Warning: The article you're about to read contains up-close images of tantalizing food. Hungry reader discretion is advised.
Onion Maiden, in the year 2017, is a café-style restaurant atop a stout little mountain in the south side of Pittsburgh. It’s a spot always teeming with an eclectic mix of people, definitely not only metalheads, where the so-called ambiance includes—but is by no means limited to—the likes of Dio, Black Sabbath, Melvins, Sodom, Thin Lizzy, The Mob, Sleep, Mercyful Fate, and Maiden, of course. All the greats, and then some, of metal and punk.
At Onion Maiden a lovely, beaming server in an Onion Maiden: Kale ‘Em All tee serpentines their way through the dark wood tabletops to bring you a Trooper—a chili (cashew) cheese dawg— and some Emperor Palpatots—cashew cheese, lentil chili and jalapenos. Or, maybe you got a bowl of the Burning Witch soup and a For Whom the Egg Rolls. Whatever, you ordered: it’s vegan, it bears a metal- or punk- or horror flick-inspired name, and it’s going to be delicious. At least so far it seems unanimously agreed upon: Onion Maiden’s food is delicious.
Onion Maiden first manifested as a pop-up restaurant at a death rock show two years before opening the doors of their own brick and mortar spot. Two of its three owners, Diana “Dingo” Ngo and Elyse Hoffman, had always talked about combining forces in vegan foodcraft. So when Hoffman’s husband asked her to cater a show he was booking, Hoffman enlisted Ngo, and Onion Maiden was conjured forth.
“What else were you thinking of naming the restaurant?” I ask.
“5 second rule,” replies Ngo.
“Ha,” her fiance “Brooks” Criswell laughs. “That was one we were mostly jokingly throwing around, but we laughed so hard every time we said it it grew on us. I think ‘Judas Feast’ was another, and I know there were some others, but that’s all I can remember.”
Criswell, who’s played bass in numerous Pittsburgh-based black and death metal bands (check out Wrought Iron), aided in summoning Onion Maiden from nothingness.
“I drove over most of the equipment in my van,” explains Criswell, reflecting on that first Onion Maiden event. “The show had a good turn out. We got some positive reviews and we thought, ‘Hey, maybe we should do this more often.’ So we got asked to do a couple more shows, then we started asking people if they needed food for events, and things just kind of slowly and naturally progressed. We got invited to some local Pittsburgh festivals and had positive experiences, and we slowly started to think that maybe this could be more than just a hobby.”
When I ask Criswell how owning a restaurant is like being in a band, his fiance Ngo answers instead.
“We’ve all played in bands, Dutch,” she says. “Elyse [Hoffman] plays (vocals) in Eyeroll, and I play with Brooks [Criswell] in Sandblaster, and other random metal/punk bands before. I think there are similarities especially with how we run Onion Maiden. When it came to our pop ups it was like prepping for a show and the menu was like our set list. As a vocalist, sometimes you come up with a name of a song before the actual song and vice versa. That happens with us, too. Elyse came up with the name ‘Pandanzig’ and then came up with donut to fit that. Another example is our ‘Straight to Hell’ salad. It is a Vietnamese-influenced salad which we had a hard time naming but ultimately named it after the Clash song about the Vietnam War. Another similarity to playing in a band is scheduling. For two years we all worked full time jobs while being in Onion Maiden. Scheduling a meet up is like trying to get a few knuckle heads together for band practice. You expect that people all have work on a new dish (song) and followed through on making the necessary contacts with people about vending (shows).”
Excellent points. Thankfully, however, Onion Maiden’s new brick and mortar location in no way resembles the rehearsal space just several blocks away where Ngo’s and Criswell’s bands, and my bands, and just about every band in Pittsburgh rehearses. But for all the concentration of punks and metalheads in that area every time I’ve gone to Onion Maiden metalheads are in the minority.
I ask if the owners were ever concerned that all the punk and metal would alienate some potential patrons.
“I think it piques people’s curiosity more than it drives them away,” Criswell offers. “People who would otherwise be reluctant eat adventurously would sometimes see the logo, or read the names on the menu board and do a double take and stop by to talk. We’ve won over a lot of people because of the fact that we’re punk- and metal-themed.
“I think the theme helps keep things lighthearted and inviting, rather than alienating,” Hoffman says. “I mean, the menu is basically just a long list of puns. How could someone feel excluded when we're trying so hard to make them laugh?”
“Who comes up with all those puns anyway?”
“We all have equally named our items,” says Ngo. “Dusty, Elyse’s husband helps us a lot, too. Some of us will just spew a bunch of different names from the get-go while some of us will have a brain fart but will come up with a super badass name days later.”
“I have a scratchpad now where I jot down new ones that come through. I even made up desserts just to fit the name such as the Pandanzig Donut and the Rainbow in the Dark Brownie,” Hoffman admits.
Criswell adds: “We’ll start a text message thread, and be like, ‘Ok, I need a name for something with (insert ingredient here) in it.’ We've even turned to our friends on social media and such. I got like over 100 responses for trying to name a waffle,” says Criswell.
“Did any of you go to culinary school?” I ask.
