Honoring Family Heritage on Atwood Street


words: Nina Saluga

photos: Lauren Zawatski

Writers know that one objective of storytelling is to make the strange familiar. Ron Lee, owner of Spice Island Tea House, might be Oakland’s most archetypal example of this maxim.

Lee’s restaurant is a successful Southeast Asian eatery situated off Atwood Street. The street is also home to household names like Dave & Andy’s Ice Cream, Sorrento’s Pizza and Puccini Hair Design.

Lee’s Spice Island Tea House is not the all-American ice cream parlor or an Italian-American pizzeria. It is a uniquely Ron Lee creation that lends diversity and mixture to the otherwise conventional roster of establishments on Atwood.

Family heavily influences the venture for Lee. From his brother, who co-founded the restaurant, to his cousin, the chef, Spice Island is a family-driven business from every angle. The restaurant is Lee’s way of preserving and sharing his family history and ethnic origins with the Oakland neighborhood, as well as providing it with a diverse business.

Lee’s family has been on the restaurant scene in Pittsburgh all their lives, with restaurants run by his late father located in Squirrel Hill and the South Side; both have a singular focus on Chinese fare. Although ethnically Chinese, Lee’s family originally hails from Burma.

Lee himself was born in Taiwan and raised in Hong Kong before his family moved to Pittsburgh when he was 8 years old. Lee’s family history makes his restaurant a unique place to experience Burmese culture. For some, Lee’s restaurant is their first experience with Burmese cuisine or Burmese culture in general.

“The menu has relatively been the same for a good number of years. A lot of the Burmese dishes have been passed down from my family,” Lee says. “We are probably one of maybe just a couple restaurants that serves Burmese cuisine.”

Spice Island Tea House’s small, intimate eating area is where Ron Lee hopes to introduce Oakland residents to Burmese cuisine.

Spice Island Tea House’s small, intimate eating area is where Ron Lee hopes to introduce Oakland residents to Burmese cuisine.

The teahouse idea for the restaurant came from Lee’s efforts to create a coffeehouse atmosphere that would serve full-fledged fare. Lee describes the restaurant as having a sort of “shabby-chic” feel that he came up with himself. As an active proprietor who floats back and forth from back of the house to front of the house operations, Lee prides Spice Island on being an establishment that customers can feel good about patronizing.

“I think one person said to me a while ago about our place is that it makes people feel good about themselves,” Lee says.

It’s this laidback, feel-good atmosphere Lee creates that makes customers and employees alike gravitate toward his business.

“He just kind of lets things run their course, especially because he’s been running this place for so long,” says Allegra Eidinger, a waitress at the restaurant and student at the University of Pittsburgh.

His love of his craft and the ease with which he runs his business are tangible, drawing customers like Lance Turturice, a student and loyal Spice Island patron, back time and time again.

“You can really tell that he cares about the food and that he’s trying to bring something new to his customers and the community,” adds Turturice.

Oakland’s sheer population density and diversity lend Spice Island the clientele it takes to keep it flourishing. Between employees of hospitals, universities and shops, and the students and locals that patronize them, the demographic is wide-ranging.

“We have a lot of steady customers as well,” Lee says. “We’ve had a lot of regulars who have been working in the area who have been coming for years.”

It’s this “replenishing market,” as he calls it, which ensures that there is always a new throng of customers shuffling in and out of Spice Island.

Lee says that Spice Island steers away from the trendy and beyond what is “edgy.” He wants patrons to really explore the unique culture and cuisine the restaurant has to offer.

“When people come in, they really haven’t explored outside of what they’re used to,” Lee says.

A lot of the dishes are products of Lee’s travels and imported from his family’s native Burma. But he’s also created some of his own signature dishes, like the popular favorite Java-fried rice. But don’t steer away from the restaurant’s more exotic dishes, like the Mohinga, either.

“Come try the Burmese cuisine; order things that you can’t pronounce,” he advises.

Lee describes his restaurant as a “ground up” project. The business is organic in many ways, and the cuisine is clearly very specialized, making Atwood Street the perfect place to establish itself. Atwood Street has been a sort of restaurant row for ethnic cuisine, but Lee’s location off the well-traveled section of the strip allows him certain liberties that other businesses located there might not have.

“We didn’t put the place on the map; we accepted that and used it to our advantage,” Lee says. “Being off the beaten path, you can take certain risks.”

Lee describes his business style as a more independent, eclectic way of doing things. This can be attributed to his creative background at Carnegie Mellon University, where he graduated with a degree in creative writing.

“I don’t exercise my writing degree a lot in this arena, but in a lot of ways, it opens your mind up to expressing yourself in different ways,” Lee says. “It’s not just verbally or by page, but in terms of visually or how you want a certain atmosphere to convey a certain feel. It’s all about feel, really.”

When he and his brother, Alex, co-founded Spice Island, Lee’s job was to enhance the vision, give it personality and bring it to a workable reality. As anyone that steps into the restaurant can tell, he has achieved that goal tenfold.

But Lee hasn’t given up his endeavors in creative writing entirely. In 2005, Lee’s wife convinced him to combine his expertise in creative writing and restaurant running to publish a book.

“I actually wrote a book on how to open a restaurant,” Lee says. “It’s kind of like a how-to book — a dummy book. This one is everything you need to know about opening and running a restaurant. It sold enough that it got a second printing, I actually had to do a second edition.”

Lee’s ingenuity, craftsmanship and expertise in the creative and business arenas are what make his restaurant the shabby-chic, effortlessly cool eatery that it is. Everything down to the mismatched décor collected from thrift shops, the hand-painted walls and the music that drifts from the sound system are all products of Lee’s creative vision.

“Lots of money allows you to become creative, but not having a lot of capital forces you to become creative,” he says.

But what exactly does Lee, his culture and his business, with its exotic fare and funky feel, give to Oakland?

“I have no idea,” Lee says with a laugh. “I guess it gives people the variety. Oakland to me is probably still one of the more diverse neighborhoods for restaurants in terms of food choice. I think we have a niche here. You won’t find many places like ours.”