Shadyside's Noodlehead makes complexity of Thai food simple
By Michael Machosky
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
Noodlehead, a new restaurant in Shadyside, keeps everything refreshingly simple, right down to the motto on the menu: “Fresh and tasty noodle dishes from the street markets of Thailand.”
The appeal of street food is in its simple, unfussy directness. Yet, Thai food is inherently complex — a maze of unexpected, yet perfectly interlocking, flavors: sweet, sour, spicy and salty.
Noodlehead arrives in a space on South Highland that has already seen two Thai restaurants come and go. Owners Watcharee Tondgee (whose family runs Pusadee's Garden in Lawrenceville) and Michael Johnson started there with Typhoon, an upscale, sophisticated Thai restaurant. Then they leased it to another operator, who ran it as the slightly more traditional Kanok. Neither could really make the numbers work.
“We wanted to re-concept it into something more casual, low price,” Johnson says. “We always had the idea of doing a noodle bar. My partner, she's Thai. We were going to do some other genres of noodles, but there are enough good Thai noodles that we thought we'd stick to that for now.”
To get the low price points on the menu that they sought, they chose to keep everything as streamlined as possible. The menu is small. The website is one page. There's no phone number. They take only cash.
“That's why we don't take credit cards — we want to pass the savings on to you instead of the banks,” Johnson says. “At Typhoon, we were paying $2,000 in credit card (fees) per month. That's a lot of money to shell out. Why not give that back to the customer?
“We chose not to have someone sit there and answer the phone. Some people aren't happy about that. We wanted to focus on taking care of the people in the restaurant. We've set it up so that food comes out really fast. We weren't going to do takeout at all, but now we do a limited amount. We're open 10 hours a day. If anyone wants to find us, just stop by.”
For Thai restaurants in Pittsburgh, the more authentic they are, the more dumpy and homely they tend to be — all cheap “Visit Thailand” posters and kitschy knicknacks.
Noodlehead is the complete opposite, a stylish combination of sleek modern minimalism with rustic wooden accents. Our table in the back was a repurposed, weatherbeaten wooden workbench, lit by bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling. The bathrooms are behind a sliding wooden door, repurposed from a 150-year-old barn. It's an odd combination, but it works.
Well-chosen, sort-of-hip music plays on the stereo — like the Black Keys and Tom Waits — though the general ambient volume of a busy evening crowd largely drowns it out.
In general, Noodlehead's appearance seems to say “stylish but casual semi-fine dining” more than the cozier “your neighborhood noodle shop.”
For a small menu of inexpensive Thai street food, Noodlehead covers a lot of ground. There are noodle dishes at just two price points, $6 and $9. The portions are more street food-size (read: just right), so don't assume you'll need a to-go container.
A steaming, medium-size bowl of Sukothai ($6) is a great place to start, and not often found on local Thai restaurant menus. Submerged within a spicy, peanut-filled lime broth are thin rice noodles and pork loin, with a hard-boiled egg and a few crunchy fried noodles on top.
There are a few non-noodle items that shouldn't be overlooked. The Pork Belly Steam Buns ($6) encase the delicate, rich fattiness of pork belly in a soft, pillowy handmade steam bun, complemented by thinly sliced pickled cucumbers and a sprig of cilantro. Another worthwhile starter is the Sweet & Spicy Pig Wings ($6) — pork shanks that protrude popsicle-like from the bone, a little crispy on the outside.
The more substantial Kee Mao ($9), a dish of large, flat rice noodles, was cooked perfectly — which is actually kind of a tricky thing to do — so they separate nicely, instead of clumping together. The bok choy also was cooked perfectly, leaving it surprisingly tender. The “spicy basil sauce” was more spice than basil, which kept the basil from overwhelming the dish.
Street Noodle #2 features thin egg noodles cooked to the point of translucence, and lightly battered tempura shrimp, with lightly sauteed bok choy giving it a pleasantly crunchy, slightly bitter counterpoint.
I found the spiciness to be just right, but one person in our party ordered “5 = Crazy Hot” on the menu's heat index. Like all but one meal at Thai restaurants in Pittsburgh, it wasn't hot enough. Leaving the restaurant, we noticed bottles of hot sauce on every table but ours.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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