Noodlehead: gourmet food experience at college student prices

My first encounter with Noodlehead was on a bitterly cold evening, and I was exhausted from a ridiculously long day of classes. I had half a mind to go home, but had promised a friend dinner and we soon found ourselves lost in Shadyside, with a glitchy Google Maps as our guide. On the verge of freezing, we asked around for directions, and were fortunate enough to end our half-hour trek with the warm glow that Noodlehead shed onto the dark, cold pavement outside.

We were welcomed in with smiles and seated at a table with a chair on one end, and a portion of a cushioned booth that lined the wall on the other. The room was lit up with a mellow buttery light that ebbed and flowed with the rustic decor, but was dark enough not to strain the eyes that were feasting on their simple single-sheet-of-paper menus.

As a seasoned Thai food consumer, with a father who spent almost a decade living in Bangkok, I was immediately suspicious of a majority of the menu items before me. Most of the menu was Asian fusion, laden with hearty meat dishes and their tofu-substituted counterparts. As many Thai food lovers would do, I decided to test the grounds with a classic: Pad Thai. For appetizers, we ordered the Thai fried chicken and the pork belly steamed buns — a spin on the delicious, classic pork bao.

While we waited, indie music lulled in the background while the place began to fill up with the approaching dinner hour. Beach House’s “Apple Orchard” queued in as we encountered the thai fried chicken. I was pleasantly surprised by the larger-than-expected portion sizes, and the lightly seasoned crunch that the chicken carried with it from the kitchen. The dish was accompanied with a flavorful dipping sauce, and was in itself quite filling. The real heroes of the night, however, were those pork belly steamed buns. They were delicately flavored to create a fusion of savory and sweet, which was well contained within the lightly baked buns the meat was folded into. We split the four that came on the plate, two each, and were both craving more long after our last bite.

As for the Pad Thai, I was impressed. Unlike many restaurants in the area, Noodlehead kept its flavors more on the traditional side than the Americanized side. The peanuts were accents and not at all overwhelming. As is with all great Thai food, there was a beautiful edge of smoky sweetness that played about my tongue. I’m not the biggest fan of spicy food, so I went for a level of two, and was blown away with the simultaneous subtlety and necessity of the spice in the dish. I wasn’t reaching for water all night, but I did feel the heat. It was well-balanced and flavorful, just as one would hope for from a two.

I have since returned to Noodlehead and ordered the Chiang Mai Curry Bowl, which was too big for me to finish in one night after stuffing my face with my beloved pork belly buns, but was the perfect dish for a cold day. It warmed me up from the inside, and the flavors were rich and the spice just as satisfying as it had been with the Pad Thai. The noodles started out on the crunchier side, but once the dish was mixed together, it was absolutely phenomenal.

Heads Up

They like their crispy greens: This place is CASH ONLY. As has become the norm with the artsy, urban, uber cool restaurant culture that has taken Pittsburgh by storm, Noodlehead insists on a cash-only policy, so if you do plan to eat here, be prepared. That being said, given the portion sizes, I would say that the prices are very reasonable, especially if you’re planning on splitting appetizers with friends.

Meat, glorious meat: There are NOT a whole lot of vegetarian mains here, although there are tofu options for most items on the menu. If you are a strict vegetarian, I would be wary and definitely check with the waiters to see if they use any sort of meat stock in their curries and sauces that may make the tofu substitution obsolete. There are some lovely vegetarian starters, though, if you like snacking as much as I do.

Are we there yet?: Best way to get to Noodlehead by bus from main campus is to hike up to 5th and Morewood and take the 71B down to Highland Ave at Alder St. I do think ubering there is faster, and walking there in this weather is miserable.

Click, click: This place has a lovely website, that shares its aesthetic appeal with the restaurant itself. Check it out for timings, menu specifics, and the like. http://noodleheadpgh.com/

For those stay-at-home days: Unfortunately the place does not have a telephone, so if you would like to get take out or order straight from the venue, you will need to arrive in person to place the order and take it home yourself.

Hours: Noon–10 p.m. daily, except on holidays (see website).

21+: This place is BYOB, but does charge a 50 cent per person recycling fee (which means they take care of the bottle for you, SCORE).

Rash Alert: As stated on their website, their dishes may contain nuts, shellfish, gluten, and soy products. Be sure to let the waiters know if you have any specific food allergies and they should be able to help you make a choice that will not get your immune system riled up.

Ambiance: Fabulous, very relaxed.

College student friendly?: Absolutely, I’ve run into many a Carnegie Mellon student at Noodlehead. One thing I do appreciate is that the restaurant is not only a hub for college students, so you get a nice mixture in seating neighbors and don’t have to worry about whispering about that guy in your calculus class that keeps clicking his pen too loudly.

Overall rating: 4 stars