RIP Rose Tea Cafe

Posted on May 30, 2021 by psu

A couple of Sundays ago we stopped at Rose Tea to get takeout to bring to a friend’s house. This is a thing we had done dozens of times since they opened almost 20 years ago, but this was the first time since the great stupid darkness that we had done it. Just as I finished ordering, the long time manager of the Squirrel Hill landmark told me that I had walked in on their last day of service. I am not sure of the details, but it sounds like they sold the location to someone else in order to take a well-deserved rest.

So that was the worst thing that happened to me that day.

The second worst thing was that being discombobulated from the news, I forgot to order one of the things they do best: the fried rice with Chinese Sausage. And now I won’t be able to get it again. Sigh.

Along with the O, the loss of Rose Tea will now be something that I forever associate with this particular point in history, although it’s possible that the place would have shut down anyway. As the manager said: they had been planning something like this for a while.

But, whatever the real reason for the closure, the fact remains that with Rose Tea gone we have lost an old favorite. Ever since they started serving their full food menu some time around 2004 Rose Tea has been the main proof that you could run a Chinese place in Pittsburgh without putting any of the standard Chinese American “classics” on the menu.

Here is the first thing I wrote about them then:

Rose Tea has gone from a purveyor of an odd Asian drink craze to simply the best Chinese food in Pittsburgh period. The home style Taiwanese food that they serve here is actually good enough for me to want to go even if I’ve recently eaten my mom’s food. In fact, it is much like my mom’s food, which is why it simply rules.

Here are some dishes that Rose Tea does that are so good they will make you weep with joy:

  • Shredded pork with pressed bean curd.
  • Any of the whole fish
  • Taiwanese Chunk Chicken.
  • Pork Stomach and Duck Blood.
  • Taiwanese style braised Beef Stew (the stewed beef is actually cooked long enough).
  • Taiwanese style rice cakes (just like mom’s).
  • Chinese greens that are always cooked right. Not just every other time you go.
  • The pickled cabbage appetizer
  • The Taiwanese sausage appetizer
  • The soy sauce eggs (just like mom’s).

All this and good prices too. I used to rate Chinese places in Pittsburgh by how many different sauce colors they had on their menu. It is therefore something of a watershed to have a place in town that has two brown sauces that are completely different in flavor. There is finally real Chinese food in Pittsburgh. Go get it.

P.S. If I catch you in P.F. Chang’s, I’ll kill you with my bare hands.

Pretty much right up until that last Sunday, all of this basically still applied. For most of their time at the corner of Forbes and Shady they have set the standard for well executed Taiwanese food, the best bubble tea, and good and reliable service.

But Rose Tea has always been a more important than just this to me. To me they represent a huge part of the beginning of the “Pittsburgh Food Renaissance” in the early 2000s. It seems to me that you have to include Rose Tea in with the group of “one word name” restaurants that all opened around that time and started making people pay attention to Pittsburgh food: Legume, Cure, Salt, Spoon, Dish, BRGR, and so on. The also recently departed Ka Mei also belongs on this list, especially in their original incarnation as Tasty in Shadyside.

I think we have Rose Tea to thank, at least partly, for the existence of the great Chinese Food corridor that exists in Squirrel Hill right now. And I think that for some strange reason they don’t get enough credit for this in the local foodie circles. It’s hard for me to imagine How Lee, Chengdu Gourmet, Everyday Noodle, Cafe 33, and the rest thriving as they have without Rose Tea having been there at the start to show people how to eat the food.

So anyway. There is not much more to say except goodbye to another old friend. You can still get a limited version of the Rose Tea experience that their mini-place in Oakland next to CMU. But it’s not really the same. And, we also have Cafe 33 with its own excellent take on Taiwanese food. Which is a great blessing.