Zaw’s Asian Foods

By | January 24, 2006

Zaw’s Asian Foods
2110 Murray Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15217-2106
(412) 521-3663

There’s an important distinction to be made between Restaurant Chinese food in general and Take-out Chinese food specifically. Some people like both, some like one more than the other, and some haven’t realized there are important differences.

Restaurant chinese food focuses a good deal of attention on pomp and presentation. Flowers made from shaved carrots, orange wedges at the end of your meal, portions sized to fit on an oblong family-style plate — these are the hallmarks of restaurant Chinese food.
Take-out, on the other hand, has but one fundamental goal: to deliver food to you, in a form that could plausibly be described as “Chinese”, at low cost, and in two sizes: Small (an enormous amount of food packed into a small box), and Large (a doubly-enormous quantity of food packed into a slightly larger box).

Because take-out Chinese leaves little to the imagination, there’s a lot of room for variation in quality between take-out joints. The lesser among them deliver a product that can only barely pass for food, let alone Delicious Chinese Food; the best among them deliver a wide array of brightly-flavored, well-differentiated dishes, so tasty that they fairly make your hair stand on end just thinking about them. A little greasy, a little edgy, a little funky, and absolutely irresistable.

And Zaw’s is Chinese take-out in its most prime of forms.

Many takeout-lovers view the Chinese restaurant scene, with its windowless, over-wrought decor and its odd, inedible garnishes, to be more of a theme-park experience than a real dining experience. (I believe that Chinese restaurants as they exist today in America developed into their current form sometime between the chop-suey days around the turn of the century, and the chow-mein craze of the 1950s, when anything calling itself “Chinese food” seemed giddy and exotic to the postwar American palate.) Furthermore, ordering take-out directly from a chinese restaurant is often an exercise in overpayment: the prices for in-house dining and for take-out are usually the same, but you’re probably not getting that Pink Daikon Radish Petunia that you paid for. Plus, you have to do the dishes.

For their part, many Chinese restaurant-lovers feel that restaurant-style Chinese food is simply better, or perhaps just more consistent, than takeout Chinese tends to be. And, in many cases, they’re right, but it’s important to be consicous of what’s being compared. An upscale Chinese restaurant with $15-$30 menu items is bound to have better quality control than a $3 take-out wagon on Margaret Morrison Street where every dish, regardless of name, is essentially the same: deep-fried objects in brown stuff.

But not all take-out joints are created equal. Let’s talk about Zaw’s.

As at many take-out places, the cuisine is not strictly Chinese – it’s sort of a grab bag of Pacific Rim fare. Zaw’s is a family operation (the owners actually hail from Laos, I believe) that does an enormous business; I have never been inside when they were operating at less-than-full capacity. Sonny, who runs the counter, has an uncanny knack for remembering the names and dispositions of his regular customers. He’s always quick with a handshake, and good for a little friendly chit-chat while you wait.

The restaurant itself is the quintessential hole-in-the-wall. Located on Murray Ave. between Philips and Hobart, it consists of: the front counter, a soda machine, and a small lunch counter that is rarely, if ever, used for eating. The walls are grimy, the floors linoleum, and the atmosphere often smoky from the exposed kitchen.

The kitchen consists of a prep area backed by a wok-stove the likes of which I have never seen elsewhere. The chef (Marvin) slaves tirelessly over what appears to be a hybrid of a stove, a sink, a dishwasher, and an acetylene torch. He expertly and fearlessly operates a gas valve with his knee while his left hand adds ingredients and his right stirs the wok with a giant ladle. The ladle is alternately used to operate the sink valve, which adds water directly into the scorching wok. The roar of the stove when it’s operating at full-blast is almost frightening — it’s quite a sight.

And the food produced from this contraption is simply excellent. Zaw’s is an example of a restaurant where I quickly identified certain items that were so good I’ve had a hell of a time bringing myself to order anything else.

The best items I’ve had in the classic take-out school of Chinese preparation are:

  • Chicken Fried Rice: Bright and flavorful, not overly greasy or too dry. Prepared with the usual egg and a mix of al-dente veggies. No surprises to be had, it’s just fried rice the way God intended.
  • Veggie Lo Mein: I really hate Lo Mein that leaves a protective slick on your lips because the noodles are swimming in oil. Not so, this dish! The sauce is a bit oily, but not overly so, and has a distinguishable, classic brown-sauce flavor to it that’s quite good. Again, no surprises, but this is the way Lo Mein ought to be, in my book.
  • Sesame Cold Noodles: This dish seems almost impossibly tasty. It’s so bright, so snappy, so delicious… maybe it’s just the MSG talking, but MAN, is this a good noodle. No clumpy noodles or peanut-butter wads here.

Then, my two most special of favorites are drawn from the slightly-pricier “Specialties” menu:

  • General Tso’s Chicken: There’s no widespread agreement about what this dish should really be like. Some people want 100% breast meat, some want 100% oddball dark-meat-wads bound together by rice before being breaded. At Zaw’s, there’s no wad-binding going on, and I would rate the breast-meat percentage at 75% – 80%, which is fine by me. Many General Tso sauces are nearly indistinguishable from sweet-and-sour or sesame sauces, except maybe for being a bit spicier. Zaw’s General Tso’s has an almost maraschino-like quality to it, and has a definite peppery bite. It comes with broccoli and a few cherries. Without Erika’s supervision, I believe I could literally eat this food until I burst.
  • Szechuan Eggplant: Eggplant, when cooked to perfection, is like a vegetable pillow; not soggy, not crispy, just a soft, marshmallowy cube perfect for transporting a flavorful sauce. And this is how it is served at Zaw’s. The Szechuan sauce is difficult to describe, but it’s in the classic vein of cornstarch-thickened, sweet-hot sauces familiar to all Chinese food lovers. For those who cannot get over their fear of eggplants, many other items can be ordered Szechuan-style as well (though none that I have had have been as good as the eggplant).

As I said, I have had a hell of a time ordering anything other than the above two specialty items, because I love them so much. But that’s the beauty of a takeout place – it’s low-commitment, comfort food. You should get what you want. (Or, at least, that’s that I keep telling myself.) That being said, many other items are similarly praised by other regulars, including the Mongolian Beef and the Hot & Sour Soup.

As I mentioned, Zaw’s is a busy place. Upon placing your call, expect a 45-minute wait on most nights. It’s also an example of a rare breed of family-owned restaurants that’s content to be the tremendous success that it is, with seemingly no ambitions beyond that. Because they already operate at or near their capacity most nights, they’ve had no need to accept credit cards, so be sure to bring cash. (Nearby, Mineo’s Pizza and Kazansky’s Deli both have ATMs inside.) There’s also no delivery – pick-up only. This may be hard for some to swallow, but, to paraphrase a fictional crack dealer I once saw on TV, “Hey, man – the [food] sells itself.”