The venerable Polish bar in Pittsburgh will close for good after Saturday night after nearly 32 years.
Spanish teacher Rebecca Cibulka wanted to give her West Mifflin Area High School students a taste of local Hispanic/Latino culture.
She wound up creating a way for lots more people to do that, too, as an educational experience she orchestrated will become a food tour the public can take.
It was a challenge, but she’s used to those. As she’ll tell you, getting young people motivated to learn Spanish is tough when your school district has almost no Hispanic/Latino people, and no money for taking the students to places even in the big city of Pittsburgh that at least have some.
Ms. Cibulka had explored local Spanish flavor starting in 2011 when she started her now dormant blog, Sabor PGH (sabor-pgh.com) and wrote about the region’s gradually growing number of Hispanic/Latino restaurants. She wanted her students to have those experiences, too, but how?
This past summer, she happened to go on and much enjoy a “Flavor of Pittsburgh” food culture tour run by Pittsburgh Tours & More. That one didn’t include any of her Spanish favorites, but she learned that the company arranges custom tours, so she asked about arranging one for her kids.
Over the course of months, they worked up a walking tour of the Strip District that would include a surprising number of suitable stops. But how to pay for the costs of $35 per person (for 30-some students and two chaperones), plus the $275 for the school bus to get them there and back to school? She knew that if she had to charge that much, very few would go. She wanted this to be open to all of her students.
So, she put them to work, helping her launch and support a crowd-funding campaign, like one she’d already used for materials for the cash-strapped district’s advanced-placement Spanish class. At GoFundMe.com, she set a goal of $1,200 to cover most of the cost, while leaving students to each pay $5.
Two students got their grandmother to donate $100 to the cause at the start. Others helped their teacher seek donations via a Twitter account she created for the Spanish Club and a Facebook page for their fundraising effort.
Ms. Cibulka encouraged them by making her Spanish 4 class a Tres Leches Cake when they’d hit the halfway point of $600 raised, and promising the class that raised the most money a “food day,” where they make and eat foods from Spanish speaking countries.
They raised $1,260, which after fees, was $1,040.97, plus an additional $220. The out-of-pocket cost per student dropped to $4 each.
And this past Friday morning, just after 10 a.m., 32 juniors and seniors stepped off the school bus on Penn Avenue in the heart of the Strip for #WMSpanishFT, the hashtag their teacher created for social-media chronicling the West Mifflin Spanish field trip.
Pittsburgh Tours & More director of group tours Sherris Moreira greeted them by encouraging them to grab a bottle of water from her cooler. “You might have some spicy stuff!”
Tour guide Kelley Stroup gave a quick introduction to the “big melting pot” of a neighborhood, and then they were off to the first stop — Native Inka’s Shop, where owner Patricio Moran told them the story of why he wound up here from Ecuador. Only he didn’t tell most of it in English.
As Ms. Cibulka told some of her students, “Better turn on your Spanish switch!”
The students seemed to follow along fine, and got less shy about asking questions of Mr. Moran, who gave them each a knitted finger puppet.
Then the big group made its way up the steps and up the street to Reyna Foods, where they were met with a big bowl of house-made tortilla chips and a colorful array of salsas. Still crunching, they filed to the back of the store where they could snarf a just-made tortilla, and then filed back to the front for warm empanadas.
They were just getting warmed up.
After a tour of the Casa Reyna Mexican restaurant downstairs, and its “tequila room,” they turned down 21st Street for a stop at Edgar’s Best Tacos stand. Owner Edgar Alvarez warmly greeted the crowd before telling a colleague to get cracking: “Muchas tacos!” The students devoured them, only pausing briefly when they learned that the meat was lengua, or beef tongue.
While the tacos were being prepared, tour guide Ms. Stroup regaled the students with the story of the 1936 “banana explosion” at the nearby banana-ripening building that forced a shortening of the towers on St. Stanislaus Church, which she deftly tied to the hot fried plaintains they would sample across the street at Chicken Latino Peruvian restaurant.
That was a new taste for most of the students, who really enjoyed them -- some digging into the foil pan for seconds.
One young woman pronounced, “These are bomb!”
“I never knew stuff like this was down here,” said senior Jenna Granatire.
While the girls were munching plaintains, the boys took their turn sampling two different Colombian dark chocolates at Mon Aimee Chocolate, where owner Amy Rosenfield gave them a crash course on chocolate’s Mexican origins, makeup and more. This stop was so popular that most of the girls returned and went back in.
One of the young men bought a 100-percent cocoa (no sugar) bar to try -- and promptly spit it out. “It tastes like sour chalk!” Of course, his buddies had to try it, too.
The last stop was the Pittsburgh Public Market, where they learned about olive oil (Spain is the No. 1 exporter) at The Olive Tap, and then tucked into mole-topped tamales from La Palapa Mexican Gourmet Kitchen.
“You need your water,” Jenna Granatire told her tablemates, fanning her mouth and pulling her bottle out of her purse. “HOT.”
“I just want to make sure: Did we get enough to eat?” Ms. Moreira asked everyone around 12:30 p.m., before inviting them to do a little shopping. Some of them did, after they posed for a group photo.
“Best field trip in the history of field trips!!!!” student Abby Terak later tweeted, with, of course, the hashtag.
#WMSpanishFT was almost over, but not: Pittsburgh Tours & More will repeat the tour for the public as “Delicioso: A Pittsburgh Hispanic Culinary Experience” (and “Inspired by Sabor PGH”). The cost will start at $60 per person and include a shuttle and a few additional Hispanic touches, and a portion of proceeds, as with other tours, will go to a community group. The tour is to start in May and run at least monthly through September, and as private groups request (www.pghtoursandmore.net).
And now other people can learn what Becky Cibulka’s students did: That there’s more Hispanic/Latino flavor in Pittsburgh than you might think.
And tongue tacos are totally tasty.
Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@ post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.