I hear frequent complaints about Pittsburgh's lack of "real" Mexican restaurants. While there is still room for improvement, finding delicious, authentic Mexican food is just a matter of knowing what to look for.
A tortilla with beans is perhaps the most authentic Mexican dish -- if it's the right kind of tortilla, properly prepared, with the right kind of beans. Whether they are the flour tortillas popular in northern Mexico or corn tortillas preferred elsewhere, they should be sturdy enough to soak up juices of meat, beans or salsa without breaking, but tender and savory at the same time. The beans can be whole, stewed with tomatoes, onions, and spices; or they might be refritos -- refried -- thick and rich, always well seasoned.
Add some meat, cheese or a few vegetables and you might have a taco, burrito or enchilada. The meat could be a chicken leg that has been braised and shredded; or perhaps al pastor, sliced pork shoulder layered on a rotisserie, with pineapple on top so that the juices drip into the meat as it cooks.
While most Mexican food is made from a small list of staple foods, endless variety is created from a complex tradition of chile-based sauces, or "salsas." Chiles are also present in rubs, marinades and stews; they are the essential flavoring component of Mexican cuisine. Mexican cooks typically choose from more than 300 kinds of chiles, ranging from sweet to fiery hot. They combine them with everything from tomatoes to pineapple to nopales -- cactus -- but the flavor of the chiles should determine the flavor of the sauce.
Mexican food is a family-based cuisine. Each family, each village, each region has its own way of doing things. The best Mexican restaurants maintain this sense of creativity.
Each of the restaurants I have selected possesses several of the following features: a prime location, good value, popularity, authenticity and uniqueness. There are certainly other Mexican restaurants in Pittsburgh worth visiting, and I hope there will be many more in years to come.
AZUL BAR Y CANTINA
Azul's dedication to authenticity influences everything from the extensive tequila list to the unique house salsa made from roasted tomatoes and dried chiles. While the salsa may tempt you to indulge in a few too many chips, be strong. Azul's appetizer list deserves special praise for overall quality and several hard-to-find items. Escabeche ($3), a Spanish import, is a mix of grilled carrots, potatoes, jalapeno peppers and scallions marinated in vinegar. Whether eaten as a sort of antipasti or a condiment, this is a spicy, lively dish, which is a great accompaniment to one of Azul's fantastic margaritas.
Another favorite was the simple dish of Jicama ($3), a slightly sweet, juicy root eaten raw, with a texture similar to an Asian Pear. Sprinkled with chili powder and served with lime wedges, this dish is refreshing and soothing, but far from ordinary.
Entrees generally are less unique, but the food tastes fresh with clean, bright flavors. Azul favors braised meat, such as the burrito with braised pork ($9) and the chicken tacos ($8.5).
Solid wood tables, a tile floor, and brick walls are offset by neon graffiti-style paintings. Warm, knowledgeable, precise service ensures a great experience.
122 Broad St., Leetsdale; 724-266-6362; Monday-Thursday 11a.m.-9p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; nonsmoking; www.azulbarycantina.com.
Mexico City is far from a well-kept secret. The casual, but pleasant, room is packed at lunch with Downtown workers and students crazy about everything from the tortilla chips to the Mexican chorizo, which is warm with smoky spices and somehow both moist and crumbly.
The fresh guacamole prepared tableside ($3.99), which is available at lunch despite what the menu says, is made in a molcajete, a stone mortar with three legs. Our server's expert motions efficiently ground a little salsa verde (green salsa made from tomatillos) with avocados, serrano chile, onions, garlic and spices.
Tacos ($2), a fantastic deal, are a great way to expand your culinary horizons. The corn tortillas are the best in Pittsburgh, and Mexico City offers a much wider variety than other restaurants. Try the Barbacoa, lamb that has been marinated and then barbecued almost until it falls apart. The pollo con mole, chicken with mole sauce, is a solid examples of this famous dish, with notes of cinnamon and cumin and a velvety texture. The mole verde, pumpkin seed sauce, is a little on the salty side, but intensely flavorful all the same.
111 Smithfield St., Downtown; 412-391-2591; Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; nonsmoking.
411 Wood St., Downtown; 412-246-2042; Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; nonsmoking.
TAQUERIA TACO LOCO
A welcome respite from the usual South Side chains, Taqueria Taco Loco is worth the walk a few blocks from the main drag. The chips ($2.95) may not be free, but their high quality and the delicious salsa verde and salsa roja that come with them are certainly worth the price. Though the name may push you toward the tacos, they aren't necessarily your best option. The Garlic Shrimp ($10.95) set the bar high. Redolent of chopped garlic that had been cooked just long enough to calm its bite, the spiciness of this dish was complex, encouraging me to savor every bite.
Not used to spicy food? Make sure you order a cantaloupe or watermelon aqua fresca to counteract the heat. Made from fruit, lemon juice, ice and a bit of sugar, the blended drink takes on a soft, fluid texture reminiscent of well-made fruit soups.
Taco Loco's tacos ($2.25-$3.50) are fine, but not fantastic. I was disappointed that lengua (tongue) was offered on the menu but wasn't actually available.
The Chicken Enchiladas in Mole Sauce ($13.95) was above average, with delicious shredded chicken, a well-seasoned mole, and a delicate garnish of cheese.
2700 Jane St., South Side; 412-488-8858; Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m; BYOB; nonsmoking; www.tacolocopgh.com.
Mad Mex is reputed to be Pittsburgh's favorite Mexican restaurant, despite the fact that the Mad Mex menu puts a strong emphasis on its lack of authenticity (thus the presence of "los wingos" and a Thai Curry Burrito).
But this restaurant is extremely popular, and whether you go for the half-price food, the bar scene or because it's the only Big Burrito restaurant that allows smoking, there are a few things on the menu that are worthy of a decent margarita. The pineapple-habanero salsa demonstrates well-balanced sweetness and heat and the tomatillo-guacamole salsa had a unique piquancy that livened up grilled steak tacos. The guacamole gets a nice hint of sweetness from the addition of chopped tomato.
I enjoyed a Carnitas Burrito ($9.25); the meat was moist and flavorful, but it lacked the crispy exterior of the best carnitas. I also was puzzled as to why the burrito included only rice, a decidedly inauthentic choice. While I was hoping to try the Mahi-Mahi tacos, which are served with shredded cabbage rather than the more common and less authentic shredded lettuce, our server informed me that all the fish was "frozen solid." Perhaps another time.
370 Atwood St., Oakland, and various locations; 412-681-5656; daily 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; smoking permitted; www.madmex.com.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1198.