Delectable cuisine, folk art combine at La Palapa in Pittsburgh's South Side
Dining at La Palapa in Pittsburgh's South Side neighborhood is an artful experience.
The colorful restaurant on Carson Street doubles as a boutique gallery featuring handmade Mexican folk art. Jesus Martinez and chef Jose Luis own the eatery. Lisa DiGioia-Nutini of Mexico Lindo curates the display of paintings, sculptures, masks, textiles and pottery, all of which are for sale.
La Palapa has developed a following since it first opened in 2012 as a kiosk in the Strip District's now-defunct Pittsburgh Public Market. A food truck evolved, as did a tiny, fast-casual restaurant in Pittsburgh's South Side. The new location, which seats 125 and includes a covered patio, is the most ambitious undertaking so far for Luis and Martinez, who pride themselves on the authenticity of their gourmet native fare.
“This isn't Tex-Mex,” says Martinez. “What Jose cooks is the kind of food you would eat if you visited central and southern Mexico ... dishes you won't find anywhere else in Pittsburgh, like tamales and lengua en salsa verde — beef tongue cooked in tomatillo sauce.”
Other specialties include seafood stew (Cazuela del Mar), chicken breast with house-made mole (Mole Poblano con Pollo), lamb shank in guajillo salsa (Chamorro de Borrego en Guajillo) and banana peppers stuffed with spinach and cheese and topped with mole (Chiles Rellenos con Queso y Espinaca).
The tamales include meat and vegetarian options, and are made with corn-based dough wrapped and steamed in corn husks, and topped with green salsa or mole.
Everything is made fresh, and Luis cooks with various kinds of dried peppers, such as chile de arbol, morita, ancho, chipotle and guajillo chili and subtle seasonings, Martinez says. “People think all Mexican food is spicy. Some is, but our food is more flavorful than spicy.”
Pinto beans cooked with bacon, sausage, tomato, cilantro and spices are a La Palapa staple, as are the empanadas, enchiladas and tostadas topped with shrimp and tilapia cerviche. Churrasco dishes feature beef, chicken and pork slow-roasted “until the meat falls off the bone,” Martinez says, and served with sides like sweet-potato fries or rice. Desserts include tequila cake, fried banana with ice cream and choco-flan — custard-topped chocolate cake.
The bar features Mexican and locally brewed beers, Mexican wines and mezcal- and tequila-based cocktails. There are happy hour specials on food.
Named for the thatched shelters commonly found on Mexican beaches, La Palapa, with its aqua, green and lavender walls, has a sunny ambience.
Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
Tilapia a la Veracruzana
La Palapa staple, featuring tilapia covered with a tomato-based sauce
Serves 1, generously
2 6-ounce tilapia filets
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup Roma tomatoes, diced
1 shot of tequila
4 ounces guajillo salsa
¼ cup fish broth
pinch of salt
pinch of oregano
2 pinches cilantro
1 cup cooked rice
To prepare: Heat oil over medium heat in pan. Saute onion and garlic until translucent. Add tomatoes and sauté until tender.
Add tequila. Be careful as the tequila will cause a burst of flame. Add salt, oregano and cilantro, guajillo salsa, fish broth and stir to blend all ingredients.
Add fillets and cook about three minutes on each side until thoroughly cooked.
Place rice on serving dish and cover with all ingredients from the pan.