There's a hot new Mexican place in town. No, not this town. But it's got food that will stop you in your tracks -- in Leetsdale.
Leetsdale is a tiny town out past Sewickley, on Ohio River Boulevard. Here, on an otherwise quiet residential street, California transplants Angus and Donna Peterkin opened Azul Bar y Cantina, and Leetsdale hasn't been the same since. In an old building whose exposed-brick aesthetic is as urbane as any downtown loft, the Peterkins serve a Southern California style of Mexican cooking that has no peer in these parts, and the joint is jumping.
Azul attracts a crowd, and a diverse one at that: Families of all sorts filled the dining room, along with couples on dates, laughing groups of friends, and business associates spicing up a workday that had lapped long into evening. Waiting for a seat at one of the chunky, polished wood tables was a pleasure with Azul's top-notch margaritas in hand.
Once seated, we ordered appetizers. Jicama, described as "a traditional Mexican cantina vegetable," came in crunchy sticks stacked Lincoln-log style on the plate and flavored with lime juice and chili pepper. The vegetable was meaty and hearty, the seasoning piquant and refreshing.
Taquitos were crunchy, cigar-size rolls of corn tortilla around pork, beef and chicken fillings. Served with queso fresca and the traditional Mexican condiments of sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo, this was a satisfying preview of the kitchen's prowess with the fresh ingredients of the Southwest.
Mexican-style shrimp cocktail was a variant on ceviche, or citrus-cured fish. The shrimp, tartened by its lime bath, was served in a goblet filled with a ketchup-based sauce both spicy and sweet, joined by chunks of avocado and cucumber. Azul's home-fried tortilla chips were the ideal utensils.
By this time, we had drained our first round of margaritas and, though quite satisfied by our appetizers, required more food to accompany, yes, more margaritas. Angelique selected a "wet" burrito (containing salsa and sour cream) with beans and shredded chicken. The size of Popeye's forearm and smothered with melted cheese, the burrito was packed with a tantalizing combination of hot, cool, spicy and savory ingredients, well-distributed throughout. It was as delicious as it was huge.
Fish tacos were smaller, simpler, and just as good. Crisp, slightly sweet strips of deep-fried cod were served with shredded red cabbage on soft tortillas. The exceptional flavor came from a creamy salsa reminiscent of a remoulade.
Steak fajitas rounded out our dinner. To Jason's delight, Azul uses skirt steak, an authentic cut which is nevertheless rare in these parts. The beefy skirt steak had ample flavor, and the kitchen's grilling intensified it. Hot tortillas and strips of peppers and onion completed Azul's excellent version of this Mexican restaurant staple.
We ended our meal with that improbable Mexican dessert, fried ice cream. Crispy, creamy and strongly flavored with cinnamon, it again proved the genius of Mexican cuisine for packing flavors within other flavors, like edible nesting dolls.
Colorful, convivial, and combining the best of Californian creativity and Mexican tradition, Azul puts Leetsdale on the culinary map.