Review: La Palapa

Kick back and enjoy the home-cooked flavors of Mexico in this intimate South Side spot.




Photos by Laura Petrilla
 

 

La Palapa restaurant is named after the dried palm-leaf umbrellas you might see while visiting a Caribbean beach, and it aims to convey that same feeling of relaxation. At the eatery, you can enjoy the home-cooked flavors that Chef/Co-owner Jose Luis Navarrete creates. A native of Puebla, Mexico, he moved here from Ohio in 2010.

The restaurant’s subtitle, Cocina Gourmet Mexicana & Catering, expresses that the owners intend to provide Mexican food that is a cut above.

Navarrete and his business partner, Mexico City native Jesús Martínez — who came here for his Pittsburgh-born wife — established La Palapa in 2012 as a stand at Pittsburgh Public Market.

“At that time, there were already a lot of tacos in Pittsburgh,” says Martínez. “We wanted to showcase [Jose’s] talent with more interesting, authentic and hard-to-make items such as tamales, enchiladas and chiles rellenos.” 

The duo’s stand was such a hit that customers began encouraging the partners to open a restaurant. In October 2013, they found their South Side location; La Palapa restaurant opened later in the winter. Don’t worry, though — they still run the Pittsburgh Public Market booth. The restaurant’s understated interior features pale aqua walls decorated with photographs the owners took, along with Mexican art and handcrafts from Mexico Lindo in Squirrel Hill.



 

La Palapa has an extensive menu. My recommendation would be to try any of the soups. Choices are the sopa de tortilla, or tortilla soup ($4.95); frijoles charros, with pinto beans, bacon, sausage, tomato, cilantro and spices ($5.50); sopa de pescado, or fish soup ($5.95); and sopa de verdura, or vegetable soup ($4.95) as well as daily specials. To quote a famous
commercial, these all are “mmm, mmm good.” The sopa de pescado is my favorite, featuring abundant garlic and tender tilapia chunks in a pungent light tomato broth.

In contrast, the bean soup is more like a meal, with hearty beans cooked with bacon, sausage and tomato. If you’re lucky, the special soup of the day will be the perfectly balanced poblano pepper-corn cream soup, this year’s winner for Best Vegetarian entry in the South Side Soup Contest.

The appetizer section also includes some must-haves. Fried-to-order, airy tortilla chips pair nicely with dip options such as the tart tomatillo salsa, salty queso sauce and chunky, fresh guacamole.

Don’t miss the tamales ($4.95), which are hard to reproduce at home. The warm corn dough is filled with pork, shredded chicken or the vegetarian filling of the day; per tradition, it is steamed in a cornhusk.

The chiles rellenos ($7.50) are stuffed with spinach and cheese and are not deep-fried or greasy. The empanada ($4.95) also is very good, with flaky dough; it is filled with chicken, ground beef or veggies.



 

For entrées, there are individual tacos ($3.25 per), quesadillas ($3.50 per) or tortas ($9.50 per) with various fillings and sauces, including chorizo-potato and beef tongue. The ones I had were satisfactory but not extraordinary.

The especialidades are larger meals, costing $9.95 to $24.95 for the large sampler platter; each plate comes with rice and frijoles and warm white tortillas wrapped in colorfully embroidered linens.

The top-selling mole poblano con pollo ($11.95) features tender chicken with a light mole sauce. The tilapia a La Veracruzana ($12.95) is a homey stew with tomato, onion, capers and green olives.

Another popular dish is the more typical and large (as expected) burrito Steelers ($10.95), packed with ground beef and chicken, rice, pinto beans, spinach, pico de gallo, sour cream, cheese and a secret spicy sauce.

From the choices of churrasco, described on the menu as “meat that just falls off the bone,” I tried the pollo asado ($11.95), a marinated and braised half chicken. It was tender but bland.

Even if you don’t have room, try the flan de coco ($4.95), the traditional coconut flan. The texture and flavor are excellent; it’s a nice way to finish off the meal.

La Palapa has unassuming and casual service. On weekend nights, the place is hopping, so consider calling ahead for reservations. It is easier to dine in at lunchtime or on a weekday evening. La Palapa also offers takeout as well as delivery service to folks in downtown Pittsburgh and South Side. 



 


 

 

How did you meet? 
JM: We worked together at Marisqueira [Mediterranean Bistro in Aspinwall]. [Jose] was cooking there, and I was a dishwasher. We really liked each other, and we both wanted to start our own business.

How do you create quality food? 
JLN: I really like what I’m doing, and I put a lot of love into my cooking. I learned a lot from my parents and grandparents; I studied cooking at a Portuguese school in New Jersey, and I have 12 years of experience as a chef in restaurants of various cuisines. It’s very important to me to read people’s reactions to my food; I like to observe customers’ reactions and talk with them to see how a dish might be improved.

Why do you think you’ve been so well-received by locals? 
JM: It has really grown through word of mouth. We have had a lot of help from both individuals and organizations. I have taken very helpful classes at the Small Business Development Center at Duquesne [University], where we learned a lot about the legal and business issues of running a business. We are also grateful to the Pittsburgh Public Market because they gave us an opportunity to get started on a small budget. Also, our suppliers, including Clarion Farms, have been great and very supportive. We are very pleased and feel very lucky that we have received such a warm welcome.

Why did you choose South Side for your restaurant location? 
JM:  This space used to be [occupied by] Thai Me Up [before it relocated]. We were literally walking past, and we looked in the window and saw the space and the hood in the kitchen — and we just knew this was our spot.

