Jason has been eating at Alex Fernandez's restaurants for 15 years, from Shadyside's Cozumel, to Squirrel Hill's Cuzamil, and now McKeesport's Antojitos. In that time, the understanding of Mexican food in Pittsburgh has changed, both deepening and broadening to encompass Tex-Mex, Cali-Mex, authentic Mexican and even Mexican-ish Guatemalan. But Fernandez's style of familiar burritos and enchiladas has remained largely the same.
His latest operation, Antojitos, is located on the outskirts of McKeesport, straddling the Mon Valley and eastern suburbs. Explaining that he saw this area as an underserved market for Mexican fare, Fernandez has taken over a hot-dog stand, adding a modest dining room to complement a large wooden deck out front. To make the deck even more inviting, Fernandez has plans for an awning and, once a liquor license is transferred, an outdoor bar. Though the deck fronts a parking lot and a well-trafficked thoroughfare, the verdant hillsides just beyond create pleasant enough surroundings, and we could imagine it as a festive outpost.
In the meantime, we focused on current offerings -- all labeled "specials" -- which represent a trimming of previous menus. Fajitas, burritos, taquitos -- they're all here, but gone are the authentic tacos with their less-traditional but mouth-watering fillings that so excited us at Cuzamil. Most of the "specials" at Antojito consist of combinations of various kinds of filled tortillas: tacos (chicken or beef only), burritos, enchiladas and so on. Only a couple, such as chicken mole poblano and carnitas, are actual entrees.
Antojitos means "appetizers," but the starter offerings are scant, and we stuck with the complimentary chips and salsa. The chips were homemade, hearty and crispy, and the salsa, from canned tomatoes (after all, it's only June), was smooth -- not chunky -- and spicy.
Jason chose the chimichanga dinner, a pair of flour tortillas stuffed with ground beef and fried to form a crispy shell. The contrast between a meaty interior and the almost flaky texture of fried flour tortillas should make this dish, but Antojitos' version was uninteresting, with a shell of an indistinct texture filled with meat lacking much spice. Refried beans on the side were unnecessarily salty, a flaw which also marred a couple of dishes in which they featured as a main ingredient: a tostada and a bean burrito.
Angelique loves chicken enchiladas, but found Antojitos' only somewhat satisfying. The chicken, shredded but with some larger chunks left intact, was juicy and well-seasoned with salt, pepper and mild, yet definitely discernable, spices. Mixed with cheese and a sort of diced-pepper relish, it made for a moist and savory filling. But the tortillas were stale, rendering their texture tough instead of soft and tender, and the topping of guacamole salad proved to be a leaf of tired lettuce and half a slice of wan tomato topped with a spoonful of pureed avocado. A chunkier guacamole would have added more character to this dish.
A dining companion's carnitas looked better, the cubed pork slow-cooked and finished by frying to create crisp edges. Alas, while the meat was tender, it was also a bit dry, and there wasn't much else on the plate to raise interest. A small cup of pico de gallo was zingy and, like the salsa, not afraid to be spicy. But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there wasn't enough there there.
What were satisfying plates of gooey cheese, salty beans and spicy salsa 15 years ago now seem like tired translations of a cuisine that has so much more to offer. Where is the tinga? The chorizo? The pork al pastor? Sure, Corona and margaritas will be fine additions to Antojitos' outdoor dining, but we urge Fernandez to pique our palates with more authentic, and adventurous, Mexican cooking.