Location: 319 W. Main St., Carnegie. 412-429-7482
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-midnight
Prices: Appetizers $2-9; entrees $7-17
Atmosphere: Tropical taqueria
Smoking: None Permitted
A few years ago, a simple taqueria in Etna impressed us with its good, fresh and cheap Mexican food. At the time, we noted the presence of a Nicaraguan flag alongside a Mexican one, but didn't think much of it; the menu hewed closely to the range of items familiar to most Americans as Mexican food.
When Etna was ravaged by the floods of Hurricane Ivan, the Rivas family relocated to another post-flood community, Carnegie. This time, with more room and a more flexible landlord, they created a bright, tangerine-and-turquoise space that evokes the sunshiny tropics, complete with faux-grass umbrellas over tables set out on the broad sidewalk outside. And while the lunch menu resembles the old Rivas in Etna, the dinner menu puts the flavors of Nicaragua front and center.
The two cuisines aren't so dissimilar -- elements like tortillas, rice and salsas are key to both -- but certain preparations, though common to both, are distinctively rendered. The best example may be shrimp ceviche. Instead of whole shrimp simply cured with lime, or cured and then sauced, Rivas' ceviche is like a shrimp relish, with diced shrimp, tomatoes and onions mixed with lime juice and plenty of cilantro. The resulting dish is addictive, its flavors beautifully balanced between sweet and sharp. For the appetizer, it is served with a superb, chunky guacamole and tostones, deep-fried disks of plantain which are thick enough to have some heft, yet thin enough to be crunchy. This dish alone is worth the trip.
In the mood for more shrimp, Jason ordered the camarones al ajillo, a signature dish of shellfish cooked in a butter-garlic sauce. While the preparation differs from shrimp scampi in its details, the overall effect is similar. Rivas uses small shrimp, which bring the twin perils of countless tails to remove and an unforgivingly brief cooking time. While most of the plenteous shrimp were tender and meaty, a few were a little bit rubbery.
Pochomil tilapia is a special that our waiter informed us is so popular, it will soon be added to the regular menu. No wonder. A substantial flaky filet was poached in a mild lemon sauce whose depth of flavor arose from a complex interplay of sour and salty components. Tender rice was good for soaking up the extra sauce, while pico de gallo enhanced each bite with tomatoey sweetness and oniony zing.
The one Mexican dish we tried this time, a beef quesadilla, was simply but expertly prepared, with seasoned ground beef adding a hearty dimension to plenty of flavorful, melted cheese. Together with the basket of crisp, freshly fried chips and pulpy, spicy salsa, this is a dish to satisfy the less adventurous diners in your party.
The maturing of local cuisine has taken many forms, including experimental fine dining, the broad dissemination of sophisticated contemporary styles and ever more authentic ethnic restaurants. But for our money, the most rewarding trend is the fulfillment of cravings we didn't even know we had. Thanks to the resilient Rivas family, we've now got a taste for Nicaraguan food -- and we know just where to go to get it.