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Azul, a Mexican restaurant in Leetsdale, puts emphasis on authenticity

| Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010

When Donna Peterkin saw the decrepit Leetsdale building her husband, Angus, bought in 2003, she broke down and cried.

"I had signed my name on the dotted line before I saw the building," she says. "It was over 100 years old, and everything was boarded up."

It took the couple two years of hard labor and a lot of love to transform the ancient structure into the sleek, authentic Mexican restaurant that stands there today, Azul Bar-y-Cantina. The warm, inviting space holds 60 seats, with all of the pine furniture and mirrors coming from Mexico. The high tin ceiling has been painted a Cerulean blue, and the colorful murals on the walls depict stories, graffiti-style, in Mexican culture.

"Angus knew what he wanted," says Donna Peterkin, 49, a San Diego native who worked as a USAir flight attendant for many years. She and Angus, 53, a commercial real estate broker from Ottawa, met in San Diego and moved to Pittsburgh in 1985. They have two teenage sons. "When we moved here, we missed the authentic Mexican food the most. So we took the leap, and it has been an exciting journey. We are very proud of what we've accomplished."

Azul Bar-y-Cantina is easy to miss if you're not looking for the restaurant. It sits on the corner of Broad and Rapp streets in Leetsdale, a sleepy little borough just past Sewickley, and is right down the street from the municipal building and fire station.

"This is a very welcome surprise in a place where you don't expect it," says Angus Peterkin, who has lived in Sewickley with his family for 18 years. "It has brought a lot of positive into this neighborhood. Our community is very pleased with what we've done. Once people find us, they always return. This is nice, casual, authentic Mexican food."

Donna Peterkin, whose brother is a master chef in San Diego, stresses that their food is fresh, and everything is homemade -- even the margaritas are made by scratch.

"We don't use any mixes, and our marinades are all our own," she says. "Our churros are amazing, and the homemade flan is fantastic. We're not a late-night drinking bar. We make great drinks, but our main feature is the food."

The Peterkins say their skilled chefs, Randy Rivera and Stephen Varela, help keep the restaurant at the top of its game. Varela, 33, is the executive chef. He graduated from the three-year culinary management program at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 2008. He worked at Fox Chapel Country Club as a line cook until arriving at Azul in January.

"My goal was to be a restaurant manager," says Varela, who grew up in El Paso, Texas, and now resides in the East End with his wife, Monica. "But you have to learn to cook to get a degree. That's when I fell in love with cooking."

As a Latino, Valero grew up around Mexican food, so working at Azul is a natural for him.

"I didn't know what a pierogie was until I got to Pittsburgh," he says with a laugh. "I love it here. It's very different from El Paso, and you have a nice mix of ethnic groups and ethnic foods. And I was a Steelers fan in Texas."

Mexican food is characterized by using ingredients that are indigenous to the region, such as fresh produce and dried chilies. Varela points out that Mexico was under Spanish influence for many years, and Azul is moving into flavors that people don't normally associate with Mexican food.

Azul's menu focuses on the basics, with a bit of an upscale twist, while keeping prices in the low-to-moderate range. There are plenty of entradas, or appetizers, such as nachos, escabeche, shrimp cocktail, taquitos and quesadillas. The chicken-and-avocado soup features crunchy tortilla strips with sliced avocado, while the chicken and rice soup has the extra kick of pico de gallo.

Tacos and burritos include fillings, such as hand-breaded cod, mahi mahi, shrimp, chicken, steak, pork, veggies, tinga and chorizo. Entrees feature traditional enchiladas smothered in red or green salsa with fresco cheese; fajitas with grilled peppers and onions; steak marinated in Tecante sauce; grilled ahi tuna; chiles rellenos and chilaquiles. Every day, the restaurant features a different special that is very popular with the customers, Verela says.

"We do 125 to 150 dinners on a busy night," he says. "We're hard workers here -- being a chef is not a glorious job. You're on your feet for long hours every day, and you get burned a lot. You have to do it for the love of the food. If you don't have passion for food, you're in the wrong business."

The Peterkins say they're very pleased with the restaurant's progress.

"We get all kinds of customers who are comfortable coming here," Angus Peterkin says. "It's a fun atmosphere. People have a good time here. We don't want our food to ever be too fancy."

Braised Carnitas (Pork Tamales)

Executive chef Stephen Varela is sharing his delicious Pork Tamales. The pork shoulder is slowly braised in a heavenly mixture that gives it a hearty and lightly spicy flavor.

Varela suggests serving this dish with a white sangria, a sweet white wine, or a good Mexican beer.

For the pork:

• 1 large Spanish onion

• 5 cloves garlic

v1 medium orange, sliced

• 2 cinnamon sticks

• 3 bay leaves

• 5 pound pork shoulder

• 1 cup olive oil

• 1 cup Coke

• 1 cup Dos Equis Lager

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the masa for the tamales:

• 2 cups Maseca corn flour

• 1 cup water, hot to touch

• 2 tablespoons whole butter, softened

• 1 tablespoon olive oil

• 1 tablespoon paprika

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 12 banana leaves or corn husks (can find at Reyna Foods in the Strip District)

To prepare the pork: Roughly chop the onion and place it in a roasting pan with the garlic, orange slices, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Rinse the pork shoulder under cold water. Pat dry. Season the pork with salt and pepper.

Heat the 1 cup olive oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Place the pork, skin side down, into the saute pan. Brown for 3 to 4 minutes on all sides. Turn off the burner.

Place the pork in the roasting pan with the onion mixture. Add the Coca-Cola, lager, salt and pepper.

Cover the roasting pan with a lid or aluminum foil, and let the pork braise for 3 hours.

Take the pork out of the oven and allow to cool before handling. When cooled, shred the pork with your fingers, or use two forks for a finer shred.

To prepare the masa for the tamales: Place the corn flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the hot water, butter, 1 tablespoon olive oil, paprika, salt and pepper. Mix the ingredients with your hands until fully incorporated. Spread the masa mixture onto each banana leaf or corn husk about 1/2-inch thick.

Put 1/4 to 1/3 cup shredded pork on top of the masa mixture on each leaf. Then tuck in the sides of the banana leaf halfway, and then fold the bottom over to the middle.

Tie each finished leaf with strands of the banana leaves or corn husks. Place in a steamer over medium heat for 50 minutes.

Makes 12 tamales.

Additional Information:

Azul Bar-y-Cantina

Cuisine: Authentic Mexican

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m .Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Sundays.

Entree price range: $10-$15

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. Full bar, featuring special aged tequilas, specialty margaritas, sangria, and domestic and Mexican beers.

Address: 122 Broad St., Leetsdale

Details: 724-266-6362 or website

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