It's among the most common cuisine complaints I've heard about Pittsburgh over the years and I've heard it a lot. I've heard it from transplants from Texas, new neighbors from New Jersey, and boomerangers back from Richmond. Local lifers from Mt. Lebanon have repeated it to me as if it's an accepted fact, and they should know better, because it simply isn't true.
That is regarding the perceived lack of good traditional Mexican food in the area.
I'll certainly concede that good Mexican isn't nearly as ubiquitous here as it is in other areas of the country, but not that there isn't any good Mexican. It's around, hiding out in odd spots from Canonsburg to Castle Shannon and Beechview to West View. And if the list isn't necessarily long, Pittsburgh can at least add another distinguished member to it: La Palapa.
A partnership between Jesus Martinez and Luis Navarette, La Palapa opened late last year in a regular stand at the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip and just two months ago in a second permanent storefront on East Carson Street, South Side. A native of Mexico City and an ex-scuba instructor, Mr. Martinez fell for and married a Pittsburgh girl (they often have that effect) and ultimately moved back here to be close to her family. Needless to say the local scuba job market isn't quite as robust as it is in, say, the Rivera Maya, so Mr. Martinez sought employment in the local restaurant industry where he met Mr. Navarette, a native of Mexico's Puebla region and veteran of American kitchens.
Their collaboration yielded La Palapa, and the results are an impressive field of classics from a self-described gourmet "cocina Mexicana." The setting is colorful and decorated with Mexican artwork and the requisite salsa music on the stereo and Tamales, Chiles Rellanos, Empenada, Lengua and Churrasco on the menu ($4.95 to $14.95).
We started with an outstanding order of fresh house made tortilla chips and a dynamite guacamole that was velvety, citrusy, not too salty and worth the trip alone ($5.95).
My colleague had an appetizer of the Mejillones Borrachos ($9.95) -- mussels sauteed with garlic, tomato, potatoes, cilantro and beer from East End Brewing. He said the mussels were plum-sized and firm, the simmering broth spicy and assertive. The chopped-up chunks of garlic and potatoes were so good he scooped them up with our leftover chips. He was equally enthusiastic about his entree, the Mole Poblano con Pollo (chicken with mole sauce $11.95), which he reported to be tender and flavorful, but the dish was not overwhelmed by the mole, but rather subtle and not overly chocolaty.
I wasn't nearly as crazy about the Sopa de Verdure (vegetable soup, $4.95) mostly because it was loaded with cilantro, a taste I only like in moderation, but was much happier with my main course, the Tilapia a la Veracruzana ($12.95), a slow-cooked tilapia with a sauce of tomato, onion, capers and green olives. The fish was tender and fell apart on the fork, the tomato broth was just spicy enough, and was a great combination with the olives.
Dishes come with a side of rice and excellent Frijoles Charros -- black beans cooked with bacon, hot dogs, tomato, and cilantro. La Palapa also offers house-made hot sauce, which was a nice touch, albeit a lip-melting hot one. Desserts like Flan and Sopapilla are available as are various aquafrescas.
La Palapa is at 1925 E. Carson St, South Side, and in the Pittsburgh Public Market; 412-586-7015 or lapalapapgh.com.
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