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South Side's La Palapa Mexican Gourmet Kitchen puts its effort into what's on the plate

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 10:58 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Patrons at La Palapa Mexican Gourmet Kitchen in the South Side on Tuesday, July 22, 2014.

Once just a tiny booth at Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip, La Palapa Mexican Gourmet Kitchen expanded and opened a full-fledged storefront last year.

Now in the former space of Thai Me Up on Carson Street in the South Side, La Palapa is filling a void so many Pittsburghers have spent far too long complaining about. No, not potholes or the unexplainable reason why people apply their brakes through the Squirrel Hill Tunnels, but Mexican food. Authentic, delicious Mexican food.

Chef Jose Luis and Jesus Martinez modeled La Palapa after the many fondas, restaurants where locals gather and eat around Mexico City. Chef Luis, who is from Puebla, Mexico, came to Pittsburgh via a job offer at Mallorca Restaurant. Martinez, who is from Mexico City, ended up in the Steel City because his wife is a native Pittsburgher. (It's always about a girl, isn't it?)

Both set out to do something different. Something urban. Something with an authentic Mexican flavor.

Inside, colorful papel picado (perforated paper) banners hang from the ceiling and art from Mexico Lindo, a store in Squirrel Hill that sells fair-trade handcrafts from Mexico, adorn the walls. It's minimal and forgoes the tackiness with which many Mexican restaurants have often become associated.

The menu is simple and reads more like a short story compared to the standard novel about burrito options. Soups, salads, appetizers, entrees and desserts, as well as a small, kids menu are available. Be sure to ask about the specials, as well as what aqua fresca flavor is being offered. Keep your fingers crossed for watermelon or pineapple.

Chef Luis is a fan of soup, which is evident with one bite of the chunky sopa de verdura. This vegetarian and gluten-free vegetable soup is the reigning 2014 Best Vegetarian Soup in the South Side Soup Contest.

Once you finish the soup, shift your attention to the guacamole and chips. One taste will surely ruin all future guacamoles. Homemade tortilla chips are lightly fried and are the perfect vessel for scooping absurd amounts of the velvety, fresh guacamole. You could stop your meal there and be completely happy, but carry on. More delicious treats await.

Other appetizer choices include empanadas, which come stuffed with your choice of chicken, ground beef, shrimp or vegetables. Chile rellenos are stuffed with spinach and cheese, light on the molten cheese. Chef Luis suggests the charola para dos to get a flavor of all that La Palapa offers. It includes a quesadilla, flauta, tamale, chicken with mole, empanada and pork ribs.

For entrees, an option that's hard to find elsewhere in the city is the tamales. These are available as an appetizer, too, if you want to skip the rice and pinto beans. Cooked in a traditional corn husk, the corn-based dough is filled with the meat or vegetarian option of the day and steam-cooked. Options change on a regular basis, so frequent visits are encouraged.

Other signature entree options include the hugely popular mole poblano con pollo, a chicken breast, so tender it falls apart at the sight of a fork, that's doused in a mild and chocolatey mole sauce. The barbacoa is marinated beef that is shredded, resembling mom's pot roast, or as the menu says, “the best choice for a hangover.” All entrees come with rice, pinto beans or vegetables and are enormous. Elastic waistbands should be a requirement before entering.

Build-your-own tacos, quesadillas, and tortas options are available, priced per item. Fillings for all include chicken, chorizo and potatoes, barbacoa, fish, beef tongue, and more. For the tacos, two soft tortillas come stuffed with fillings and topped with rice, pico de gallo, sour cream, and cheese. But most of the choices could forgo the toppings and benefit from just cilantro, onion, and a squeeze of lime. Good meat doesn't need lots of toppings. Am I right?

Burritos, enchiladas, and fajitas are available, but with several unique options; don't settle for the usual Mexican meal.

Don't forget your favorite bottle of wine or six-pack of beer. La Palapa is BYOB and, sometimes even offers its own margarita mix,a if you're willing to supply the tequila. Please and thank you.

If you can't make it to the South Side, you can still visit La Palapa on Wednesdays through Sundays at its Pittsburgh Public Market location.

Julia Gongaware is one of the food-savvy ladies of They contribute a weekly dining column to Trib Total Media.

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