Location: 21 Market Square, 2nd floor, Downtown 412-281-8180. lasvelasmex.com
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. Noon-8 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $2.50-10; tacos, burritos and enchiladas $8.50-12; entrees $12-19.50
Atmosphere: Cantina with a view
Liquor: Full bar
As anyone who has been Downtown lately knows, Market Square is undergoing a massive reconstruction. Currently, it's in that phase known to home renovators as "it gets worse before it gets better." The difference is, this is not just our living room, or yours: This is the living room -- the public gathering space -- of the entire city of Pittsburgh.
The stakes are high, but one new restaurant has placed its bet that the new Market Square will, indeed, be more gracious, inviting, and, well, happening than the old. Las Velas has moved into a primo piece of on-the-square real estate that formerly functioned as a revolving door for several short-lived dining spots. Located upstairs from a bakery, the second-floor locale may have discouraged some Pittsburghers who would rather not climb to their dinners. But the greenhouse-like windows overlooking the square have always made for an exceptional people-watching perch, especially during these colder months.
And what better way to warm up than with Mexican food? We're pleased to report that Las Velas ("the candles") offers Mexican cooking the way Mami-- specifically, the mother of owner David Montanez -- used to make it. The menu offers a vibrant antidote to Mexican "cuisine" mired in tired clichés of dubious origin. While authentic tacos have begun to make inroads on Pittsburgh's Mexican menus, we can think of only a couple local south-of-the-border-themed restaurants that offer the kind of interesting, authentic dishes that one can find in good Italian, Asian or contemporary American establishments. Happily, Las Velas begins to tip the balance.
To be sure, the menu includes the greatest hits of the Mexican-American repertoire: nachos, burritos and enchiladas. We tried representatives of the latter two categories, and they were perfectly competent. But what really sets Las Velas apart are enticing dishes like cochinita pibil (vinegar-marinated pork), chilaquiles (tortilla casserole), and alambres (meat smothered with peppers, onions and cheese). In fact, much of the back of the menu consists of preparations that are designated either "family favorites" or "flambé course." In an unlikely throwback to the theatrical '60s, several dishes at Las Velas are flambéed tableside.
We'd be trying one of those, but first came still-warm, housemade chips, light and crispy, and an order of guacamole. As a tasty embellishment, Las Velas includes grilled tomatillos in its recipe, which results in a slightly lighter consistency and fresher, more vegetal flavor. The menu also featured a couple of empanadas, those savory Latin pastries Jason loves so well. We chose pescadillas, filled with shredded fish cooked in salsa. The stew-like filling was mildly but effectively seasoned to balance, not overwhelm, the deliciously flaky yet substantial crust; the lightly dressed lettuce served alongside was more than mere garnish, helping to brighten every bite with its juicy crunch. Unlike pierogie-size South American empanadas, Las Velas' were generously sized. One made a satisfying appetizer to share; two would make a nice lunch.
Wanting to try the tacos, we ordered the cochinita pibil as a starter. The corn tortillas were thick yet tender, the pork within intensely flavored and a bit spicy. This was a great combination for Jason, who managed to avoid the ring of habañero pepper hiding among vinegar-marinated onions on top, but incinerating for Angelique, who released an excruciating explosion of capsaicins by unwittingly consuming that pepper in a single bite. It's a great dish -- but beware before you tuck in.
Milanesas Obregon, thinly sliced steak (or chicken) marinated in spices and wine, then breaded and fried, was in fact so thin that its flavor was largely lost in the breading. At best, it was a nice foil for the sides served with it. Most entrees are served with a choice of three from a list that includes: rice, beans, lettuce and pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, rajas and crema (peppers and onions in crème fraiche), papas Leticia (cubed fried potatoes) and cheese.
Mar y tierra OK Maguey (a Mexican phrase comparable to okey-dokey) was described on the menu as "steak and shrimp seasoned in the owner's mother's special recipe, covered in creamy avocado sauce," but this didn't begin to hint at the spectacular presentation. Our server arrived with a tableside tray on which two skewers of meat were stuck into half a pineapple and two miniature gravy boats were filled with tequila. The tequila was then set alight, poured in flaming arcs from boat to boat, and then spilled over the skewers so that, for a moment, they became columns of fire. The heat seared a wonderfully rich blending of spices and herbs -- redolent of chiles, cumin, cilantro and lime -- into the meat. In fact, the meat was seasoned so well that Jason didn't even notice that the sauce had been forgotten.
The other reason he didn't notice was that the sides were so good. Traditional rice and beans was above-average, but the rajas and papas Leticias were both standouts. Rajas are essentially fire-roasted peppers and onions, and Las Velas mixes them with crema, Mexico's version of crème fraîche, to create a cool yet savory counterpoint to spicy meats and starchy tortillas. Papas Leticias are nothing more than Mexican-style home fries: Tender, subtly spiced and brightened with lime juice, they were extraordinary.
Where Las Velas dabbles in standard Tex-Mex, it's good enough. But the dishes from Mexico are bright and delicious, offering a fresh reminder that that blend of pre-Colombian flavors and Spanish techniques is one of the great achievements of the New World.