Location: 5874 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-421-2238 or 412-421-9579
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Prices: Soup and appetizers $1.50-6.95; lunch specials $5.95; dinner entrees $6.95-19.95
Fare: Taiwanese, plus Asian teas, shakes and juices
Atmosphere: Bright and busy
Smoking: None Permitted
Ah, we should have known. After all these years of shrugging our way through local Chinese restaurants from seedy to sumptuous, we finally found what we had been looking for -- high-quality, authentic, delicious Chinese cooking -- in a bubble-tea café.
Actually, we mislead you a little, but not about the food (more on that momentarily). While Rose Tea Café may have opened with an all-beverage selection, it's been serving a complete lunch and dinner menu for a couple years now. The original business model persists in the two full pages of tea, shake and smoothie options, with or without trendy tapioca "bubbles," and in the constant whir of juicers and blenders behind the former customer counter. Now, Rose Tea is a full-service restaurant, and these vestiges of the original beverage café coexist with a lengthy food menu dominated by Taiwanese dishes. There's also a limited selection of familiar Chinese-American fare -- and none of the clichés that make so many Asian restaurants dispiriting.
Taiwanese cuisine has many influences, including Cantonese, which was once the byword for bland, Americanized Chinese food. But the real thing was never really assimilated here, and Rose Tea's versions are decidedly enjoyable. Despite the presence of a few "hot and spicy" chili-pepper symbols on the menu, we found Rose Tea's food generally to be lightly seasoned, often with an underlying sweetness. Taiwan is an island, and the menu reflects this with a variety of seafood items, including rare-on-these-shores delicacies like cuttlefish.
Our first taste was promising. Scallion pancake, a night-market staple, consisted of a flaky, crisp pastry crepe wrapped around thinly sliced beef in a slightly sweet sauce. The well-prepared wrapper and perfectly proportioned filling made this dish delicious and just substantial enough to take the edge off our hunger without replacing our entrees. Jason found our other starter, marinated egg, a bit more of an acquired taste, but Angelique took to it promptly. Firm wedges of hardboiled egg, brown on the surface from a slightly spicy marinade, were served with a light, vinegary sauce and sliced scallions that added a fresh, bright note.
That was a harbinger of good things to come. In place of the thick, glossy brown sauces which seem all but inevitable at most American Chinese restaurants, Rose Tea keeps things light with delicate sauces that are more like dressings for their fresh-tasting ingredients. The one exception in our order was ma po tofu, something of a pan-Asian classic, which Angelique first encountered while living in Japan. Though the peas and diced carrot in Rose Tea's version gave an initial impression of a pot-roast-style stew, it was also studded with plenty of silken tofu cubes whose native blandness was enlivened by the spiciness -- here worthy of the chili-pepper symbol -- of the sauce.
At the other extreme, salt-and-pepper pork ribs had no sauce at all. Instead, thin slices of sweet barbecued pork were literally fried to a crisp, their salt-and-pepper coating balancing the meat's underlying sweetness. Slivers of deep-fried garlic and fresh scallions added vegetal dimension to this great snacking dish.
Our final two dishes made sure we got our daily allowance of leafy greens. Braised pork, on a bed of wilted spinach, consisted of thick slices of, basically, uncured slab bacon cooked to fork-tender consistency. A little of the meltingly soft fat with each bite of meat created a marvelous textural dynamic, while the spinach deterred any tendency toward heaviness. Sa-cha chicken with Chinese watercress, while in some ways resembling something familiar, like chicken with broccoli, was considerably enhanced by heaps of slightly spicy watercress and a light, savory broth that kept the flavors bright.
Like most Chinese restaurants we've visited, Rose Tea Café has a menu that is far too long, with a dizzying array of inadequately described dishes. The difference is that in the case of Rose Tea Café, we can't wait to try them all.