424 Semple St., Oakland. 412-953-3999
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Long before anyone coined the word "fusion" to describe culinary mash-ups, New York City had Chinese-Cuban restaurants. Like many Big Apple phenomena, they inspired quizzical looks from visitors, but seemed normal to New Yorkers, who had grown accustomed to choosing between Kung Pao chicken and arroz con pollo for dinner.
New York's Chinese-Cuban restaurants weren't so much forerunners of contemporary dining trends as an historical fluke: Chinese cooks, working in Cuba for the country's wealthy elite, had fled with their employers from Castro's revolution and made their way to New York. There, these double émigrés cooked what they knew, creating menus that were Chinese on one side and Cuban on the other, with no appreciable overlap.
Less dramatic circumstances have led to the creation of Burgers and Rice Bowl, a restaurant with a similar concept, in a small storefront on Semple Street. Here, an Asian chef, experienced with Chinese and Japanese cooking, decided to open a kitchen that would combine his specialties with more familiar American take-out fare for the local students. The twist is that his establishment happened to replace a successful Cuban restaurant (so successful that it relocated to larger digs on Atwood Street). When customers came in still hungry for Cuban sandwiches and mojo pork, the chef rolled with it, and the resulting menu is split about evenly among American, Asian and Cuban fare.
Although menus that try to please everybody frequently please no one very much, the results here are almost entirely successful. A certain lack of pretension is one factor: While the Asian dishes are far from quotidian (caramel roasted duck is available with advance notice), they don't boast of lengthy ingredient lists or an implausible plethora of sauces. Instead, the Asian fare consists mostly of humble yet satisfying dishes like katsudon, fried pork cutlet over rice, a Japanese classic. Angelique -- who ate plenty of katsudon while living in Japan -- found the meat flavorful, if not especially tender, within an appreciably crispy battered coating.
Humble need not mean ordinary. Roasted pig Hong Kong style means specifically pork belly, roasted over high heat to swiftly create a crackling crust on the fatty side, while the veins of fat keep the meat moist and rich. Some parts were a bit overly crisp, and the whole thing was a touch salty for our tastes, but it was still a treat to eat something not readily available elsewhere. As sides, a fried spring roll proved serviceable, and gyoza -- Japanese-style dumplings -- had excellent pork and vegetable flavor, albeit in wrappers that were a touch more chewy, not to say gummy, than we would have liked.
Pittsburgh is tragically bereft of good ramen, which in Japan is much more than sustenance for poor students. We applaud Burgers and Rice Bowl for making an effort with the real deal, combining the famously curly noodles with stir-fried meat and green peppers, plus crunchy bean sprouts in a broth-free presentation that's simple, delicious and satisfying. We skipped the prepackaged sauce packets served with our ramen, and didn't miss them.
The "Burgers" part of the menu proclaims all patties to be handmade, which goes beyond expectation in a place catering to student appetites and budgets. The black-bean veggie burger is even touted as "fantastic," and that's no exaggeration; Angelique found it one of the best veggie burgers she's ever had. Mixing in red and garbanzo beans for more breadth of flavor was good, but best of all, it tasted like a delicious patty of mashed, seasoned beans, and not a failed attempt to mimic ground beef.
The actual beef burger was less superlative. It had been fairly densely packed, which always hardens ground beef, and the griddle cooking didn't enhance its half-pound mass. Nonetheless, it was more than adequate for a five-buck burger at a little neighborhood joint.
The Cuban sandwich was another standout, utilizing shredded, roasted pork in place of the slices of deli pork that are the norm even in Miami. Slightly sweet and eggy Cuban bread is, as ever, unavailable here, so a hoagie roll must suffice, but a few minutes under the hot sandwich press helped considerably. Another Cuban dish, papa rellena, was a ball of mashed potato stuffed with deliciously seasoned, crumbly ground beef and deep-fried. Though it may sound like a bar-food stunt, it was a great success, substantial of crust with a just-right proportion of mild potato to zesty meat.
Finally, crispy Hong Kong wings were dusted with (we're guessing) five-spice powder for a sophisticated, slightly sweet flavor that made us question the devotion to messy sauces for wings.
Jack of all trades, master of none -- that's always the danger with menus like this one, and it would be a stretch to say that Burgers and Rice Bowl is master of any of the three cuisines it abbreviates. But all of them are more than credible; some dishes threaten to become addictive; and, with only the special duck and baby back ribs topping $10, you may not find better food anywhere at these prices.