At first inspection, it doesn’t seem like a concept that would work, never mind flow together on the taste buds. Asian food and Mexican flavors are about as different as night is to day, right?
Perhaps, that was the way Allen Chen, who grew up working in his father's traditional Chinese restaurants, once would have seen it.
A former jack-of-all-trades who did everything from wash dishes to bus tables at his family's restaurants China Palace and Sushi Too, Chen, 35, admits he had no interest in working in the restaurant business.
“You kind of want to do your own thing that’s different from your parents,” he said.
That was before he graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder and spent the next four years living in Mexico—and having a love affair with its food.
“That’s where I fell in love with the culture,” he said. “I absolutely loved it down there.”
He also discovered many of the bold flavors in Latin food and Asian cuisine worked to compliment each other. Several years after his return to Pittsburgh, he opened Tamari, an Asian-fusion restaurant in Lawrenceville, to great success. The award-winning restaurant celebrates its third anniversary in June.
“What we brought was something completely new to the table,” said Chen, who lives just a few blocks from his Lawrenceville eatery. “There was nothing else like that.”
Following a trend of hip Pittsburgh restaurants opening locations north of the city—including BRGR in Cranberry and the soon-to-open Doublewide Grill in Adams Township—Chen opened his second Tamari last month in the Warrendale Village retail plaza in Warrendale.
With a location on Route 19 at the border of Cranberry and Wexford and just off the Warrendale exit of Interstate 79, Chen said he is hoping the new venture draws clientele from across the North Hills.
“A lot of independent operators are recognizing the North Hills and the demand of the customers up here,” he said. “They want all the dining options”
Like the location in Lawrenceville, the Warrendale restaurant is an elegant, urban space with cool, clean lines. It seats 160 people and in the summer will feature outdoor dining.
The restaurant's name comes from a phrase in Argentina that means, “to do everything with passion.” Tamari also is a type of soy sauce in Asian culture. Finding a word with meaning is both cultures was kismet, Chen said.
“It perfectly captures what we do,” he said.
The menu is divided into two portions, sushi and tapas—or small plates. The style of dining is European, Chen said, and patrons are encouraged to choose a variety of the dishes to taste and share.
“What we really encourage here is mixing and matching,” Chen said.
Traditional Asian and Latin flavors work in harmony in small delights like Peking Duck Quesadillas and empanadas with lemongrass chicken. There also are unusual dishes like Beef Tongue Tacos. On the sushi menu, the lobster roll is a specialty maki accompanied by a side of mouthwateringly succulent lobster fritters.
“Our customers come to Tamari to get things they can’t find anywhere else,” Chen said. “That’s what we pride ourselves on.”
Philadelphia native Roger Li—who owned the now-defunct New Moon Fusion on Pittsburgh’s North Shore—worked with Chen to create the menu. Chen recalls dining at Li’s restaurant and being very impressed by his food. When New Moon Fusion closed, Chen invited Li to become executive chef for the Lawrenceville location. Li also is executive chef for Tamari in Warrendale.
Since the restaurant’s opening on Jan. 17, Chen said simple word of mouth has led a flow of customers through the Tamari’s glass doors. About two weeks ago, the restaurant also opened for lunch.
“The reception we got has been overwhelming,” he said.
His hope is the Warrendale location will catch the same wave of success Tamari experienced with the Lawrenceville opening, which coincided with the neighborhood's emergence as one of Pittsbugh's hippest destinations.
“The dining scene in Pittsburgh is tremendous,” he said. “People want and will support inventive food.”