PGH Foodie Blog: Oakland’s Americanized Chinese food gems

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PGH Foodie Blog: Oakland’s Americanized Chinese food gems

Szechuan serves customers at their storefront on Oakland Avenue.

Szechuan serves customers at their storefront on Oakland Avenue.

TPN file photo

Szechuan serves customers at their storefront on Oakland Avenue.

TPN file photo

TPN file photo

Szechuan serves customers at their storefront on Oakland Avenue.

By Joshua Gaylord, For The Pitt News

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The majority of people have heard of the Ten Commandments, but very few have heard of the elusive 11th commandment. Thou shall never find good cafeteria food.

I’ve been to several colleges for visits, and I studied at College of the Ozarks in southwest Missouri before my time here at Pitt. The one thing that seems to unite all schools is that the cafeteria is far from a beacon of culinary ingenuity. To be fair, the average cafeteria has the unflattering task of trying to feed a lot of people on a very tight budget. So instead, most of us turn to low-budget food.

This is the first blog post in a series that aims to help new and old students alike to find some delicious eateries unique to Pittsburgh. Large chain restaurants like McDonald’s and Chipotle are out of the running — because one Golden Arch is the same as another — but local restaurant chains are not off limits.

This edition will focus on one of my favorite cuisines, Americanized Chinese. And as the bustling college students we all are, I’m looking at two places that can get you out the door quickly. Our two contenders for this week’s coveted Foodie Award are Asia Tea House and Szechuan Express. These two restaurants on campus fit the selection criteria as well as the cuisine topic.

Both of these places have strong points, but only one, in my opinion, is the best in terms of flavor, speed and overall cost. At the end of each restaurant’s critique, I will give a score out of five. One being barely tolerable, three being average and five being absolutely perfect.

First on my list is Asia Tea House, located just outside Hillman Library in an outdoor booth in Schenley Plaza. I didn’t hear about this place for my first couple of years at Pitt, and as a student worker at Hillman, I wish I had. The menu is simple and has many easily recognizable Americanized Chinese foods such as General Tso’s chicken, pepper steak and orange chicken. They even have a small selection of sushi rolls for those who don’t want to walk to Cathy for their seafood fix.

The portion formula is simple. You get a choice of one entree and two sides, or two entrees and one side. The first option runs about $7.75 with tax and the second option is only a dollar more.

Some of the more popular dishes, like lo mein, General Tso’s chicken and sesame chicken, are prepared ahead of time and placed in the hot well — a device used in the restaurant industry to keep prepared foods warm — between the payment window and pick up window. To me, the best way to judge the quality of an Americanized Chinese restaurant is how well they make their General Tso’s chicken, which just happens to be my favorite dish at Asia Tea House.

Preparing the food ahead of time reduces your wait time to roughly five minutes, while their sushi, personalized entrees and sides option takes slightly longer. Rain or snow, cloudy or sunny, they keep you comfortable while you wait with an expandible tarp that keeps you dry and out of the cold wind.

The only negative comment about Asia Tea House is that they sacrifice some of their quality for speed. Occasionally you might bite into a piece of chicken on the dry side, which is often telling of food that sits under a heat lamp. But when you have five minutes to get something before class, or you want to grab something before a cram session at Hillman, who cares about a few pieces of dry chicken?

I give this a solid three out of five. I eat here often and don’t ever regret my decision to do so. The food is tasty and the prices are average for Chinese takeout. The quick service time makes sure you rarely have to stand around, but preparing food ahead of time and leaving it under a heat lamp means the quality of the food suffers slightly.

The second contender is Szechuan Express, a small storefront on Oakland Avenue between Forbes and Fifth avenues. Once inside, the doorway opens into a small space, surrounded by walls helpfully covered in photos of the more than 200 selections they offer. Thankfully, they have additional seating in a small room adjacent to the main room.

Some of the dishes are the familiar Americanized Chinese foods many of us know and love. Others play off more traditional flavors with hot peppers, tofu and oil. A lot of oil. All entrees are served with either steamed or fried rice and there is a $4 upcharge for lo mein. This may seem pricey, but a side of lo mein takes up the larger section of the three compartment styrofoam container. My go-to food here is — you guessed it — General Tso’s chicken. The mildly sweet-and-spicy sauce is the textbook definition of the dish.

Most Szechuan Express meals range from $7.50 to $9.00 before tax — a significant increase from Asia Tea House. While slower than its competitor, Szechuan Express is still speedy, with wait times seldom lasting more than 10 minutes.

But Szechuan has a few drawbacks, such as the location and the menu variety. Most people don’t imagine a lot of options to be a bad thing, but with more than 200 selections staring down at you from the walls and two large flat screen TVs, it can be intimidating at first for people who don’t know exactly what they want. This display of entrees can provide help for some, but may add another level of intimidation for others.

The location might be the bigger detractor for most. Even though Szechuan is basically on campus, it’s not on the main streets, so you might not even notice it’s there unless you happen to turn off Forbes or Fifth. The drab-colored storefront and yellow writing covering the window doesn’t scream “amazing food” — but looks and flavor aren’t always connected, and this little hole-in-the-wall proves it.

I’m scoring this restaurant a four out of five. The flavor is quintessential to Americanized Chinese cuisine, and the speed makes sure you can order, eat and get out in fewer than 45 minutes. The sheer size of the menu and the unobtrusive storefront knock off that last star.

Now we come to the part of the show where we present the award — but in the interest of time, acceptance speeches will be omitted. With the final scores tallied, my winner for best Chinese takeout food is Szechuan Express.

This restaurant has been one of my favorite places on campus to grab a quick bite since I first moved here nearly three years ago. It’s quiet, fast and hits the spot whenever I’m in the mood for a hot plate of General Tso’s chicken. All of the choices on the menu still honestly intimidate me, but the flavor and the comfortable atmosphere always draw me in.

Do you have a favorite local spot to eat either near campus or elsewhere in Pittsburgh? Reach out to me at jdg81@pitt.edu to give me your suggestions! Stay warm and happy eating!

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