Review: Verde Mexican Kitchen & Cantina
This upscale venture in Garfield offers 170-plus tequilas and Mexican fare with a twist.
Photos by Laura Petrilla
When driving past Verde in the evening, you’ll be struck by the twin energies of the eatery and the Pittsburgh Glass Center across the street. Both establishments feature large glass windows shining onto Penn Avenue.
Through these windows, you can see Verde’s glittering tequila bottles lined up over a glowing amber bar and the Glass Center’s students working with smoldering balls of molten glass over orange and purple flames. There’s definitely a spark in the air.
Once inside, you’ll find Verde to be a loud, lively scene. Kudos to mossArchitects for a designing a slick space that acts as a backdrop to the restaurant’s fun accents: star-shaped light fixtures, a translucent bar and, most importantly, the wall-to-wall mural created by local artist Gabe Felice featuring Aztec and Mexican themes.
One of Verde’s greatest strengths is its drink menu, which is overseen by Nathan Lutchansky (whom executive chef Lynette “LBEE” Bushey calls “an encyclopedia of alcohol”). After tasting a dangerous number of Verde’s drinks, it was clear that this is a place where juices are freshly squeezed and syrups like grenadine are made in-house, resulting in naturally colorful cocktails with clean flavors.
I particularly enjoyed the lime-y mojito ($8), made with a papaya-thyme purée; the Caipirinha ($8) with unexpected cranberry flavor; the not-too-sweet but still fruity red Granada Sangria ($8); and the Premiere Clase Margarita ($14), with tequila, blood orange and lime, served with a salted rim. That doesn’t even begin to touch the extensive tequila and mezcal list — not to mention the assorted Mexican and American beers, plus a short wine list.
Verde owner Jeff Catalina, a native Texan, wanted to create a restaurant for upscale, authentic Mexican food. He convinced Pittsburgh native Bushey to return from Nicaragua to be his opening chef. Bushey thinks her creations are simple, as she uses fresh ingredients — but she enjoys adding a twist. She flips things up by asserting her creativity, enabling her to bring fun dishes to the table; for example, she created the nontraditional sweet-potato-and-chickpea taco ($11) with homemade tzatziki sauce for vegetarian diners.
Do not miss the tableside guacamole ($10); your server will bring a bowl of avocadoes and peel, clean and smash them together with freshly chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro, lime juice and as much chopped jalapeño as you can handle. This delectable dip is served with fresh, homemade tortilla chips.
Another killer appetizer is the Pozole Verde ($8), a traditional hominy-based stew with large chunks of tender pork shoulder, tomatillo and jalapeño. A great starter for the kids is the Queso Fundido ($8), a creamy, salty blend of melted Mexican cheeses served with warm, soft flour tortillas (add homemade chorizo for a $2 kicker).
Disappointing appetizers were the Elotes ($5) (or grilled corn on the cob), which arrived cold; and the Empanadas de Verduras ($8), made with puff pastry (instead of traditional dough), which was a bit discordant with the savory filling and the thick chipotle sauce.
For entrées, there were (again) stronger and weaker dishes. My top choices include the Enchiladas de Pollo ($16), densely packed with earthy house-smoked chicken and topped with a nice poblano crema; and the Carne Asada ($20): a beautiful presentation of fanned steak slices accented with a bright green chimichurri sauce served alongside garlic mashed potatoes with roasted plantains and crispy onions.
Continuing my eternal quest for a great fish taco, I tried Verde’s (price based on the fish of the day — for example, the mahi mahi is $15) and thought it was respectable but bland. A surprising dish is the Chiles Rellenos De Hongos ($15), which Bushey interprets for the modern vegetarian by roasting (rather than deep-frying) the peppers and filling them with a vegetable, rice and cheese stuffing.
The greatest disappointment (which makes no sense, given the chef’s background) was the rice and beans; the rice was undercooked, the tomatoes tasted like they came from a can and the beans were flavorless. Since the rice and beans accompany many dishes, this is an area that seems to require improvement.
The desserts are American treats with a Mexican flair. Since Verde doesn’t have a pastry chef, they are particularly impressive. The flourless chocolate cake ($8) was dense and divine; the pineapple cheesecake ($8) was absolutely perfect; and the much-buzzed-about Tres Leches bread pudding sold out before I could try it!
Bushey worked her first two months without a steady sous chef. After Neal Heidekat was hired to fill that role, she’s looking forward to having more time to “play with” the menu and further express her creativity. Verde’s already off to a great start and is certainly a restaurant to keep on your radar.
Lynette “LBEE” Bushey, Executive Chef, Verde
Although you are native to Pittsburgh, you’ve traveled a great deal.
I lived in Nicaragua for eight years. I was executive chef at a hotel resort there for six, and I had my own restaurant for almost a year-and-a-half. Then I decided I wanted to get back to the States when I connected with Jeff [Catalina, owner]. I’ve also traveled to Guatemala, Panama, Jamaica, Buenos Aires, Ireland, Spain and the Dominican Republic.
When you cook, are you bringing in influences from those places?
Of course — I love to go to restaurants in other countries. I believe that those experiences have made me into the chef I am today. Mexican food is fun because the ingredients are simple — and you can make a simple but really great dish.
What’s the best way to learn how to cook Latin-American food?
Go there! If you want to learn how to cook traditional Mexican cuisine, don’t go to Cancun or Mexico City — visit the small villages. Go to the open market and look at their ingredients; buy plantains and avocadoes. Watch how they cook over wood in the open market.
Do you recommend any cookbooks?
You can find anything you want to know on the Internet. Cookbooks become obsolete. Go on YouTube, plug in “how to make gallo pinto” and learn how to make it.
Which spices do you recommend?
Always buy whole spices, and toast and grind them yourself. Remove spices that have been in your cupboards for years; the older they are, the less potent. Buy whole fennel seeds, black peppercorns, coriander and cumin. To toast, sauté them dry in a sauté pan until you can smell them; then bring them to room temperature and grind them in a coffee grinder that you use just for spices.
What else should you stock in your pantry?
Dry pasta, rice, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. There are so many good balsamics right now; [Giant Eagle] Market District’s signature balsamic is good. You don’t have to spend a fortune. You might want to pay more if you are going to reduce it and serve it as syrup.