Location: 1120 E. Carson St.; 412-904-3557. www.yoritasouthside.com
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 4-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-8; entrees $7-11
Fare: Mexican fusion
Liquor: Full bar
Now that Cinco de Mayo is vying with St. Patrick's Day as Americans' favorite excuse to party, it's safe to say that most people associate Mexican food, not to mention Corona and margaritas, with having a good time. Unfortunately for the foodies among us, we have also come to associate Mexican restaurants having liquor licenses with stucco boxes in mall parking lots, their dining rooms festooned with multicolored blankets and sombreros, where margarita-mix-based cocktails and zestless imitations of real Mexican cuisine are served up to the endless looping of mariachi music.
This is not to say that fine, fun Mexican cantinas do not exist in Pittsburgh, just that they are few and far between. The number has grown by one since Yo Rita joined the party on East Carson Street. For ambience, Yo Rita does not trade on south-of-the-border kitsch; its interior is, if anything, minimalist, but exposed brick painted silver goes surprisingly far in creating a stylish feel. Tables in the storefront windows offer prime posts for people-watching, while the back corner booths provide candle-lit intimacy.
Yo Rita opened with a menu that was fairly standard in its offerings of assimilated Tex-Mex fare. But thanks to a mysterious stranger wearing a poncho and smoking a skinny cigar, Yo Rita's culinary persona has been radically altered. Now, amid hip surroundings and good margaritas, South Side diners will also encounter a unique take on Mexican food.
Actually, the man behind the menu makeover is no stranger. Local foodies have been following the career of Kevin Sousa, arguably the most creative chef in Pittsburgh, since he first wowed our palates at Bigelow Grille. These days, while he slowly transforms a Penn Avenue storefront into a restaurant of his own, he's been moonlighting as a chef for hire, consulting with kitchens around town. For Yo Rita, he declared a simple, unified approach, in which almost the entire menu is pared down to variations on a single preparation: tacos. The approach to flavors and combinations is modern and loose, ranging from updated authenticity to creative fusion, and betrays a flair for the dramatic in the form of Sousa's penchant for molecular gastronomy.
In addition to all the tacos, there are a half-dozen starters. We were tempted by a witty version of the corn dog involving chorizo and blue-corn batter, but ordered Sousa's update on Mexican corn on the cob and the ceviche of the day. During our visit, this was mussels. The big, beautiful mollusks were served with diced tomato, scallions and lime foam, whose visual resemblance to seafoam made it look like the mussels had just washed right up on our plate. The foam supplied the citrus tang that defines ceviche, but it contained an unidentified sharp note as well -- Jason suspected raw tequila -- that detracted from the dish's overall harmony of saline and citrus flavors.
The corn, however, was flawless. The cob was well-charred beneath a coating of spicy garlic-chili cream that added complexity to the kernels' native sweetness, while tiny cubes of watermelon scattered around the plate served to cool the palate. Watermelon is famously scarce in winter, but this deserves to become Yo Rita's signature dish.
Our appetites whetted, we got down to tacos, ordering almost every one on the menu. Perhaps not surprisingly, some were better than others. The avocado taco was simply, silkily luscious, while softshell crab with Old Bay aioli featured just enough seasoning to spotlight the seafood treat. In contrast, while gingered slaw gave the shrimp taco an intriguing Asian slant, the shellfish themselves were utterly bland, relying on their accompanying fillings for flavor.
Other tacos failed to live up to their menu descriptions. Either our salmon taco was missing its blood orange, or there wasn't enough to make an impression, and the flank-steak taco contained as much, if not more, mushroom and potato as it did meat. We were also dissatisfied that, while the menu offered both flour and corn tortillas, they were out of corn; friends said they'd had the same problem weeks earlier. But daily taco specials, including authentic Mexican ingredients like tongue, and daring choices like veal tartare, made us want to come back and try some more.
We love the ambience at Yo Rita and the idea of using the humble filled tortilla as a template for infinite creative combinations of ingredients, tastes and textures. Yet our actual meal was a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows. Perhaps Sousa's inventiveness requires a surer hand in the kitchen, or perhaps just a bit more experience. Regardless, Yo Rita offers Mexican-inspired cuisine unlike anything else in the city, and, as long as you're willing to take some chances, you're sure to taste something new and exciting.