Some people always order their favorites from a menu; others like to try something new. Some people like to be regulars at their favorite restaurant; others like to try someplace new. Folks in the former category seek for every dining experience to be as good as ones they've enjoyed before, while those in the latter are willing to risk disappointment on the chance there's a new favorite out there, waiting to be discovered.
Yet, choosing a new restaurant can be a bit of a crapshoot. Reputation, buzz, a favorite cuisine or one you've never had can bring on the temptation to try some restaurants, while others send up warning flags. (Some patrons, for instance, avoid establishments without windows.) But that leaves the vast, uncertain middle.
A recommendation to try Cinco, a Mexican restaurant in Painter's Run valley in Upper St. Clair, came to us through word of mouth, and some online reconnaissance firmed up our resolve to go. Instead of a generic menu of food-court-familiar dishes, we were excited to find Cinco's offerings organized by the regions of Mexico: Puebla, Jalisco, Monterrey and so on. This approach suggested a deep familiarity with south-of-the-border regional cuisines, which we hoped would translate to an authentic meal, even possibly introduce us to new favorites.
Cinco occupies a stand-alone building whose interior — wood floors, ceiling beams and pale golden walls — has warmth but little overt character. The owners have done their best to impart a Mexican flavor by hanging framed posters of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and — yes — sombreros on the walls. There is a large, U-shaped bar in the main dining room, which is the focus of Cinco's frequent parties; recent events have included Mother's Day, the World Cup soccer finals and, of course, Cinco de Mayo.
Chips and salsa were not complimentary, but we were fine with that, because the ultra-thin, crisp triangles straight from the fryer were well worth paying for. We upgraded from the ordinary salsa rojo to choriqueso, a shallow crock filled with thin, white cheese sauce and savory, somewhat spicy chorizo, the flavor of which infused the cheese. It was utterly addictive.
The starter list was brief and unremarkable, so we lingered only long enough to order Marqueza quesadillas, also known as empanadas. The corn-based crust was crispy, not flaky, and the filling was simply a salty white cheese, melty but not spilling out. Pico de gallo, crumbled queso fresco and a drizzle of crema made for an attractive presentation, but the one-dimensional filling stood between this dish and excellence.
A big bowl of pozole, supposed to be pork and hominy in a savory, chili-infused broth, was also disappointing. In truth, we ordered it despite the server's confession that it was "not his thing." Salty and greasy, it turned out to be not ours, either.
Our server also explained that Monterrey represented the most familiar style of Mexican fare north of the border, i.e. tacos, burritos and their deep-fried brethren, chimichangas. And, indeed, tacos Cinco were filled with the taco-night staples: ground beef, lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese and sour cream. They were pretty forgettable, but tacos playa, fish tacos from Quintana Roo (on the Yucatan Peninsula) were much more memorable. Chunks of moist, tender tilapia were well balanced with crunchy shredded red cabbage, tangy pico de gallo and a homemade creamy sauce lightly spiced with chilies.
We returned to Quintana Roo for pescado Cancun, tilapia topped with a cilantro-cream sauce alongside diced potatoes. The cream sauce was relatively thin, so it didn't weigh down the other ingredients, and the cilantro flavor was bright and true. It was delicious with the simple but well cooked potatoes. But the fish — a deeply browned piece of tilapia — was inedibly salty, as if it had been salted, cooked, then salted again. Alas, no amount of cream or starch could counter the fish's overwhelming saltiness.
Our dining companions tried the chile relleno. Here Cinco far outstripped the typical Mexican-American restaurant version, with a batter that only just coated the poblano peppers, which retained their firmness and a clear, vegetal flavor. The chicken inside was moist, mildly seasoned and well proportioned to the pepper. But the rice and beans on the side were disappointing.
Cinco's broad and varied menu presents opportunities to revisit old favorites or sample new dishes from the regional traditions of Mexico. We had some that were expertly prepared, but Cinco hasn't yet eliminated the risk of disappointment.