Inspired by the street food of Puerto Rico, Roberto Morales is bringing authentic empanadas, fajitas and tacos to the streets of Pittsburgh.
Approximately two months ago, Mr. Morales, of the Hill District, and his business partner, Bobbie Dickey of Garfield, decided to start a mobile food operation called La Casita. As the Spanish translation suggests, La Casita appears to be a little house attached to a car, with a red top and windows out of which people can buy Puerto Rican food throughout the day.
The menu includes steak and chicken fajitas at $3.50 apiece or two for $6, beef empanadas for $3.50, walking tacos for $2 and soda or water for $1. La Casita serves lunch or dinner wherever it arrives, though there is no set route for the trailer yet.
Parked outside of Kindred Hospital on the North Side on a hot Wednesday afternoon, the trailer drew a steady stream of hospital workers for lunch. Mr. Morales, wearing a tank top showing strong Puerto Rican arms, leans out of the trailer and hands his eager patrons a small packaged taste of the tropics.
He is from Brooklyn, N.Y. He learned to cook from his grandmother, whom he would visit in Puerto Rico during his childhood summers. Based on his background, he considers himself an authentic "New York Rican."
After growing up in Brooklyn he traveled to Pittsburgh to cut hair and then became a translator in Cranberry for about four and a half years. When he saw this trailer was for sale, he decided to put love of food and his knowledge of Puerto Rican food to work.
His cooking comes straight from the heart, he contends. There are two types of cooks, he said -- those who learn how to be great cooks at culinary school and those who learn from family and tradition. La Casita is the embodiment of the latter, he said.
There are three main items on the menu. The beef empanadas are cooked with cheese and a habanero and pineapple sauce, he said. The result is a fried exterior with the sweet taste of pineapple sauce mixed with a spicy kick of habanero. The goal of the recipe is to create both sweetness and a bite, he said. For customers interested in kicking the spice up another notch, there is extra hot sauce.
The steak and chicken fajitas can be mixed with peppers, cheese, sour cream and guacamole, the perfect food combination for an indulgent lunch break. The walking taco, the least expensive item, is taco meat inside a bag of chips, such as Doritos, along with traditional taco toppings.
Best of all, the portions offered by La Casita are ideal for lunch. They are satisfying, but not so large that you head back to work with a queasy stomach.
If the trailer is successful enough to expand, Mr. Morales hopes to be able to cook rice, beans and grilled chicken. However, right now, the menu seems to be working. He has been surprised with how successful the business has been so far.
During the summer, people want food that is "hot, fast and quick," which is exactly what the menu at La Casita is designed to provide.
At some of the events that he has worked, he said there have been hundreds lined up to buy their little slice of Puerto Rico. Sometimes there is a slow trickle of people coming out of an office or workplace. Outside of Kindred Hospital on July 3, approximately 20 people lined up.
La Casita also has made guest appearances at charity events. Mr. Morales said that he was asked to work an event with Pittsburgh Steelers running back Isaac Redman, whom he knows from his days of hair cutting.
Though he does not yet have a defined route or regular stops, Mr. Morales said to follow him on Twitter at @lacasita_food or on Instagram at lacasitafooddruck. Or to contact him directly at email@example.com or 412-475-9078.
As he said, "If you're smiling, you like it. I'm happy, too," which seems to be his theme.
Monica Disare: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1852.