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Yo Rita in the South Side broadens the taco's horizons

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Friday, Sept. 11, 2009

Just about everybody loves tacos. But rarely does this simple, unpretentious dish actually inspire excitement — which makes the buzz around Yo Rita so unusual.

For much of its existence, Yo Rita was a good but unremarkable bar and Mexican restaurant in the South Side. It was pretty much the same in its previous incarnation, the Iguana Grille, too.

Owner Jacqueline White knew she wanted to do something different, but wanted to keep the bar-restaurant's general Mexican flavor.

"The concept is upscale tacos," White says. "And I don't believe it has been done here in Pittsburgh. The chef (Kevin Sousa) is largely responsible for the change. He was responsible for the Alchemy menu at the Bigelow Grille, and others. Prior to his opening his own restaurant in Garfield, I asked him if he was interested in coming here and changing the type of food we sell here.

"I told him that I didn't want it to be an expensive restaurant — I wanted to keep the price reasonable. I don't think Mexican food should be expensive."

Sousa, one of the city's most exciting and innovative young chefs, accepted the challenge.

"His idea was to use high-end ingredients, but if you create them within a taco, you don't need that much of them," White says. "So it gives people exposure to a lot of types of ingredients that they might not necessarily be in a position to experience, like soft-shell blue crabs and eel. It's in a format they can afford. Tacos are a pedestrian sort of food, so it's easy for people to understand."

There are soups and starters, but the focus of the menu is almost entirely tacos. This includes Ahi Tuna ($7) tacos with gingered slaw, avocado, jalapeno, cilantro and lime. There also are Fresh Water Eel ($6) tacos with pico de gallo, chipotle barbecue and scallions. Another favorite is the Duck ($7) tacos with sweet potato, jalapeno, fig chutney, green onions and cilantro.

"I doubt that anybody is using the ingredients we are," White says. "I don't think you're going to find black-eyed pea tacos, or freshwater eel or whole soft-shell blue crabs anywhere else. Even the starters are unique — (Sousa) does a special seviche and fresh corn on the cob. He even does a new take on the corn dog, with chorizo and blue corn. Even the things that are a little bit more commonplace are unique once he gets done with them."

Diners' reactions have been positive since the menu makeover — for the most part.

"It's definitely changed the clientele of the restaurant," White says. "Kevin has a following — people are coming here just to experience what he has on the menu."

It has taken some getting used to for the old customers, however.

"We had a clientele that was loyal to us," White says. "It was kind of hard for some of those people to accept that they wouldn't be able to get burritos or quesadillas, and there was no longer a wing night. But there's enough things on here that are easy enough to understand — there's chicken tacos, there's steak tacos."

Yo Rita also has used this opportunity to introduce a very creative drink menu, ranging from blueberry mojitos to a wide selection of tequilas.

"Right now, we're doing a blood orange margarita," White says. "We also do a fresh pineapple margarita. All drinks are made with fresh juices — obviously, whenever pineapple goes out of season, we'll change that. We use fresh lime juice in all our margaritas. Some people who aren't familiar with what a margarita should taste like are sometimes surprised by the tartness of the lime. But I think people who understand what the drink is supposed to taste like appreciate the fact that we're serving it in a more traditional way."

Additional Information:

Yo Rita

Location: 1120 Carson St., South Side

Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sundays. Kitchen closes at 10 p.m.

Payment: All major credit cards accepted.

Details: 412-904-3557.

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