Yo Rita, a small storefront restaurant that anchors one end of the South Side's East Carson street business district, is defined by a simple concept: creative tacos. The focused menu has allowed the business to thrive over multiple transitions in kitchen leadership, from Kevin Sousa, who first revamped the restaurant in 2009, followed by Eric Wallace, to Adam Manculich, who took over in fall 2010.
Earlier this year, Mr. Manculich left the restaurant -- Yo Rita's owner even announced his replacement -- but just weeks later he was back in the kitchen. He left for family reasons, he explained, but more flexible scheduling allowed him to return.
2 1/2 stars = Recommended+
1120 East Carson St.
- Hours: Monday-Wednesday 4-10 p.m.; Thursday 4-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 4 p.m.-midnight.
- Summary: A bar turned restaurant serving creative small plates, tacos and a daily seasonal dessert.
- Recommended dishes: : Albondigas, grits, fire-roasted corn taco, Santa Cruz-style fish taco, seared tuna taco; carnival dessert.
- Drink: Ten house cocktails, $7-$10; a short but well-chosen wine list emphasizes New World wines; six taps ($5-6) focus on craft beer offerings and 25 bottles ($3-4) emphasize Mexican and South American offerings.
- Prices: Starters, $4-$10; tacos, $5-$9; dessert, $5.
- Useful information: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; no reservations; no BYOB.
- Noise level: Medium-loud to very loud.
The restaurant may appear to have undergone few changes over the three years and three executive chefs -- the space remains casual and stripped down. White walls and wooden tables provide a flattering backdrop both for the diners, an eclectic and unusually stylish group, and for the colorful small plates and tacos.
But there have been significant changes in style. Mr. Manculich's cooking is simpler and a bit more internationally inspired. It's not as consistently impressive as the original menus, but the kitchen also runs more smoothly.
The best dishes are rustic and full of flavor, like bison albondigas -- meatballs -- nestled in a smoky tomato sauce, sprinkled with fresh cheese and garnished with long plantain chips ($8). Or the comforting cheesy grits, made exotic with yeasty, rich huitlacoche, a spicy chile sauce and crunchy corn nuts. A simple summery salad of diced jicama, watermelon and cucumber, with charred corn and crunchy pumpkin seeds, is crisp and refreshing.
A rock shrimp ceviche, another special, was unexpectedly elaborate, a giant white platter framing a thin line of shrimp with diced mango, cilantro and onion, a stripe of sauce alongside. It looked fussy, rather than elegant, and its simple flavors didn't live up to the fancy plating.
The signature offerings are the eclectic tacos, inspired by Mexico but crossing borders and merging cuisines, all served on flour tortillas with a red cabbage slaw. Vegetable-focused tacos were consistently some of the best options, on both the spring and summer menus.
I was sad to see a number of spring offerings go, like a baton of tofu, cured in chile and cumin, deep fried, then tucked into a tortilla with a sweet guava sauce, pickled carrots, peanuts and cilantro. Sweet, hot and tart, it was fusion cooking at its best.
New additions include a fantastic, if messy, taco of charred corn, habanero cream cheese, pickled watermelon rind and pumpkin seeds. The blackened corn, which tastes remarkably sweet, will have you rethinking the whole concept of burnt food ($5). Tempura-fried asparagus fills another seasonal taco, the crisp coating saved from dryness by a delicious ginger mayonnaise ($6).
Seafood is also handled consistently well. Fish tacos are hard to master, particularly when the fish is fried, as it is in the Santa Cruz-inspired version at Yo Rita. Wrapping fried fish in a flour tortilla can render any dish a little dull, but here the sweet, fresh flavors of the fish weren't dimmed by the light batter, and generous spoonfuls of fresh tomato salsa, diced avocado and Mexican crema made for a juicy, flavorful taco ($8). Seared tuna was even better, the rich texture of the fish livened up by roasted vidalia onions and poblano peppers and a genuinely hot horseradish sauce ($9).
For all its good qualities, Yo Rita has inconsistencies and areas that need more attention, like the chips and salsa that come gratis at the beginning of the meal. The two kinds of salsas -- one smooth and hot, one chunky and sweet -- are worth eating with a spoon, but not with the chips, which were dry and flavorless on three recent visits.
Every order at Yo Rita had at least one stand-out taco, but too many seemed like good ideas that hadn't been successfully executed. Tacos may seem simple, but they also have small margins for error. The chorizo taco combines great flavors, but the baton of sausage had such a tough, dry texture that it couldn't be salvaged by a softly cooked egg and the delicious maple-arbol chile sauce ($6). The banh mi taco was spread with a delicious, funky pate and garnished with tart pickled carrots, plenty of cilantro and a vibrant chile-garlic sauce, but it relied on roast pork loin that was cooked too long and sliced too thick ($8). These are small concerns and easily remedied, but they have a significant effect.
Yo Rita still has a strong drink program, with a good selection of craft beers, thoughtfully chosen, affordable wines and a variety of house cocktails. There are some new offerings, but the best drinks are the ones that have been around for several years now -- the spicy La Diabla ($9) and refreshing ginger-lime margarita are hard to beat ($8). Bar staffers could use renewed attention to basic technique, such as measuring their pours and sufficiently shaking drinks. Fortunately, many of these drinks have significant margins for error.
A partial cause for sloppy mixology may have been a slightly under-staffed dining room. Bartenders seem to do double-duty as servers and hosts, if needed, rather than focusing on making drinks and interacting with customers at the bar.
Desserts are indulgent and quirky, often playing with familiar flavors in unexpected ways. A frozen peanut butter mousse was rich, yet light, with a texture similar to nougat. Mild and nutty, it was nicely enhanced by caramel and strawberry sauces ($5). On another night, dessert was a play on carnival food, popcorn ice cream with diced watermelon and miniature funnel cake ($5).
At its best, Yo Rita is a mash-up of the creativity and precision of contemporary fine dining, with the casual atmosphere and bold flavors of a taqueria. The current incarnation would benefit from more precision. But Yo Rita remains a vital part of the new Pittsburgh restaurant scene, one that is challenging conceptions of what Pittsburghers like, what they'll pay for and what will keep them coming back. Yo Rita has its flaws, but it is unfailingly fun and, often enough, delicious.
Yo Rita will be closed for vacation from Saturday through July 9 and will reopen July 10.restaurantreviews