Location: 5321 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-781-8724
Hours: Tue.-Sun. noon-9:45 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $3-7; entrees $12-15
Atmosphere: Rice-paper Victorian
Many meals ago, before Lawrenceville was a hipster haven, before Pittsburgh had much authentic foreign food, let alone vegetarian fare, there was La Filipiniana. Tucked in an unassuming storefront on a gritty block of Butler Street, far from the seeds of Lawrenceville's revival, La Filipiniana's presence was passed around among Pittsburgh foodies like a tantalizing secret. Everyone knew the head chef and co-owner by her given name, Teody. When her husband passed away, she brought a Thai family into the business, and the restaurant was reborn as La Filipiniana-Sweet Basil.
Now that Teody has retired at last, the Filipino side of the menu has folded, and there's a new matriarch at the helm of the restaurant that continues to be one Pittsburgh's loveliest venues for traditional Thai cuisine. Pusadee Tongdee presides over the kitchen of Pusadee's Garden, making big batches of traditional Thai sauces and curries from scratch. Along with its new identity, the restaurant has a new look, its cozy dining rooms refreshed with coats of white paint and rice-paper-shaded pendant lamps. The charming side-yard garden has gained a couple of decks and more seating, but still serves as the kitchen's herb garden in season.
We visited on an early-spring evening when the garden wasn't quite ready for prime time, so we took our seats inside and tried to figure out what not to order from the menu. It's moderately long, with several dishes in several categories: curries, noodles, rice and specialties. The offerings were a blend of the familiar and the exciting: pad Thai as well as Street Noodles #1 and #2, fresh spring rolls and shrimp cakes.
It was those shrimp cakes that launched us on a delectable journey through the fruits of Pusadee's Garden. They were small, flat and well-browned, with a superficial resemblance to latkes. But within their crisp exteriors was sweet, succulent ground shrimp, lightly seasoned. A light cucumber salad acted as a sort of Thai salsa, adding bright, fresh flavors and a hint of spice that complemented the mild taste of the shellfish. The genius of Thai cuisine is in its balancing of sweet, sour, spicy and salty flavors, and this dish exemplified that beautifully.
Pork meatballs, tender and not too dense, were served with a sweet-savory soy-based sauce on sugar-cane skewers which pierced the meatballs like the bones of a drumstick. Sugar cane can be dried-out and tough, but Pusadee's were mouth-wateringly juicy and tender.
Tom yum gai soup was classically prepared, with a just-spicy-enough broth. (Pusadee's dispenses with the tiresome 1-10 scale; dishes are served according to the experts in the kitchen, with twin jars of dried and wet ground chilies on the tables. Nothing is punishingly hot, but alert your server if you're tender of tongue). What really caught our attention was the extraordinarily tender and moist chicken. Ironically, we all too often find chicken in soups to be leathery and flavorless, but Pusadee's delivered some true chicken soup for the soul.
From a list of four curries, Angelique chose her favorite, panang. Here, the beef was pale and a little bit tough, but the mocha-colored sauce sang with the blend of sweet, savory and spicy flavors that make this curry, at its best, so complex and rewarding.
Crispy tilapia was browned to a gorgeous mahogany hue and smothered with a sweet-hot chili sauce that, although spicy, did not overwhelm the mildly flavored fish. The preparation was superb: The thin parts of the filets were crispy treats, while the thicker "loin" portions were satisfyingly moist and meaty.
Last but far from least, spicy duck noodles featured poultry whose rich flavor was bold enough to carry a mass of ultra-thin rice vermicelli in a sauce seasoned with a copious dose of black pepper. Stems of verdant baby bok choy, bean sprouts and a pocket of chili paste (not unlike what coated the fish) added a variety of vegetal notes to this satisfying dish. It was a good example of how Thai cooking can achieve its effects without relying on elaborate curry pastes or prepared sauces.
Living in a city means coping with the loss of beloved old landmarks while celebrating the near-constant creation of new ones. Then there are the places which absorb change and evolve. In the charmed space which houses Pusadee's Garden, the lineage of excellent Southeast Asian food goes back more than 15 years, and forward, we hope, even longer.