Ethnic Flavor in Pittsburgh: A Guide To The City’s Most Exotic Hole-In-The-Walls

August 31, 2011 5:55 AM

Photo Credit: Zara Husaini

By Zara Husaini

When it comes to ethnic cuisine, I’ve one found that one rule applies more often than not: the best, most authentic places usually fly under the radar. Usually the exact opposite of commercial, they can be found tucked into obscure corners of the city. These places can be small, dingy, and nearly empty at times, but – in the case of the following five restaurants – they happen to serve up great food. So if you’re looking for something adventurous in the ‘Burgh, look no further. These are some of the best “hole in the wall” ethnic eateries in the city.

Hours: Tues-Sun 10am-10pm
Cuisine: Vietnamese

Located in Bloomfield, Tram’s serves up tasty, inexpensive Vietnamese food. It’s commonly regarded by its cult following as the best place for pho (a Vietnamese noodle soup) in Pittsburgh, Unimpressive as the space itself may be, patrons should know that Tram’s serves only the freshest food – nothing is ever canned or frozen. Customers rave about the crispy spring rolls, curry dishes, and of course, the main attraction: the pho.

Must-try menu item: Pho Hanoi Soup with beef. It’s a lemongrass-heavy, wholesome soup that – combined with noodles and meat – is a meal on its own.

 Ethnic Flavor in Pittsburgh: A Guide To The City’s Most Exotic Hole In The Walls

(Photo Credit: Zara Husaini/Kassab's)

Hours: Mon-Sat 10:30am-10pm
Cuisine: Lebanese

Pittsburgh’s South Side has become a place for raucous nightlife and talk-of-the-town restaurants. Despite its location within this neighborhood, Kassab’s is no Nakama – it’s small, family-run, and decidedly unpretentious. Middle Eastern favorites like hummus, falafel, and shawarma appear on the extensive menu. Wooden tables and the rustic mural painted on one wall lend a sense of authenticity to the restaurant, which is BYOB.

Must-try menu item: The gyro. The staff at Kassab’s rolls thinly sliced meat (your choice of chicken or the original lamb) on a soft, fluffy pita. It’s accompanied by lettuce, tomato, and a tangy cream-based sauce.

 Ethnic Flavor in Pittsburgh: A Guide To The City’s Most Exotic Hole In The Walls

(Photo Credit: Zara Husaini/El Campesino’s)

Hours: Mon-Thurs 11:30am-10pm, Fri and Sat 11:30am-10:30pm, Sun 12pm-9pm
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Cuisine: Mexican

This is something of a Pittsburgh chain. Even with multiple locations around the city, El Campesino’s has yet to establish itself as a major Mexican restaurant. Some installments are more “hole in the wall” than others. In fact, the McKnight location is quite large and impeccably clean; head to Monroeville for a simpler experience. Fans of El Campesino’s say that the Monroeville restaurant serves the best food, but regardless of the surroundings, El Campesino’s serves up some of the freshest salsa and guacamole around – and many Mexican food lovers will tell you that these are two of the most important aspects of the meal.

Must-try menu item: The Grilled Kazuleda for two. It’s a mixed fajita dish with chorizo added.

spiceislandteahouseweb Ethnic Flavor in Pittsburgh: A Guide To The City’s Most Exotic Hole In The Walls

(Source: The Spice Island Tea House -

Hours: Mon-Thurs 11:30am-9pm, Fri –Sat 11:30am-10pm
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Cuisine: Southeast Asian

Spice Island Tea House is an ideal dining spot for college students. Nestled into a windowless storefront in Oakland, Spice Island serves up cheap, flavorful exotic dishes. The tea selection is wide, but the food menu is something else entirely: including dishes from Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, and India, Spice Island truly offers something for everyone. Beef, chicken, and seafood appear all over the menu, but any dish can be made vegan friendly. Be sure to enjoy an ice-cold ginger beer or coconut soda to offset the heat of the dishes.

Must-try menu item: Java fried rice, which includes chicken and shrimp (unless you’d prefer it without meat) alongside fresh, crunchy veggies. The whole dish is tossed in a sauce that’s at once slightly sweet and a little bit spicy.

 Ethnic Flavor in Pittsburgh: A Guide To The City’s Most Exotic Hole In The Walls

(Photo Credit: Zara Husaini/Udipi)

Hours: Daily 11:30am-9pm
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Cuisine: Indian

Udipi Café features South Asian food exclusively, which means the entire menu is vegetarian. Located in Monroeville, Udipi is one of those places that you’d never stumble upon unless you knew exactly where to look. Even with its recent extension, it’s a small restaurant – but the quality and consistency of the food is unmatched. Customers enjoy flaky samosas, which are deep-fried pastries stuffed with potato and peas, and thick, creamy mango milkshakes. Dosas seem to be the pride and joy of the restaurant – they’re India’s answer to savory crepes, and they come in several flavor-filled varieties.

Must-try menu item: Masala dosa, a potato-filled crepe that is served with sambar, a vegetable stew, and a coconut chutney for dipping.

Zara Husaini is a Drexel grad and Pittsburgh native. She has written for Seventeen Magazine, Redbook Magazine, College Magazine, US weekly, College Candy, and Maniac Magazine. She also has a blog called Maybe You Should Blog About It.

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