¡Arriba! After lagging behind other popular international cuisines for many years, Mexican dining is coming into its own in Pittsburgh. We have taco trucks, taquerias, innovative updates on traditional recipes — even the places with lime-green pitchers of margaritas have improved. Now, the city's oldest Mexican grocery, Reyna, brings us a serious, sit-down exploration of moles, rellenos and other mainstays of Mexico's regional cuisines.
Reyna Restaurante Mexicano is located in a rambling basement space beneath the establishment's retail storefront on Penn Avenue, in the Strip. A series of surprisingly large dining rooms and a tequila bar are wrapped around a tortilla kitchen; windows into this fascinating space make up for the lack of windows to the outdoors. Chunky wood tables and chairs, tile-framed mirrors, murals and metal Mexican-soda signs create a sort of south-of-the-border-TGIFriday's vibe, which, though just this side of kitschy, transforms Reyna's basement into someplace colorful and special.
The menu promised one authentic regional specialty after another: enchiladas Tuxpan, filled with queso fresco and topped with shrimp and tilapia, served on a bed of spinach; and tamal Oaxaqueno, or nixtamal (lime-soaked corn) dough filled with chicken in Oaxaca mole sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf. The menu isn't terribly long, but it would take several visits to sample everything.
That's a commitment we're willing to make. Associated as it is with a Mexican grocery, Reyna's use of top-notch ingredients was a given. And the preparations are worthy of their components.
Reyna's serves both mini-tacos — four to a plate — and regular-size, each with a choice of filling and one of nine different salsas. (Salsa-holics may want to avail themselves of the salsa sampler, which comes with housemade chips in a newspaper cone.) The menu politely notes that in Mexico, tacos are traditionally served without the cheese, lettuce and tomato which have become staples of American taco fillings, but these items are available on request. Regular-size tacos also come with a choice of corn or flour tortilla — doubled, of course.
A regular steak taco was filled with grilled chunks of skirt steak, Jason's favorite cut, and the meat was tender, juicy and smoky. It was an auspicious start, followed by excellent baby scallop mini-tacos. Several of the little shellfish buttons fit perfectly in a miniature corn tortilla, which was thick yet pliable, hearty yet not overwhelming to the delicate scallops. These were beautifully browned and wonderfully sweet.
Elote — grilled corn on the cob seasoned with salt, chili powder, lime juice, mayonnaise and queso fresco — is a popular Mexican street food which has only recently come into local consciousness. This is perhaps because it's one of the messiest foods we've ever eaten. Reyna offers a brilliant solution by shaving the kernels off the cob and mixing them with their condiments in a bowl to make a dip. We wished for a little more zing, but elote's combination of sweet, smokily grilled corn and creamy tang translated beautifully.
Sweet corn cakes are a homey, traditional dish whose elegant presentation here was worthy of a white tablecloth. Three tall cakes were each topped with diced onion, avocado and tomato; the trio rested on a pool of spicy salsa verde atop a corn-husk boat. The tender cakes, studded with kernels and browned top and bottom, were distinctly sweet, but it was the sweetness of fresh corn, not sugary cornbread. The diced topping was bright, the salsa contributed some heat to set off the sweetness, and the avocado added a moment of richness.
Chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers) made with fresh poblanos are most familiar to Americans, but Mexicans don't stop there. At Reyna you can try anchos rellenos, ancho being the term for dried poblanos, and try we did. The flavor was of ground meat (pork and beef both) stewed in the ancho's earthy spiciness, while the chile itself was rehydrated by the moisture of the filling.
Anchos also flavored a mole in a sampler mole platter, giving deep burgundy color and rich, pungent flavor to cubes of meltingly tender beef. A mole verde, made with tomatillos, complemented diced pork with its fruity tang, while rich chocolate mole clung to mild shredded chicken.
Reyna is the Mexican restaurant — comfortable, authentic and delicious — Pittsburgh has been waiting for.