Spice Island Tea House
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.