Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., seven days
Prices: Tacos, $1.50; tortas, $4.50
Fare: Home-cooked south-of-the-border on the quick and cheap
Pittsburgh is closer, psychologically speaking, to some countries than to others. If you drew one of those New Yorker-style views of Pittsburgh as the center of the world, in which the city's hills and skyline were the detailed foreground, you'd find Eastern Europe right behind the Golden Triangle, Ohio represented by a lakeshore in the middle distance, and maybe Italy on the horizon. Mexico wouldn't even be in the picture.
Not that Pittsburgh lacks Mexican food, or even Mexican culture. But while some of our fair city's historically European ethnic neighborhoods are transitioning to a different flavor, we're still far from having a Little Mexico here.
Still, with the opening of Taqueria mi Mexico on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill -- the international food aisle of Pittsburgh's restaurant supermarket -- there's now a place to go for a simple, unpretentious, authentic taste of Mexico. With tacos, tortas (sandwiches), plus a few breakfast items, the taqueria's menu couldn't confuse the greenest of gringos. What the menu lacks in breadth, it more than makes up for in depth. You can choose from a dazzling dozen taco fillings, each of which is available as a torta filling as well. Beyond that, there are even more torta options.
As friends from the Southwest have taught us, ground meat isn't part of Mexican cuisine, and it's not on the menu at Taqueria mi Mexico. Instead there are two variations on pork sausage, familiar chorizo and new (to us) longaniza (similar to chorizo, but less spicy). Faced with this bounty -- and low, low prices -- we went a bit overboard, ending up with a half-dozen tacos plus chips, salsa and a torta.
The homemade chips arrived at our table fresh from the oil, hot and slick with grease. They were accompanied by a carousel of red and green salsas -- thin, not chunky, more like condiments than scoopable salads -- and pickled jalapeños.
The tacos all consist of double soft tortillas, lightly grilled and filled with diced onion, cilantro, a wedge of lime and the filling of your choice. We found some, like spicy chorizo and ripe, rich avocado, paired splendidly with this bold ensemble of ingredients. Other fillings, including carne enchilada (broiled pork) and queso fresco (a mild farmer's cheese) had milder flavors which tended to be subdued by the intensity of the rest of the taco.
One standout was the barbacaoa, steamed goat, which was tender, meaty without being stringy, and had a distinctive hearty yet delicate flavor. For those willing to venture even further from familiar territory, mi Mexico matter-of-factly offers tongue, tripe and head cheese as well.
Torta milanesa consisted of a thin slice of steak, breaded and fried, on a curious roll that looked like three conjoined hot dog buns. The roll had been slightly toasted, which was a very nice touch, and the steak was perfectly cooked, with a light, golden crust. Toppings included onions, lettuce, tomato, mayonese, queso fresco, avocado and some jalapeños. All these flavors and textures held together beautifully, and the substantial sandwich was an excellent value. The only quibble was with the single, large chunk of cheese, which would have been much better thinly sliced and evenly distributed.
We thought we had finished our meal when one of the owners -- a Pittsburgh native who met her Mexican husband here -- approached and asked if we wanted to try something really authentic. Our answer to this is nearly always yes, and we were pleased to sample a couple of the weekend specials, geared to the taqueria's predominantly Mexican weekend clientele.
A chicken tamale was wrapped in a firm corn mush and filled with stewed chicken that showed bits of pepper. It was good, if not revelatory. Much more intriguing was etole, a corncob on a stick, boiled and slathered with mayonese and crumbled queso, then sprinkled with lemon juice and cayenne pepper. This was utterly unlike traditional American corn-on-the-cob, and it was excellent. The corn was soft, juicy and somewhat chewy, while the flavorings were creamy, tart, and spicy.
Taqueria mi Mexico offers a combination of simplicity and authenticity that makes Mexico seem suddenly closer than it ever was before.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars