Spice Island Tea House

By | June 21, 2006

Spice Island Tea House
253 Atwood St
Oakland, 15213
M-Th: 11:30-9; Fri-Sat: 11:30-10

We are blessed with many pan-asian restaurants in Pittsburgh. Blessed, I tell you! There are so many Pad Thai’s in this city that I haven’t even tried them all! Not even close! Of course, I always hear little hints, like ‘don’t get it at the one truck at CMU, but the other one is OK but not great’, or ‘it’s fine at LuLu’s except for the weird, big, firm pieces of tofu’, and so on and so forth. But still, I have tried many, and of course I have a favorite. Spice Island. Their pad thai is my fave! No ifs, ands, or buts about it, at least in my opinion. And that isn’t the only good thing about Spice Island!

I’ve been going to Spice Island almost as long as I’ve been living in Pittsburgh. Starting out as a freshman in college in need of cheap eats, my indie friends and I latched on to Spice Island early on. It’s a hotspot for artists, rockers, and hipsters, but actually you see all kinds of people there. I remember that in college, one friend Karthik S. brought indie rock bands to play at Carnegie Mellon, and he always bought them trays and trays of food from Spice Island. Fried tofu with lime cilantro sauce, java fried rice, pad thai,  rangoon night market noodle – only the best for his bands! Oh, was it nice to be a VIP in the AB Coffeehouse! I mean, it was more than meeting Cat Power and Apples in Stereo – that was just the cake the icing was on.

So I’ve been spoiled by lots of good Spice Island over the years, and I think it’s changed a little bit such that it’s more inconsistent. But what stays the same is the low, low prices. I remember thinking it was a stretch for my budget at the time – I mean it was sort of a night out on the town to go to Spice Island. Funny how perspectives change. Now I realize that another reason we loved it so much was the value. You get so much food, and you’re hard pressed to spend over $10 on an entrée.

Spice Island is pan-asian so you’ll find items with all kinds of backgrounds on the menu, including Burmese, Thai, Chinese, and Indian. You’ll find spring rolls and samosas on the appetizer menu, both of which are fried crispy and delicious. The samosas are mini-sized and you get about eight of them, accompanied by that luscious pink sweet sauce that I can never seem to identify. They’re so cute! Other offerings include fun authentic dishes like a tea leaf salad and lat toke (tamarind, potato, noodle, cabbage salad).

On the entrée side of the menu, you’ll find noodle soups, noodle dishes, rice dishes, and curries. The favorites, compiled over time, include Pad Thai, Java Fried Rice, Fried Tofu, and Singapore Rice Noodle. You can’t really go wrong ordering any of these items. They all earn top star points. The Pad Thai is a peanut-y pile of noodles with chicken, mung beans, delicious egg squiggles, shrimp, tofu, etc. It clearly incorporates all of the fun, funky ingredient Pad Thai needs to be authentic, like tamarind, dried shrimps, and fish sauce. Forget the ketchup-y pad thais of places like Typhoon and Thai Place, and erase your memory of the flavorless noodles from certain trucks – this is for real!

The Java Fried Rice is also really wonderful. When my cousin Zack came to visit, somewhere around age 11, we brought him to Spice Island for perhaps one of his first experiences with this kind of cuisine. He got the Java Fried Rice, I think maybe because of the name! He loved it so much that he couldn’t stop talking about it. When he got back to school, he made a hand-drawn book of his adventures in Pittsburgh, and the Java Fried Rice took up two whole pages! He had the cutest sketches of curled up shrimp and chopsticks and bits of rice. He still talks about it, 5 years later. THAT is how good the Java Fried Rice is!

The vegetarian menu at Spice Island is terrific and extensive. This place is great for vegetarians, even those who aren’t particularly fond of tofu. However, the Fried Tofu really is super-awesome. It is simply eight big bricks of perfectly golden fried tofu, topped with your choice of peanut or lime cilantro sauce. MMM! Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, saturated with the tangy or nutty sauce (both are excellent); it makes a great meal.

And don’t forget that it is the Spice Island Tea House. They have a giant tea menu, plus a special tea of the day. I know it’s hard not to get a Thai Iced Tea or Coffee, but it is worth exploring the tea menu sometime. They have a wonderful Gen Mai Cha with the toastiest rice flavor I’ve ever had. It’s soothing even when you aren’t sick or stressed. And you know? Spice Island is so reasonably priced that you can go there zillions of times, trying all the different teas and noodles you like. That is the real beauty of this place – variety is the Spice Island of life.

Java Fried Rice
Pad Thai
Singapore Rice Noodle
Fried Tofu

Spice Island now finally has a liquor license, but you are still just down the street from a liquor store.  Either way, treat yourself to a bottle of wine with dinner. Also, it is just down the street from Dave & Andy’s, so if you manage to have any room after your meal, you can let your nose follow the delightful wafts of fresh waffles.