“None of us have any formal training,” Ngo explains. “My parents owned restaurants so I just naturally took to it. My very first memory of cooking is using a cleaver as young as five. I would sneak to cut things when my parents weren’t looking. They couldn’t stop me, so they eventually let me chop large amounts of garlic with a big ass cleaver. Can you imagine (when I was five with my helmet hair bowl cut)? Then I began working in restaurants. One of my biggest influence was working at one of David Chang's restaurant, Ma Peche in NYC. Nothing really vegan there, but just watching all the different techniques they used in the kitchen. It got me really interested. I watched and studied and asked a lot of questions. Another big factor for me is that I have been vegan since I was 14 and the older I was getting the more I realized that food is so important in my Chinese culture and for my family. Being a vegan Chinese American made me feel that I was driving a wedge away from my Ethnic background. And it made made miss the memories I had growing up surrounded by all time of food. So I started to recreate dishes. I especially like to recreate non vegan dishes solely based on look and smell. It’s a fun challenge and I find myself creating new dishes and taste without trying to do some bullshit meat dishes. For me it’s about being influenced by the ingredients and not necessarily ‘veganizing’ dishes. Those dishes tend to suck.”
Hoffman adds: “My parents both worked long hours so as soon as I could reach the stove I was cooking. I think deciding to become vegan really pushed me to make things I never would have attempted, like donuts or turnovers for example. This, of course, goes hand in hand with punk’s DIY ethos. If what you want doesn’t exist, then do it yourself.”
After opening its doors only a month ago, Onion Maiden’s already made quite a name for themselves. People come in droves. Many come simply to get donuts to go. So I ask Hoffman, now that her vegan baked goods have taken over her life, how her first attempt at vegan baking went.
“The first thing I can recall is baking bread,” she says. “The local grocery stores didn’t carry vegan breads so my mom and I would bake it every week. It was the best. The first dessert I really wanted to nail down was cheesecake, something my mom was famous for at family reunions. I found a recipe and it tasted exactly like a block of tofu blended up and baked in a pie crust. It was terrible! And nothing like what it was meant to imitate. Now, I think I’ve landed on a pretty good version but I’m always tweaking it to see if I can make it even better.”
“What about you?” I ask Ngo. “Some of the items on the menu are so imaginative. I know the restaurant is described as being ‘American and Asian-fusion comfort food,’ so where do you come up with some of these combinations of flavors? I’m thinking specifically of some of the dawgs, like the Hang Ten with its pineapple relish, and the Kimmy Gibler with the kimchi.”
“Brooks and I play in the Sandblaster,” Ngo explains. Sandblaster is their midly aggro surf band. “So the Hang Ten came naturally, which is our vegan dawg with pineapple jalapeno relish, caramelized onion and bbq sauce. As for the Kimmy Gibbler . . . Growing up in a Chinese household we really didn’t delve into other Asian cuisine outside of Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese. It wasn’t until later in life that I got into Korean food. But what sucks is that most kimchi has fish in it. So I said ‘fuck that I'm going to make my own’ and so I did. Now we supply kimchi to Lili Coffee Shop and Liliput Cafe and we make our Kimmy Gibbler hot dawg with it. Which is a vegan dawg, kimchi, Korean mayo and fried onions. And we also serve our kimchi on our ‘Graves at Sea’ loaded tater tots, which is tater tots topped with kimchi, Korean mayo, soy caramel, togarashi, nori and scallions.”
“When did you realize you wanted to set up a permanent location for Onion Maiden?”
“I don’t really recall,” says Hoffman. “I think that was always the dream goal. For me, I think it was when we had a massive line, in the pouring rain at Pittsburgh Vegfest this last year, and a customer actually yelled something like, ‘Open a restaurant already!’”
Criswell adds: “Last year we bought a food truck. Well, a truck that could be turned into a food truck at least. At that point we were pretty set on making that our thing. Then literally like a week later our friend comes to us and offers for us to rent her fully-equipped restaurant. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse.”
Located in the Allentown neighborhood, Onion Maiden is somewhat removed from the so-called hip area of Pittsburgh, that is the east end, where most of the other vegan restaurants and venues are, Allentown is also starting to show signs of bustling activity. So I ask the Onion Maiden owners how they feel about the location.
“It sort of fell into our laps,” Hoffman says. “Black Forge Coffee House is a few blocks down so it wasn’t an unfamiliar neighborhood. We had looked at a couple other places, but this was the one we all left feeling excited about. The community itself is so welcoming, supportive, and helpful. Couldn’t ask for a better spot.”
Finally, I ask them: “For people trying out Onion Maiden for the first time, what one menu item do you think is mandatory?”
Hoffman answers: “That’s such a hard question! It’s a tie for me I guess. If you had to have only two items that I would have to say the Graves at Sea Tots . . . and the classic Eddie.” The Eddie is Onion Maiden’s veganized Twinkie. And like the other Eddie, Onion Maiden’s Eddie has many different incarnations.
Ngo says you should try: “The newest edition to our menu is the Coffins: scallion pancake taco, filled with 5 spice jackfruit and enoki mushroom and topped with jalapeños, cilantro, red cabbage and cucumber. It’s my jam right now. If I was going in to eat I would get that, drink our Citrus Hystrix drink (kaffir lime and lemongrass drink), munster mash plate (cashew cheese with chutney and baguette). and finish with our Terramisu (matcha coconut and Eddie tiramisu). Holy crap I want that!”
As for Criswell, he suggests you get the Killing Yolk, “a vegan deviled egg.” He explains: “It’s included on our Munster Mash cheese plate, and I’ve witnessed it blowing peoples’ minds. The taste and texture is so eggy, it kind of freaks people out, in a good way. They often ask, ‘What’s it made of?’ and I always tell them it’s a combination of almond milk, agar agar, and vegan witchcraft.”
Thanks to Dingo, Brooks and Elyse for letting me try every delicious item on the menu, and for being such great interviewees.
Open Wednesday through Saturday from 5 PM ‘til 10 PM, and Saturdays, for brunch. from 10 AM ‘til 2 PM, Onion Maiden isn’t only a restaurant you should check out the next time you’re in Pittsburgh. It’s worth making the trip just to eat there.