Dining Review: Newcomers from San Diego satisfy taste for Mexican food with azul

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Azul Bar y Cantina in Leetsdale is the result of a longtime dream of owners Donna and Angus Peterkin to create an authentic Mexican restaurant in the Pittsburgh area.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Chef Jose Lemus brings years of experience in Southern California to the menu at Azul Bar y Cantina in Leetsdale.
Click photo for larger image.

Azul Bar y Cantina

122 Broad St.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

Basics: This casual cantina housed in an old residence resembles the Southern California model of margarita, beer and burritos destination. The food is fresh and fabulous, but the noise can overwhelm the senses. Service can be a bit on the "manana" side.

Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$8; entrees, $8-$12; desserts, $3.50-$4; wines, $6 for a 7-ounce pour.

Summary: No smoking; accessible; major credit cards accepted. Free parking in lot on side of building or on street.

The Peterkins bought a 19th-century brick structure in a residential neighborhood in 2004 and began a lengthy remodeling. In the process, they carted away 15 30-foot-long Dumpsters filled with the remnants of the building's past, a past that included a stint as a local bar called Rumors, an Italian restaurant named Mike's Place and before that, a pharmacy.

The Peterkins met in San Diego, Donna's home, where they enjoyed the many local taverns serving "South of the border" fare. When they moved to Pittsburgh, they found it more difficult to satisfy their taste for Mexican food and beverages a la San Diego and began thinking of creating a restaurant to fill that void. Being a Californian myself and familiar with the kinds of places they thought of as role models, I would say they have come amazingly close.

Azul Bar y Cantina is a nice blend of Mexico, California and Pittsburgh. Ethnic restaurants have always been appreciated in this city. Even though Mexicans were not part of the immigrant train that delivered thousands of new Pittsburghers here at the beginning of the 20th century, there are far more Latino restaurants in our community today than there are, for example, Polish ones. Poblana chilis, tortillas, tomatillos and jicama can be found in most supermarkets. Rick Bayless, Chicago chef and owner of Frontera Grill and Popolobampo restaurants, has popularized Mexican food for the entire nation with his public television series, "Mexico, One Plate at a Time."

Azul chef Jose Lemus, a native of Mexico City, is the son of a chef. He was born with a passion for cooking. Most of his years in the United States had been spent in Southern California, so he understood the owners' vision for Azul and helped them develop the menu. It's straightforward, with a few singular appetizers added to the usual chips and salsa or nachos or quesadillas. There are tacos, burritos and fajitas plus a daily special. What distinguishes this menu from the pack is the quality of the ingredients and the authenticity of the preparation. Tortillas are handmade, beans are prepared from scratch, all sauces are prepared in-house, the guacamole has no preservatives and even the shredded cheese does not come from a giant plastic bag but is processed daily in Azul's tiny kitchen.

Jicama, a tropical vine that produces large potato-like roots, is called Mexican turnip. It has all of the nutritional values of a potato but half the calories. The Azul jicama appetizer ($3) is a healthy and refreshing snack. Small logs of the vegetable are marinated in lime juice overnight and sprinkled with chili powder. The chef uses eight logs to construct a square log cabin arrangement on the plate. Icy-cold and crunchy, this makes a delicious preface to a Mexican meal.

Another vegetable appetizer is escabeche ($3). Although it's normally served as a sauce with fish or chicken in Mexico, chef Lemus has given the escabeche treatment to grilled carrots, scallions, potatoes and jalapeno peppers, which he marinates in oil and vinegar with a dose of potent spices. Nachos ($6.50) here are made from fresh corn tortillas, a combination of jack and cheddar melted cheese, topped with a choice of black or pinto beans and a choice of salsas. The large plate will easily serve two. Same goes for the taquitos ($5) appetizer, three corn tortillas filled with your choice of chicken, beef or pork, deep fried and served with shredded lettuce, a scoop of sour cream, another of guacamole and one of pico de gallo salsa. This pico de gallo has to be the finest served north of the Rio Grande. The finely chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro are fresh, flavorful and such a bright red color that it looks as though the dish has been spray painted.

