side” places. There are big ones and small ones, cheap ones and expensive ones. This template is so ubiquitous that it is almost impossible to escape even in places that also try to serve an audience after more authentic fare.
Rose Tea is different. Most Chinese restaurants that serve both a Chinese and American audience have two different menus, one of which you are familiar with and one of which you can’t read. Rose Tea does not do this. The only menu they have is a wide mix of Taiwanese-style dishes, starting with their “meat and rice on plate” specials, none of which come with a complimentary soggy egg roll or gelatinous hot and sour soup on the side. That the menu happens to contain a few standard fried rice and lo-mein dishes is just a happy coincidence. Those dishes fit the style of the place, which is “fast food.” That is, mostly simple dishes that are quick to prepare to order. Not cardboard food in cardboard boxes prepared by robots.
If you grew up in the sort of Chinese-American household that I did, the rest of the menu is a familiar set of dishes that your mom might have made, plus some more unusual delicacies that most places assume will not be to the taste of the local non-Chinese population (e.g. the fermented tofu, or the spicy soup with intestines in it). But Rose Tea makes no such assumptions. They show you these items in English so you can read and ask about it. Then you can have Helen the manager tell you with all the force of her personality why you should try it. This is why Rose Tea is important. Because Helen sells the food hard and gets people to go outside of their normal food boxes and try things that they would not normally consider.
Every time I go in the place I am struck not by the fact that the standard set of CMU or Pitt students of East Asian descent are in there eating their regular set of great home style dishes. I am struck by the fact that the rest of the place is filled with families from Squirrel Hill who have also learned to adopt some of these great home style Chinese dishes as their own. Certainly many had already discovered these pleasures, but I think just as many have been introduced to this food by finally seeing it on an English menu in a place that is willing to sell it to them. So it warms my heart that Rose Tea can serve these people the shredded pork and pickle soup instead of more gloppy hot and sour. Or the pork chop on rice instead of that oily and too sweet orange beef. Or the heat and garlic and basil in the Taiwanese chunk chicken instead of that anonymous brown sauce “Kung Pao” chicken with soggy peanuts.
We who love Chinese food and live in Pittsburgh all owe Rose Tea a great debt not only for serving us food that can stand up against similar places in other “real cities”. We also owe them a debt for showing everyone in Pittsburgh what a really good Chinese place should be offering and how it should be prepared. They have managed to do what the poor Italian brothers in Big Night could not. They are able to succeed in their business and do it with a limited amount of culinary compromise.