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 December

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

This month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

Love it or hate it, winter is upon us. Because some of us may think there's a lot not to like, we bring you 50+ things to eat, drink and do –– and some helpful tips –– that'll keep the blues at bay.
Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Pittsburgh Magazine presents the honorees from its inaugural Excellence in Nursing awards. Meet our judges' choices and learn what makes them remarkable in their field.
Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

A regal ruggedness characterizes the season's menswear looks.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

When viewed from the foot of the South Side Slopes of Pittsburgh, the stairs ascending Josephine Street form a massive image that consists of more than 7,500 individual mosaic tiles.
Joe Manganiello Plays the Good Guy for Children’s Hospital

Joe Manganiello Plays the Good Guy for Children’s Hospital

The actor, director and Mt. Lebanon native is joining the board of trustees of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation.
Pittsburgh Man Sets World Record By Lifting 1 Million Pounds

Pittsburgh Man Sets World Record By Lifting 1 Million Pounds

Matt Scoletti accomplishes the feat in just under nine hours.
Why Thanksgiving Comes Every Day for 3 Pittsburgh-Area Men

Why Thanksgiving Comes Every Day for 3 Pittsburgh-Area Men

They owe their lives to one man who lives on in each of them.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

This month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

Love it or hate it, winter is upon us. Because some of us may think there's a lot not to like, we bring you 50+ things to eat, drink and do –– and some helpful tips –– that'll keep the blues at bay.
Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Pittsburgh Magazine presents the honorees from its inaugural Excellence in Nursing awards. Meet our judges' choices and learn what makes them remarkable in their field.
Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

A regal ruggedness characterizes the season's menswear looks.
Restaurant Review: B52 in Lawrenceville is a Levantine Lifter

Restaurant Review: B52 in Lawrenceville is a Levantine Lifter

Omar Abuhejleh taps deep into his roots at his vegan cafe that's focused on Levantine cuisine.
Why You Can't Beat The Weather in Pittsburgh in The Winter

Why You Can't Beat The Weather in Pittsburgh in The Winter

I’ve traveled a lot of miles, and I still stare in bewilderment at people who tell me they’ve moved to a place because “You can’t beat the weather.”
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

When viewed from the foot of the South Side Slopes of Pittsburgh, the stairs ascending Josephine Street form a massive image that consists of more than 7,500 individual mosaic tiles.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
The Café Carnegie Now Open in Oakland

The Café Carnegie Now Open in Oakland

Chefs Sonja Finn and Becca Hegarty helm the refurbished restaurant at the Carnegie Museums.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best of the Burgh: Pumpkin Patches in the Pittsburgh Area

Best of the Burgh: Pumpkin Patches in the Pittsburgh Area

We’ve compiled the best pumpkin patches for fall family fun.

Comments


Why Wait For Summer? Head to Kennywood's Holiday Lights

Why Wait For Summer? Head to Kennywood's Holiday Lights

The park's winter celebration is great for families and a fine choice for anyone who loves Christmas (and/or funnel cake).

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Big Ten-Champion Nittany Lions More Worthy Than Buckeyes

Big Ten-Champion Nittany Lions More Worthy Than Buckeyes

For some reason Ohio State is ranked No. 2 in the latest playoff rankings and Penn State is No. 7. That has to change if Penn State beats Wisconsin on Saturday night.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Locket Full of Joy

Locket Full of Joy

The handcrafted piece opens to hidden treasures.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Ten Upcoming Flicks Every Oscar-Watcher Should See

Ten Upcoming Flicks Every Oscar-Watcher Should See

PM film critic Sean Collier picks ten forthcoming flicks likely to rake in nominations for the 89th Academy Awards.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Thinking Small: Pittsburgh Weddings That Are Intimate Affairs

Thinking Small: Pittsburgh Weddings That Are Intimate Affairs

Bigger isn’t always better, at least when it comes to these couples’ wedding ceremonies.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Seasonal Shopping: CMOA Store Holiday House, J.Crew Mercantile Opens Doors

Seasonal Shopping: CMOA Store Holiday House, J.Crew Mercantile Opens Doors

The Carnegie Museum of Art is full of Christmas cheer — and great deals. Plus, get the scoop on The Block Northway’s latest retail offering.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Classic Christmas Tale Gets a Twist at Slippery Rock University

Classic Christmas Tale Gets a Twist at Slippery Rock University

An adapted version of “A Christmas Carol” will be presented during a seven-show run.

Comments