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Tamari blazes own trail with Asian-Latin flavor

By Pam Starr
Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009

Allen Chen grew up working in his father's Asian restaurants, and was determined not to follow in his footsteps.

The 33-year-old even went far away to college -- to the University of Colorado, where he received a psychology and sociology degree. But the lure of the restaurant business proved irresistible to Chen, who opened his own Asian-Latin fusion restaurant, Tamari, six months ago in Lawrenceville.

The restaurant has been critically acclaimed and given many awards since it opened.

"Growing up with my parents, I wanted to blaze my own trail," says Chen, whose father, Mike, owns China Palace restaurants and Sushi Too in Pittsburgh. "But for me, this is what I know and love. My goal is to make Tamari the best restaurant it could possibly be."

If customer appreciation, positive reviews and good feedback are any indication, then Chen already has achieved his goal in Tamari. It took two years for Chen's dream to become a reality. Tamari is located in a newly constructed, two-story building on bustling Butler Street. Fukui Architects of Pittsburgh designed the entire restaurant, which features hardwood floors, recessed lighting and lime green walls.

There are no tablecloths on the black tables. Diners also can eat at the sushi bar or the regular bar. The narrow kitchen is open to the dining room, so diners can watch black-clad chefs execute their orders. The 120-seat restaurant has an attractive upstairs dining room, for the overflow. And on the weekends, the place is jammed with diners anticipating its fusion cuisine. The restaurant does not accept reservations.

"There is a one-hour wait on the weekends," Chen says. "We average 300 dinners on a busy weekend night. The portions are smaller here -- we serve a tapas-style menu, which is meant to be multi-course."

Tamari has two full-time sushi chefs. "We realized the demand for sushi was more than we anticipated," Chen says. The restaurant also has a sous chef, an executive chef and several cooks.

Roger Li, 28, is the executive chef at Tamari. Hailing from Philadelphia, where his family owned a Chinese restaurant, Li had his own restaurant in the North Side in Pittsburgh for two years, New Moon Fusion, before he came to Tamari.

"I've been a chef for 12 years," Li says. "When I was in grade school, the bus used to drop me off at my parents' restaurant, so I grew up with it. You have to have a lot of passion and pride in what you're doing."

Li's menu is an adventurous trip of Latin and Asian dishes. His small plates include filo-wrapped tiger shrimp with mango sauce; Peking duck quesadilla; chipotle tuna tartar with avocado crème; lemongrass chicken spring roll, grilled romaine salad and tempura soft-shell crab.

The entrees feature pork tenderloin rubbed with 16 spices; Chilean sea bass; Serrano Hoi Sin crusted lamb lollipops; Korean skirt steak fajita; fish tacos with pineapple mango salsa; mushroom salad, pan roasted chicken with chorizo orzo; beef tenderloin and a braised pork belly.

"We get our seafood from Samuels and Sons, out of Philadelphia," says Li, "and some from Pittsburgh Seafood. Our produce comes from Paragon Produce, in Lawrenceville."

One of Tamari's most popular dishes is ceviche, a traditional Latin-American dish in which the seafood is "cooked" in citrus juice.

"Every Latin country has a ceviche," says Chen, who is married and lives in Lawrenceville, "and it's the national dish of Peru."

Tamari boasts a Robata grill, which is considered the national dish of Japan, Chen adds. Meat, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, quail eggs, salmon or calamari are skewered and grilled and served with three dipping sauces: ponzu butter, ginger and chimichurri.

"The Robata is very popular, but so is the sushi," Chen says.

Tamari already has a loyal following.

"We have a great clientele, with a ton of regulars," he says. "But we're still seeing a lot of new faces."

One of the most gratifying aspects of owning Tamari, for Chen, is having his parents see it become a success.

"My parents live in Murrysville but they come out often," Chen says. "My dad likes to make sure everything is going smoothly. And he knows everybody."

Grilled Romaine Salad

Executive chef Roger Li chose to share his popular Grilled Romaine Salad with Tamari House Dressing with Cooking Class. It's a light, easy side dish that would go well with a robust entree.


• 3 34 cup chopped white onions

34 cup soy sauce

34 cup rice vinegar

• 2 tablespoons water

• 2 12 teaspoons sugar

• 4 tablespoons honey

• 1 tablespoon salt

• 1 tablespoon black pepper

• 2 12 teaspoons mustard powder

13 cup olive oil

13 cup sesame oil

Put all ingredients except for the olive oil and sesame oil into a blender. Blend slowly for 30 seconds or less, then add the oils to make the dressing thicker ( Photo 1 ).


12 Romaine heart

14 cup Asiago cheese

• 1 thinly sliced piece of prosciutto, crisp

14 cup julienned cucumbers

• Salt and pepper to taste

• Vegetable oil

Brush romaine with oil, then sprinkle salt and pepper on top ( Photo 2 ). Place on grill on high heat and cook 1 minute.

Sprinkle Asiago cheese over the top ( Photo 3 ) and place in a 450-degree oven for 1 minute, or until cheese is golden brown.

Place on plate, add prosciutto slice and julienned cucumbers, and pour dressing over the romaine ( Photo 4 ). Serve immediately.

Additional Information:

Tamari <

Cuisine: Asian-Latin fusion

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Fridays, 4 p.m.-midnight Saturdays, 4-9 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: $12-$16

Notes: Weekly specials. Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible. Happy-hour specials from 5-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Food happy-hour specials from 10 p.m.-midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Full bar. Reservations not accepted.

Address: 3519 Butler St., Lawrenceville

Details: 412-325-3435 or Web site



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