Spice Island Tea House Owner Honors Father

Article excerpt

Ron Lee is carrying on his late father's legacy with the Spice Island Tea House in Oakland.

Although Richard Lee died in 2000, he was instrumental in the creation of the popular Southeast Asian restaurant.

"My family has always been in the restaurant business," says Ron Lee, 40. "My father worked at a Chinese restaurant in Fox Chapel when we moved here in 1976, and he owned Chinese on Carson on the South Side. He also opened Lee's Chinese Restaurant in Natrona Heights. We came from Hong Kong."

It was only natural for Lee and his brother, Alex Lee, to want to open their own place. They chose Oakland because it was "restaurant row," Ron Lee says.

"We opened in 1995 on a shoestring budget," Ron Lee says. "Mom and Dad helped, too. Southeast Asian and Thai cuisine was not even on the map then, but we always wanted to do our own cuisine. That's our focus."

It's easy to walk right by the Spice Island Tea House, tucked away on busy Atwood Street and barely visible from the street. Once inside, patrons are struck by the sparseness of the restaurant. Nothing hangs on the brushed-gold walls, and the tables and chairs came from Goodwill and thrift stores. The corrugated cardboard menu has one word printed on the front: Eat. The restaurant seats just 40 customers.

"We haven't changed that much since we opened," says Lee, a 1987 graduate of Central Catholic High School, who has a degree in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon University. "I like the casualness of it. It's a coffeehouse atmosphere with really good food. We threw it together and had a menu planned out with a mixture of Asian cuisine."

Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam are represented on the extensive menu. They feature several unusual appetizers and salads to start out with, such as ginger salad, cold spring rolls, mashed eggplant, Burmese squash fritters, wheat noodle salad, fish cake salad and Vietnamese grilled pork noodle salad.

Entrees are different, too, like the fish stew that is the national dish of Burma, several slow-cooked curries, many vegetarian dishes and a banana leaf salmon.

"Our signature dishes would be the Burmese dishes, such as Mohinga, which is a thin wheat noodle in a fish bouillabaisse," says Lee, who lives part time in New York with his wife, Danielle, and baby daughter, Alice. They plan to return to Pittsburgh full time in August. "Our chef, Hai Jing Leong, worked at Chinese on Carson until it closed in 1999, then he came to Spice Island."

Leong, 48, hails from Burma and is Lee's cousin.

"Ron's dad taught me how to do everything," says Leong, who lives in Squirrel Hill with his wife and two children. "I learned how to cook from family. Our dishes have their own individual flavors."

The Spice Island Tea House is popular with college students and area hospital employees, Leong says. Six people, including Leong, work in the kitchen. The restaurant employs 13, with seven knowledgeable waitresses and waiters.

"We have a lot of regular customers who appreciate our food," he says. "They always come back. Sometimes, a customer will ask for less spice or hotter, and we do the best we can."

Lee acknowledges that the menu, with its dozens of entrees, is a bit of a challenge to his workers.

"You have to know the menu very well, just to recognize the dishes," he says. "My hat's off to them. …