Bloomfield residents and East End commuters may have noticed something new in the last few months at the BP gas station on the corner of Liberty and 40th — a sign featuring a grinning clip-art taco and the name “El Pariente.”
I’m from the American southeast, so the ambiance of the El Pariente side of the BP is deeply nostalgic for me. Back home, gas station eateries are common, sometimes even taking the form of full-size diners. Countless times, I’ve eaten barbecue on a communal folding table swathed in a freshly-wiped vinyl tablecloth, flanked by the hum of machines, both slot and slushy.
This BP has hosted other restaurants, including an offshoot of Quik-It Chicken and a rolled ice cream enterprise, but El Pariente’s set up is more separated from the traffic of the gas station side, and the space feels more dedicated to the restaurant.
And in general, I’m psyched to have Mexican food available at the same place I get my Rap Snacks and slightly melted-then-refrozen ice cream novelties.
Behind the counter, owner Marco Cantera and his wife Amber (who, as she puts it, is “along for the ride”) walked me through the straightforward menu, featuring tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tortas. It’s your typical “choose a protein, preparation, and toppings” fast-casual concept, at least for now.
El Pariente hit a snag earlier this month when it was briefly closed by the Allegheny County Health Department over some food safety issues. Thankfully, though, the taco spot is back in business, and now fully permitted, with big plans on the horizon. The Canteras hope to be open late and running the grill outside by midsummer. They also plan on starting breakfast service around August, complete with breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros.
Soups in 10-ounce containers occupy a prominent space on the printed menu, but depending on the day, the availability of the soups and proteins change. The first time I visited, they were out of soup. “My husband’s mom makes them,” Amber tells Pittsburgh City Paper, “and she’s been really busy.” (To be clear, I’m the kind of person who would rather not have the soup sometimes but know that the owner’s mom makes it.)
The tripe was like silk, with a creamy, clean taste, sans the aggressive minerality you can sometimes get with offal. Maria cooks it overnight, so it’s tender and not chewy, and it swims in a broth of such chile- and lime-scented clarity that it smells like someone opened a bottle of Tajin right under your nose. Get it how Marco serves it up, with plenty of raw white onion, cilantro, and a generous dousing of fresh lime — the onions add a freshness and bite, the cilantro an essential herbiness, the lime a must-have to balance the depth of the broth. By the end of my bowl, I was tipsy on chiles and ready to join the menudo fan club.
This level of excellence varies more with the other options on the menu, but in general, there’s a lot to love. Portion sizes are generous, the prices are reasonable, and there’s no skimping on the extras — my carnitas burrito, with pork crisped on the grill to order, had plenty of the good stuff. The bolillo for my steak torta was huge, fresh, and pleasantly toothsome, and all their salsas are made in-house.
Pittsburghers have an unconditional love for this city and everything it produces, which is great in some ways, but I think local food enthusiasts can be prone to hyperbole. I don’t want to do that here. El Pariente probably isn’t going to be for the person specifically searching for veg-forward or West Coast-style tacos. It’s not gussied up or gentrified, yet people on a quest for “authenticity” when eating regional or cultural cuisines might find it too Americanized.
My biggest wish for El Pariente would be for every menu item to have the precision and oomph the menudo has, but here’s the thing: El Pariente is solid. It’s a specific subset of good — it’s hungover good, on a tube in the middle of the Kiskiminetas River good, “oh my god I’m so hungry” good. Appropriate to its setting, snagging a burrito at El Pariente and the biggest mango White Claw you’ve ever seen might be the number one convenience move of a fun and thrifty Bloomfield summer, and I, for one, am happy to fill up there.