Location: 2501 Freeport Road, Harmarville; 412-828-2000
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 11a.m.-11 p.m.
Prices: Starters $4-8; entrees $11-14
Fare: Mexican 101
Atmosphere: Family-style Mexican
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated sections
Three Amigos in Harmarville is the second location of a hoped-for local chain run by three friends (get it?) who saw a need for authentic Mexican food in the far suburbs. (The other venue is in Charleroi.) Harmarville is, let's face it, no culinary oasis, but there they've whipped a former Eat'n Park into a credible Mexican restaurant. Terra-cotta walls, lime-green tabletops and big windows make for a light, bright interior. And, if you've come to expect a certain degree of kitsch in your Mexican dining environment, Three Amigos' mini-sombreros and Aztec-themed art won't leave you wanting.
The bar, too, is an attractive space, with a wood countertop and perhaps a couple more flat-screens than is strictly necessary. It offers margaritas with fresh lime juice, not margarita mix -- boding well, we hoped, for attention to detail and high-quality ingredients in the food.
Three Amigos' main point of pride appears to be its lunchtime buffet. However, we were there for dinner, so we perused a menu dominated by Mexican-American fare like burritos and fajitas, punctuated by a half-dozen more authentic dishes, such as chile Colorado (beef tips in a red sauce) and carnitas (sautéed pork). For diners not quite ready for the immersion experience, there's also a small "north of the border" section of the menu with items such as country-fried steak and barbecue.
The appetizer list is mostly different nachos options, so we turned to side orders to round out our meal, ordering a tamale and chile poblano. The latter, more commonly called chile rellenos, is a mildly hot pepper stuffed with cheese, then battered and fried. Maintaining the vegetal character of the pepper amid all the (admittedly delicious) fat is the challenge inherent in this dish, and Three Amigos met it ably. The tamale, unfortunately, failed to uphold the standard of moist cornmeal surrounding tender, richly flavored meat. Instead, too much bland cornmeal was insufficient to counter the dried-out beef within.
Jason's entrée of camarones a la diabla promised spice and it delivered. While the supposedly tomatillo-based sauce was actually dark brown, with little of the green color and bright, almost citrusy character usually imparted by tomatillos, it was a sophisticated medley of garlicky, oniony flavor, with plenty of chiles for kick. The shrimp themselves were large, firm, juicy and plentiful. Jason's quibble with this dish was the meager mound of lettuce, tomato and guacamole offered to fill the accompanying flour tortillas. These shrimp in their hot, spicy bath demanded more cooling, fresh vegetables for balance.
Angelique, who holds her head high when she admits to liking Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex as much as authentic Mexican food, ordered the California burrito, stuffed with marinated rib-eye steak and pico de gallo. The thought of tender, juicy steak balanced by the bright, astringent flavors of pico made her mouth water, but the reality was something different: tough, overly salty meat and not enough pico de gallo to complement, let alone compensate. She resorted to dolloping each bite of burrito with a spoonful of the complementary salsa that had come with our chips at the beginning of the meal. This zingy concoction of coarsely pureed tomatoes, diced raw onions -- just enough -- and spices saved the meal.
Three Amigos offers Mexican food that is palatable, if not uniquely memorable, in a bright and cheerful suburban setting. If you find yourself craving something outside the national-brand-name box out Harmarville way, you could do worse than to make friends with Three Amigos.