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 ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in January

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in January

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
2016 Pittsburghers of the Year: The Pittsburgh Penguins

2016 Pittsburghers of the Year: The Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins' hoisting of Lord Stanley’s Cup in June year speaks to the ability of the team and the organization to persevere, to dig deep when things looked bleak, and to roll up their sleeves and go to work when tough jobs had to be done — traits Pittsburghers have always appreciated.
The Big Guy with the Big Voice

The Big Guy with the Big Voice

After joining the Penguins in mid-season, head coach Mike Sullivan instills the focus needed to win the Stanley Cup.
The TV Series ‘Outsiders’ Finds a Home in Millvale

The TV Series ‘Outsiders’ Finds a Home in Millvale

Go behind the scenes to meet set and production designers and artisans who work magic, transforming neighborhoods into rural Kentucky.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Watch: Preview of Fascinating Rachel Carson Documentary

Watch: Preview of Fascinating Rachel Carson Documentary

Carson, a native of Springdale, is credited with launching the modern environmental movement. She is the subject of a new “American Experience” documentary airing Jan. 24 on PBS.
Joe Manganiello Knocks off Superman, Batman is Next

Joe Manganiello Knocks off Superman, Batman is Next

The Mt. Lebanon native and insanely loyal Pittsburgh Steelers fan is engaging in superhero trash talk with one of his movie co-stars.
Pipe Dream? Get From Pittsburgh to Chicago in 30 Minutes

Pipe Dream? Get From Pittsburgh to Chicago in 30 Minutes

Developers say such a trip, at speeds faster than a passenger jet, could be possible in five years.
Pittsburgh Pride Expands Events, Adds First-Ever Zip Line

Pittsburgh Pride Expands Events, Adds First-Ever Zip Line

The summer celebration of the region’s gay, bisexual and transgender community, already the fourth largest special event in Pittsburgh, will be even bigger in 2017.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in January

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in January

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
2016 Pittsburghers of the Year: The Pittsburgh Penguins

2016 Pittsburghers of the Year: The Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins' hoisting of Lord Stanley’s Cup in June year speaks to the ability of the team and the organization to persevere, to dig deep when things looked bleak, and to roll up their sleeves and go to work when tough jobs had to be done — traits Pittsburghers have always appreciated.
The Big Guy with the Big Voice

The Big Guy with the Big Voice

After joining the Penguins in mid-season, head coach Mike Sullivan instills the focus needed to win the Stanley Cup.
The TV Series ‘Outsiders’ Finds a Home in Millvale

The TV Series ‘Outsiders’ Finds a Home in Millvale

Go behind the scenes to meet set and production designers and artisans who work magic, transforming neighborhoods into rural Kentucky.
Restaurant Review: Spoon in East Liberty Gets a Fresh Polish

Restaurant Review: Spoon in East Liberty Gets a Fresh Polish

Hiring Jamilka Borges as executive chef and a fresh interior design revive the East Liberty restaurant.
Talk of the Tahn: The Gift I Was Given

Talk of the Tahn: The Gift I Was Given

My brother taught me how to ski on rented metal sticks. Boyce Park. It was the first thing we ever did together besides fight over the last slice of pizza.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Watch: Preview of Fascinating Rachel Carson Documentary

Watch: Preview of Fascinating Rachel Carson Documentary

Carson, a native of Springdale, is credited with launching the modern environmental movement. She is the subject of a new “American Experience” documentary airing Jan. 24 on PBS.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
G&G Noodle Bar Downtown Will Close

G&G Noodle Bar Downtown Will Close

Its shuttering is the first significant Pittsburgh restaurant closing of 2017.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Popularity of The Flats on Carson is a Mystery

Popularity of The Flats on Carson is a Mystery

After Dark visits the South Side bar which attracts big crowds on the weekend — and, on Sunday, was the scene of a well-publicized arrest.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
You Can Hope, but Don't Expect an Easy Steelers' Win in KC

You Can Hope, but Don't Expect an Easy Steelers' Win in KC

Pittsburgh blasted Miami because the Steelers performed as expected against an opponent that was depleted by injury and overwhelmed by its circumstances. But that isn’t likely to happen again.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Check out the chic decor from Pittsburgh-based artist and designer Janice Nelson.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Scorsese's Silence Proves Worth the Wait (and the Weight)

Scorsese's Silence Proves Worth the Wait (and the Weight)

Reviews of "Silence," "Live by Night" and "Patriot's Day."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Pittsburgh Romance: How Their Love Survived Long-Distance

Pittsburgh Romance: How Their Love Survived Long-Distance

From coast to coast and continent to continent, these couples showed that absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Urban Fit Co. Opening Flagship Shop in Sewickley

Urban Fit Co. Opening Flagship Shop in Sewickley

The locally owned active wear boutique is slated to open in March. Plus, get all the details on Pittsburgh’s new luxury residential real estate firm, Piatt Sotheby’s International Realty.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Pittsburgh Artist’s Work to be Featured at Thiel College

Pittsburgh Artist’s Work to be Featured at Thiel College

Benedict Oddi’s collection “Scouts and Nomads” will be on display in a campus gallery.

Comments