What’s next for you? 
JM: The restaurant is going very well on the weekends, so we are encouraging more business on other days. We are planning to add outdoor seating in front of the restaurant because we have only 22 seats now, and that will give us four more seats. We are also building our catering business, which is something we really enjoy doing.

What other Mexican spots do you recommend in Pittsburgh? 
JM: We really like El Milagro in Beechview for everyday home cooking. We also enjoy the tacos at Las Palmas Carniceria and the food at Casa Rasta.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

With so many options in and around the city, every couple can find the special space that feels just right — whether they’re looking for nature, rustic charm, fairytale romance, stained-glass beauty, treasured religious ritual or classic tradition.
Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Delve below the surface to explore the underground areas that serve as vital pathways to our region.
Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Chefs who grew up in Pittsburgh are shaping the culinary scene in other cities across the country — and gaining national recognition in the process.
Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

The meat-centric restaurant in the Strip District is helping to redefine Pittsburgh's dining expectations.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Steelers' DeAngelo Williams Scores as Daughters' Hair Stylist

Steelers' DeAngelo Williams Scores as Daughters' Hair Stylist

In a pair of TV ads, watch the Steelers' running back tackle styling the hair of his two adorable daughters.
Greenlight for Girls Encourages Hands-On STEM Learning

Greenlight for Girls Encourages Hands-On STEM Learning

The international organization partnered with local materials science company Covestro to encourage scientific curiosity for girls.
Heinz Releases a ‘Wiener Stampede’ on The Super Bowl

Heinz Releases a ‘Wiener Stampede’ on The Super Bowl

Dozens of dachshunds wearing hot dog costumes star in what may be the cutest commercial this year.
Grove City College Team ‘Takes the Cake!’ on Cake Wars

Grove City College Team ‘Takes the Cake!’ on Cake Wars

Two former freshman roommates created a cake that was part sculpture, part spectacle to win $10,000 on the popular Food Network series.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

With so many options in and around the city, every couple can find the special space that feels just right — whether they’re looking for nature, rustic charm, fairytale romance, stained-glass beauty, treasured religious ritual or classic tradition.
Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Delve below the surface to explore the underground areas that serve as vital pathways to our region.
Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Chefs who grew up in Pittsburgh are shaping the culinary scene in other cities across the country — and gaining national recognition in the process.
Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

The meat-centric restaurant in the Strip District is helping to redefine Pittsburgh's dining expectations.
Cranking Out Old School Valentines Sealed with a Quirk

Cranking Out Old School Valentines Sealed with a Quirk

In Lawrenceville, a love for letterpress leads to a business whose greeting cards reach audiences across the country.
Pittsburgh's Third Renaissance and Complaints from 2007

Pittsburgh's Third Renaissance and Complaints from 2007

This third Renaissance has allowed us to be spectators as Pittsburgh changed from a city suffering the damages wrought by the collapse of its steel industry to a vibrant, active place known for its academic, medical and technology sectors.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Steelers' DeAngelo Williams Scores as Daughters' Hair Stylist

Steelers' DeAngelo Williams Scores as Daughters' Hair Stylist

In a pair of TV ads, watch the Steelers' running back tackle styling the hair of his two adorable daughters.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: Yikes! Imagine This Instead of a Fountain at the Point

PittGirl: Yikes! Imagine This Instead of a Fountain at the Point

City leaders considered many options for Pittsburgh's confluence including something that looked like it was designed by the Jetsons, or an absolutely bonkers, batpoop insane idea by the one and only Frank Lloyd Wright.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Wigle Whiskey Ripe for Expansion with Threadbare

Wigle Whiskey Ripe for Expansion with Threadbare

The Strip District distillers will launch a hard cider business this fall.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
7 Best Restaurants for College Students in Pittsburgh

7 Best Restaurants for College Students in Pittsburgh

Easy access from universities, wallet-friendly prices and really good food make these our favorite choices for the university set.

Comments


Head to 'Quick and Shameless' For an Unpredictable (and Essential) Night of Pittsburgh Comedy

Head to 'Quick and Shameless' For an Unpredictable (and Essential) Night of Pittsburgh Comedy

The LGBTQ-friendly variety show offers one of the city's most unusual (and often unforgettable) lineups of comedic talent.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
It's Simple This Time, Super Bowl 50 Won't Even be Close

It's Simple This Time, Super Bowl 50 Won't Even be Close

The Panthers are going to get to the Broncos eventually. When that happens, Peyton Manning is going to be forced to throw it. And once that happens, it’s going to get ugly.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Delicate Pieces for the Harsh Winter

Delicate Pieces for the Harsh Winter

Lighten up your look with a cheerful necklace.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
George Clooney, Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks and Some Zombies Walk Into a Multiplex

George Clooney, Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks and Some Zombies Walk Into a Multiplex

Our reviews of "Hail, Caesar!," "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and "The Choice."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Sugar and Spice: Cookie Table Contest Winners

Sugar and Spice: Cookie Table Contest Winners

Pittsburgh has it all: a beautiful skyline, breathtaking bridges and the most gorgeous cookie tables we’ve ever seen.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Pillow Talk: Pittsburgh's Skyline Inspires New Design Line

Pillow Talk: Pittsburgh's Skyline Inspires New Design Line

Check out the new pillow collection from local interior designer Zach Mitchell. Plus, get the scoop on The Pittsburgh Christmas Carol Tour.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Mock Crime Scene to be Held at Waynesburg University

Mock Crime Scene to be Held at Waynesburg University

The event is for high school students who are interested in criminal justice, law enforcement and forensic science.

Comments