PGH foodie blog: Squirrel Hill’s Chaya serves authentic Japanese cuisine


Photo by Xiaoyin Li via Flickr

A plate of traditional sushi is served at Chaya — a Japanese restaurant in Squirrel Hill.

By Josh Gaylord, For The Pitt News

Japan is known for its glorious mountainscapes, plethora of anime series and strong gaming industry, but their cuisine is easily one of my favorite things. Most people are familiar enough with sushi, but the small island nation has a myriad of other scrumptious delicacies to tempt the adventurous foodie with.

This blog will focus on Chaya, a small, unassuming Japanese-style restaurant situated on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. And, if you believe my Japanese roommate, the food is about as close to Japan as you can get without having to leave the ‘Burgh.

According to the restaurant’s website, the word “Chaya” refers to a resting place where travelers in feudal Japan could rest and have a light meal. The venue possesses a comfortable atmosphere and modest decorations that invoke a warm, home-like feeling.

As you walk in, the white walls and wooden furniture lends a clean and light feeling to the space. The high ceiling ensures that even when every seat is filled, you don’t feel cramped. The lower lighting adds an intimate touch that is appropriate for both family, friends and potential dates. What really adds to the mood are the friendly serving staff moving about the room in their beautifully colored kimono.

The beverage selection is a standard array of domestic sodas and tea, along with a small selection of Japanese sodas. The restaurant has a BYOB policy, but they provide customers with glasses, wine chillers and ice, in case you feel like going the extra mile when celebrating any important events.

On to the food. The menu has a wide selection of dishes — probably the most familiar to Americans is the sushi selection. There is an à la carte menu that offers American-style sushi — the Philadelphia is a popular example of this style — as well as more traditional sushi offerings. The prices are reasonable, averaging $5 per six-piece roll. Nigiri — a traditional style of sushi — is priced about $3.73 per piece. Chaya’s sushi can function as a light appetizer or a full meal depending on how much you get.

My pick from the sushi selection has to be the Toro roll. This is known as the “fatty” part of tuna. The fish has a nice, clean flavor and melts on your tongue like butter on a skillet. Sushi is an exciting way to try different kinds of fish that many Americans aren’t used to, so feel free to have fun while exploring this part of the menu.

If sushi doesn’t appeal to you, there is a wide selection of more traditional appetizers ranging from gyoza — what Americans call dumplings — to Ika-natto — squid with fermented soybean. My pick is the fried chicken, known as karaage in Japanese. It comes out of the kitchen extremely hot with a crispy outside, but your mouth is treated to a moist and rich flavor explosion when you bite into it. The secret? Most karaage — which also refers to the style of frying — uses potato starch to achieve a crispy exterior without the heavy breading of American-style fried chicken. Be sure to squeeze the lime over it beforehand for maximum flavor!

The entree section of the menu is full of a variety of dishes, many of which I have yet to try. There are teriyaki dishes, hot and cold noodles, expertly fried and crispy tempura, pork and chicken cutlets, broiled fish dishes and rice bowls. My pick here is Unadon — barbecued eel over a bowl of rice. For those of you who might feel a little squeamish about the idea of eating eel, definitely try the tempura with udon or soba noodles. You’ll get a wonderful bowl of warm noodles with a small selection of fried veggies. You get to have your cake and eat it too — or in this case, tempura and udon — and as one of the cheapest items on the menu, it’s a steal!

Chaya is not only a place to find delicious food, but it is also a dining experience that many restaurants try very hard to simulate. Its small and quiet atmosphere would make a wonderful date location, but be prepared to spend some money. Most of the dishes run between $18.50 and $25 with some of the sushi dinners priced at an average of $44. Each meal comes with soup, salad and another side — meat dishes come with a small order of the karaage — but the appetizers are so good that you should still consider ordering one.

One of the most expensive options on the menu — and one that I have yet to try — is called kaiseki. The Omakase Dinner — called kaiseki in Japanese — is an eight-course meal where each dish is selected by the chef. Omakase roughly translates to “it’s up to you,” which means the adventurous diners who select this option put their trust in the chef’s skill to deliver a wonderful surprise meal. The meal ends with a tea ceremony and requires a minimum of two diners present and two days notice. It should be no surprise then that this Kinkaku — the “gold” option — experience is $95 per person.

In spite of the steep price, I would score Chaya a 4 out of 5 and recommend this place to anyone looking for authentic Japanese cuisine. If the prices were lower, not only would this be five out of five, but I wouldn’t eat anywhere else. The flavors are superb and I have yet to leave Chaya without feeling full. And due to the hospitality, I never leave without a warm feeling in my heart.

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