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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A touch of Vietnam in Pittsburgh

A bowl of tasty sate soup with peanut sauce special served at Tram's Kitchen in Pittsburgh (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – The host of an established Vietnamese restaurant in Pittsburgh is known for rushing his customers to a seat in his tiny storefront business that, from the outside, almost resembles a steelworkers' bar.

The sign in Vietnamese above the door to Tram's Kitchen in the city's Bloomfield section holds the first clue that Iron City does not flow from the taps here and is served with pickled egg appetizers.

The doors give way to long and narrow walls painted robins egg blue and lined with black lacquer artwork featuring mother of pearl designs of butterflies and fish.

Within seconds of being seated the greeter hands me a menu and quickly recommends the spicy sate soup. I order spring rolls and follow his lead, ordering the sate, even though I had come here with pho on my mind.

Pho is a broth soup featuring chicken, beef or shrimp and served widely across Vietnam, where it is considered the national dish. It's typically better stewed with American meat, which, thanks to hormones and antibiotics, is more plump and juicy than the scrawny chicken and beef found in Southeast Asia.

I was unaware of sate, and more familiar with satay, or skewers of beef and chicken served in a golden brown hot sauce at Thai restaurants. But it's apparently the same flavoring used at Tram's, which is probably the closest thing to an authentic Vietnamese restaurant in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The wait was brief for the food in this restaurant with two rows of tables covered with green and white plastic tablecloths. A small television screams an unrecognizable game show from the counter beside the cash drawer. Then only thing missing from the place is an ancestral altar, something that can be found in nearly every house and business in Vietnam. The altars are where everyone places offerings of fruit and incense to honor their deceased parents and grandparents.

Tram's spring rolls have sticky, not fried, rice wrappers. They are plump and delicious, too, and likely healthier than those served dripping in grease. This raw version is what sets Vietnamese rolls apart from the others. Mine are perfectly filled with pork, shrimp, rice and lemon grass and cost just $1.95 apiece.

I could have eaten a half dozen of them dipped in peanut sauce tinged with red hot pepper jelly. However, it was imperative to save room for that fantastic large bowl of soup, which brought the check to $12.95.

Tram's spring rolls with peanut sauce and red hot pepper sauce. (Beveridge photo)

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