Entrees are served with rice and beans (either pinto or black). Two Azul tacos of shredded pork, beef or chicken are $8.50. The shell can be of either corn or flour tortillas. The meats used in the tacos and burritos have been slow-cooked in a moist environment before shredding, and this adds to the flavor of the meat. Burritos are handmade flour tortillas filled with your choice of Mexican staples: rice, refried beans, black beans, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, sour cream and shredded Monterrey jack cheese. Pork or beef burritos are $8. Fajitas ($9 for beef) feature the same flavorful meat with grilled onions, green and red peppers. In addition to the rice and bean accompaniment, there is also guacamole, and that luscious pico de gallo.

Daily specials begin with tamales ($8.50) on Monday and end with chiles rellenos ($9.50) on Friday. I had fabulous chicken enchiladas ($10) on a Tuesday. Three enchiladas made from corn tortillas are served in a choice of either red or green sauce and topped with onions, cheese and sour cream. My next visit will be on a Saturday so that I can sample chef Lemus' stuffed, battered and fried chiles.

The kitchen makes flan, the typical Latin dessert of baked custard with a liquid caramel sauce ($3.50), and fried ice cream ($4). You might instead consider an unusual drink as a dessert. I suggest horchata ($2), a cinnamon-flavored frothy drink prepared in a blender and akin to a milkshake. It is a blend of rice and water, milk, cream and sugar.

Beverages are an important part of a Mexican meal. Azul has Dos Equis beer on draft ($3), and there are a number of other Mexican beers in bottles ($3.50) as well as domestic and imported beers ($3-$4.50). Azul considers margaritas ($5) to be its signature drink. These are made without cutting corners: There's freshly squeezed lime juice, Jose Cuervo tequila and Cointreau. Tequila is the name of the game here. The bar pours 38 different tequilas ranging in price from $4-$10.50 for a 11/4-ounce shot. The Peterkins have plans to expand this list to 71 tequilas, making it Pittsburgh's ultimate tequila-tasting destination. Fine, aged tequilas are sipped much as fine wine and brandy are.

Azul is housed in an old brick building in the heart of a residential neighborhood. From the street, it differs little from the neighboring three-story houses with windows facing the street. The inside is long and narrow, with exposed brick walls, high ceilings and tile floors. Pittsburgh artist John Ross has painted a series of graffiti murals on one wall portraying the Mexican travel destinations of the Peterkin family. The opposite wall anchors a long bar with 17 seats, behind which are a collection of metal-framed Mexican mirrors. The front of the bar is faced in brightly colored Mexican tiles. Sturdy bare-wood tables and high-backed chairs are all imported from Mexico, as is the handsome glassware of hand-blown clear glass with a band of bright blue (azul means blue in Spanish) around the top. Numerous hanging lights with blue glass shades dot the room. The kitchen, partially open, is at the rear of the restaurant.

It is an attractive space, but it is all hard surfaces, and this means that when the room is filled with happy diners, the noise level can be beyond tolerable. Angus Peterkin recognizes that noise is a problem and is working with engineers to provide some batting to lower the decibels. I would suggest that it might help to enclose the kitchen, since banging and clattering of pots and dishes add a further layer to the problem.

Another issue I encountered was poor service. On one visit, I sat at the bar and was well served by an attentive bartender/server. When I was sitting at a table, however, the waiter was not just slow but almost never in evidence. And the host, rather than overseeing the waitstaff, was sitting outside on a bench, visiting with another employee.

Azul Bar y Cantina is a hot new spot catering to adventurous diners of all ages. Whether for the love of authentic ethnic cuisines or for an opportunity to taste a unique aged tequila, Azul is a fun destination.

Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.


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