Hidden treasure in Bolivar offers healthy Chinese food
A modest ranch house southwest of New Florence seems like the last place you'd look for authentic Chinese food. But there you'll find it.
Just off Route 711 and opposite the Mirror Lake Campground sits the Mountain Palace.
It's run by a native of northern China, who's a pediatrician and genetic researcher, and her partner, a local human services professional who learned Chinese in the army.
The pair are Lingzhi “Lacy” Cai, who does the cooking, and Clay Shirey, who does the serving.
The Fairfield Township restaurant is open Fridays through Sundays, offering three dinner sets and a weekly special, along with soups, dumplings and a hot pot with vegetables and choice of meat or seafood.
For dessert, there's ice cream.
Cai developed the menu around Chinese principles of health and nutrition. The Chinese, she says, take a more holistic approach to wellness than Americans do, both in diet and medicine.
Dinner set options include fish and colorful vegetables; chicken, cashews and celery; and twice-cooked pork with mushroom, green pepper and onion. Sets come with salad, soup, rice and three dumplings.
“Almost everyone wants the dumplings,” Cai says.
Many of the foods served at Mountain Palace are chosen not just for taste but also for their nutritional benefits. Nothing is deep fried.
Cai and Shirey buy Chinese specialty products from suppliers in Pittsburgh's Strip District; other foods come fresh each week from local stores.
Cai says that part of her mission is to educate people in healthier eating by serving food pairings that not only are delicious but also promote good health.
Cai trained as a pediatrician at the Nippon Medical School Hospital in Tokyo, Japan, intending to return to China when she completed her training. She says she was intrigued when a Japanese doctor who had studied in the United States told her that American society was 100 years ahead of China in many ways.
“I thought if I go to America instead of going back to China, it means I will extend my lifetime for more than 100 years,” she says.
In May 2005, “full of excitement and curiosity,” she arrived in Pittsburgh to do gene therapy research for Duchenne muscular dystrophy in the UPMC department of neurology, a position she found online.
Knowing no English, she moved into a tiny apartment with a mattress on the floor and little else, and went about the business of navigating life in the U.S.
When funding for the first project ended in 2008, she found a job doing research on diabetes and obesity at the gene level in the UPMC endocrinology department.
That's where she became interested in problems caused by unhealthy lifestyles, an issue that she says is disturbingly more common in the U.S. than in China. She also observed that while American medicine is geared more toward treating symptoms, traditional Chinese medicine aims to alleviate the underlying causes of illness.
She met Shirey online while she was working at UPMC. He caught her attention by greeting her with the words “ni hao,” or “hello” in Mandarin Chinese.
Shirey, who was living in Latrobe at the time, had learned the language while serving in the army in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
They eventually became what Cai describes as “mission partners” and Shirey calls “soulmates.”
When Shirey found a job with an organization planning to open a treatment center in New Florence, they bought the house and dubbed it Mountain Palace. Visiting on weekends, Cai found it to be a peaceful retreat from the city and her research work.
‘Let's make dumplings'
Their peace was interrupted shortly afterward when Shirey was laid off.
“We were saying, ‘What are we going to do?' ” Shirey says. “Then Lacy said, ‘Let's make dumplings.' ”
Opening a restaurant presented challenges, Shirey says, not the least of which was having no experience in food service. Along with that came two years of renovations to comply with building code specifications.
Mountain Palace Northern Chinese Happy Healthy Eatery finally opened on July 9, 2011 — and nobody showed up.
“We forgot to tell anybody we were opening,” Cai says.
Late that first evening, two guys finally came in and ordered dumplings and, little by little, word got out about the authentic northern Chinese food available in the rambling, wood-sided house by Mirror Lake.
Word of mouth still accounts for most of the restaurant's advertising, Shirey says, although they do have a website and a Facebook page.
Make people happy
For the first couple of years, Cai was commuting to her UPMC research post during the week and returning to cook on the weekends. When that project ended, she moved full-time to Fairfield and, in addition to running the restaurant, began to offer acupressure treatments and to teach traditional Chinese medical exercises on-site and at other area facilities.
Her weekday schedule now is filled by acupressure clients.
Also in those first couple of years, Cai's now-80-year-old mother visited from China to help with the prep work and the dishes, and to make the hundreds of dumplings that are served on the weekends.
“But then she found a boyfriend online and she had to go,” Cai says. “She has a party all the time.”
Now it's back to just the two of them.
Twenty people make for a pretty good crowd in the small dining room. When it's busy, people need to be prepared for a leisurely meal.
“If we're real busy, it's not going to be real fast,” Shirey says. “Lacy is preparing every dish individually from scratch.”
It took him a while to get used to the stress of the restaurant business, he says, but he learned a valuable lesson from his partner.
“At first, when we started getting busy, I'd be fussing in the kitchen, ‘Why are we even doing this?' ” he says. “Then Lacy says, ‘Because it makes people happy.' ”