Location: 601 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-381-8585. www.rivasrestaurante.com
Hours: Mon.-Sat. noon-10 p.m.
Atmosphere: Colorful and casual
If ever there were a little restaurant that could, it's Rivas. Its story is one of rebirth and relocation, combined with an indomitable determination to keep trying, come hell or -- literally -- high water.
Like all good stories, Rivas' offers an inner journey to parallel its outer travails and -- we hope -- ultimate triumph. As the restaurant made its odyssey from flood-prone Etna to flood-prone Carnegie to its current location, high and dry on East Carson Street, its menu evolved as well.
When Rivas first opened in Etna, it was in taqueria guise, offering no hint of the owners' Nicaraguan origins. After its relocation to Carnegie, it revealed its heritage, if tentatively, in a variety of Nicaraguan dishes alongside more familiar Mexican-American ones on its menu.
But only now, in Rivas' new South Side location, is its Nicaraguan flavor fully, confidently, realized and revealed. At the new Rivas, Mexican influence is limited to quesadilla appetizers, and even those have been transformed: What were once ground-beef-and-cheese snacks are now hearty steak-and-pepper portions suitable for a meal.
The Nicaraguan offerings are broader in general and in particular. One appetizer reprised from Rivas' Carnegie days is its delicious ceviche, consisting of chunks of shrimp in a tart lime marinade with crisp diced onion and a generous snipping of cilantro. In the current version, diced white fish has been added, rounding out the flavor of the shrimp with its smooth, slightly chewy texture.
The ceviche was one-third of a stellar starter platter which also included tostones -- plantain slices fried, slightly crushed, then fried again, so that their starchiness was tempered and tamed -- and churritos de pescado. We would describe the latter as, essentially, fish sticks, except that their exceptional quality put the kids' plate staple to shame. Lightly breaded and fried, so that the flesh remained moist and tender and the breading served more as a delicate shell than as armor, these are what fish sticks want to be when they grow up. Both the tostones and the churritos were excellent on their own, but the platter also came with three condiments for dipping: guacamole, a minced pico de gallo and a tasty, creamy-tangy sauce that our waiter, pressed for details, would describe only as "special pink sauce."
When it came to entrees, the vegetarian selections were minimal, so we focused on Rivas' evident specialties: steak, seafood and pork. The menu descriptions were less detailed than we would like for an unfamiliar cuisine, so it was hard to know exactly what we were getting into without assistance from our server -- and even then, there were surprises. Asked which of five steak dishes he recommended, he waxed enthusiastic about the jalapeño steak, but neglected to mention the heavy cream sauce with which it was liberally draped. Fortunately, that was no barrier to enjoyment. The velvety cream cushioned the jalapeño's assertive bite for a flavor that was rich and only slightly piquant. Unfortunately, the steak was inedibly gristly in parts, though its surface did have a tasty char whose savory notes shone through the heavy blanket of cream.
A dish of tilapia poached in lemon was outstanding. Mild, firm and flaky, tilapia is often treated as a blank slate for flavorful sauces, but here, its own subtle succulence was beautifully teased out by a zesty emulsion of citrus, oil and herbs.
Jason took a flier on the cerdo a la plancha -- "grilled fillet of pork topped with our spicy pork sauce" -- because how could he go wrong with two kinds of pork in one dish? What arrived was a boneless pork chop, medium thick, deeply scored to allow the thick sauce to flavor the interior. The meat was juicy, but the star of this dish was the smooth sauce. It was, we think, not a "pork sauce" in the sense that it was made with additional pork, but rather that it's a sauce created in the pan that cooked the pork. It was rich and spiced just enough to season the pork without obliterating the meat's mild flavor.
Both our entrees came with a choice of a house salad, made with lettuce, or a Nicaraguan salad of crisp shredded cabbage. We heartily recommend the latter, which, lightly drizzled with fresh lemon, had the power to reform Angelique's prejudice against coleslaw.
Whether Rivas has the power to convert Pittsburghers to the delights of Nicaraguan cuisine remains to be seen. A more detailed menu might help diners make more educated choices about they food they are about to receive. Our experience was akin to putting our hands into a grab bag and being mostly happily surprised with what we pulled out. Perhaps for Rivas, the third time will be the charm.