For nearly 20 years, customers knew what they were getting when they walked into Oakland's Spice Island Tea House.
But after foot surgery left 15-year veteran chef Hai Jing Leong unable to work for a few months, co-owner Ron Lee decided to both temporarily reconfigure the menu and give it a new name: Hawker Stand. Lee, who is now doing much of the food prep, says he has some cooking chops. "I'm just not a kung-fu master." That's partly why the menu is changing. "Instead of a change in consistency, we're just going to do something completely different," he explains.
Named for the street vendors popular in Singapore and Malaysia (where Lee's father owned a Hawker Stand), the restaurant is moving away from popular stir-frys and pad Thai. "We're focused more on braised curries and more slow-cooked meat [and] street foods." One popular Thai snack he's trying out is fried chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves, "which sort of imparts a vanilla flavoring," and helps insulate the marinated meat so it remains tender.
And while Lee is hoping to expose Pittsburghers to Singaporean and Malaysian influences — instead of the locally "dominant" Thai cuisine — he's having trouble attracting customers. Chef Leong is expected to be back in the kitchen early next year, though it's not yet clear what the menu will look like.
"We may not serve what you're looking for," Lee says, "but I think there's always room to expand your food palate, your cultural awareness. It's more than pad Thai."