Latin American influence gaining momentum in Pittsburgh restaurant scene

Spanish Conquest

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Foods and flavors from Latin America have slowly permeated the Pittsburgh restaurant scene in recent years, at casual spots such as Mexico City and Chicken Latino as well as more upscale establishments including Kaya, Tamari and Yo Rita.

That slow growth is about to explode, with half a dozen new restaurants set to open before the end of this year.

They're popping up in a range of neighborhoods at various price points. Two taco shops have joined the ranks of some of Pittsburgh's best cheap eats. At Smoke Barbeque and Taqueria in Homestead, Jeff Petruso and Nelda Carranco, who relocated from Austin, Texas, have brilliantly combined two great culinary repertoires.

The menu is succinct, but each taco is carefully conceived from the pulled pork with apricot-habanero sauce and caramelized onions to the beef brisket with sauteed onions, hot peppers and barbecue-mustard sauce. Even the vegetarian option of black beans, roasted poblano and corn relish, crispy potatoes and chile de arbol sauce impressed with its varied flavors and contrasting textures.

Everything that can be is made in-house, from delicate flour tortillas to delicious traditional drinks such as cinnamon-flecked horchata and minty pineapple agua fresca. Breakfast tacos, served all day, include two kinds of housemade sausage.

The charming East Eighth Avenue storefront is convenient to the Waterfront shopping complex and ideal for grabbing a bite before a show at the Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead (comedian Aziz Ansari of NBC's "Parks and Recreation" tweeted his praise for the tacos, which he sampled before a performance last week).

At Chica Loca Taco in Shadyside, the menu is less tightly focused and more traditionally Mexican. Owner Megan McNeish was born and reared in Shadyside before moving to Colorado for 18 years. She also spent considerable time in Mexico, especially Cozumel. "It's been a big influence on my life," she said.

Recently returned to Pittsburgh, she considered opening a taco truck, but concluded that local laws make trucks too difficult. Her Copeland Street storefront was previously occupied by Mercurio's Mulberry Creamery, which has moved to Walnut Street. After several months of renovation, Chica Loca Taco opened earlier this month.

Taco options include slow-roasted pork carnitas, shredded beef barbacoa, chorizo, spit-roasted pork and pineapple al pastor, and grilled fish tacos, all but the last served on corn tortillas with onions, cilantro and queso fresca, with a choice of salsa. Tacos are supplemented by salad, chili (including Colorado chili verde) and some substantial side dishes, including queso fundido and Mexican-style street corn. For dessert, there is a range of gelatos and sorbets in Mexican-appropriate flavors like cajeta, coconut, mango and chipotle chocolate with raspberries.

Ms. McNeish buys most of her supplies from Las Palmas Carniceria y Supermercado in Brookline, which recently opened a second location on Atwood Street in Oakland.

While any restaurant venture is risky, Smoke and Chica Loca seem poised for success. Who doesn't love delicious tacos for just a few dollars apiece?

But what about an authentic, upscale Latin American restaurant located in a quieter neighborhood? This might sound like a tougher sell, but restaurateur Jamie Wallace is no stranger to blazing a trail in the Pittsburgh dining scene. He opened Abay, Pittsburgh's first Ethiopian restaurant, in East Liberty in 2004, long before it became a hot restaurant neighborhood.

Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen opens this week near Regent Square, in the space most recently occupied by Calli's, a casual American restaurant. The restaurant will include a dining room, an outdoor patio, and a separate bar room, once the liquor license comes through.

The restaurant will be more expensive than Abay, said Mr. Wallace, with some entrees topping $20, but there also will be budget options, such as a Cuban sandwich.

The goal is to serve good food without pretension, said Mr. Wallace, but also "to be as authentic as possible," added Alma's chef, Martin Lamarche. "With the menu, we've tried to hit as many different Latin American countries as possible."

Mr. Lamarche's background and resume immediately stood out to Mr. Wallace. The son of a Dominican father and a Guatemalan mother, Mr. Lamarche grew up in the Latin American community in Washington, D.C., and has traveled throughout the region.

His restaurant experience is also impressive, with stints at The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, Restaurant Terra in Napa, Binkley's and Michael's Catering in Arizona and The Beacon and Red Bar in the Hamptons.

Mr. Lamarche's wife is a Pittsburgh-area native, which brought them back to southwestern Pennsylvania.

For now, Alma is Pittsburgh's only Pan-Latin restaurant, but it won't be singular for long. Aji Picante, self-described as "an eclectic Latin restaurant," is set to open soon in Squirrel Hill, in the storefront shared with Pamela's P & G diner (in the former Panera Bread spot on Murray Avenue). Pamela's serves breakfast and lunch, while Aji Picante will be dinner only.

Two Mexican restaurants also are expected to open in the fall: Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina at the Glass Lofts in Garfield and Reyna's Tortilla Factory, beneath Reyna Foods in the Strip District.

Jeff Catalina is the force behind Verde. Raised in south Texas, he grew up with great Mexican food. Eight years in Chicago didn't hurt, where the well-known Rick Bayless has been an ambassador for Mexican fine dining. "When my wife, a Pittsburgh native, pulled me back to Pittsburgh, we were lamenting the lack of [upscale Mexican] options," Mr. Catalina said. "We saw ... an opportunity."

While the restaurant is still months from opening, Mr. Catalina already has found a chef. Lynette "Elbee" Bushey was the first person to respond to Mr. Catalina's Craigslist ad and quickly proved herself the ideal candidate, he said. A Pittsburgh native, she has spent seven years working in Latin America as the executive chef at a luxury resort in Nicaragua and at her own bistro.

Reyna's Tortilla Factory also is several months from opening, in part because Nick Dicio has decided to secure a liquor license for the space. Reyna's will be quite different from other Mexican restaurants in Pittsburgh, as it's centered around an on-site tortilla factory. Customers will be able to watch tortillas, tamales and Mexican breads being made while they eat, and also take home the products made on site.

Reyna's supplies many Pittsburgh restaurants with ingredients, freshly made tortillas and chips, and Mr. Dicio doesn't want to compete with their customers. Instead, he hopes to offer something different that also will allow him to provide his restaurant clients with an expanded range of products. He's bought a smoker and dehydrator to make chipotle chiles, and plans to make chorizo sausage on site, as well as a vegetarian version made with soy.

The bar will offer only Mexican beers and "really good Mexican drinks," said Mr. Dicio, like the agua frescas already served at the taco stand in front of the store in flavors such as fresh watermelon and pineapple.

Fans of the taco stand in front of Reyna's don't need to worry. Mr. Dicio plans to expand its hours, so that people can stop by for tacos in the morning or after going out at night, just like in Mexico, he said.

Mr. Dicio has already redone much of the restaurant space, milling his own timbers for the walls, building red brick arches and bringing in Saltillo tile from Guadalajara in Mexico. A three-dimensional mural depicting scenes of Mexico is being painted down the stairwell.

"You'd never know you were in a basement," Mr. Dicio said.

Restaurants mentioned in this article

Smoke Barbecue and Taqueria, 225 E. Eighth Ave., Homestead; 412-205-3039.

Chica Loca Taco, 733 Copeland St., Shadyside; 412-999-0511.

Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen, 7600 Forbes Ave, Regent Square;, 412-727-6320.

Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina, Glass Lofts, 5491 Penn Ave., Garfield;

Aji Picante, 1711 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill;, 412-422-9457.

Reyna Tortilla Factory, 2023 Penn Ave., Strip District; 412-261-2606.

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or . Follow her at .


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