Yo Rita, Check Out These Tacos
1120 E. Carson St., South Side
Big things are brewing at this small space on the South Side, where an old standard has been revved up to Spec-taco-ular!, with creative combinations and tantalizing textures – and all for under $10.
Open seven days: Mon.-Thurs., 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4-11 p.m.; Sun., 4-10 p.m. Bar open until 2 a.m. unless it’s a slow night. Starters: $5-$9; A la carte tacos: $4-$7; Street parking, major credit cards, full bar, wheelchair access, no smoking, no reservations. Daily specials listed on Twitter and Facebook.
That little hideaway across from Jack’s Bar – the one with the black-and-white stencil of a modernized Rita Hayworth-looking pinup imprinted onto its huge plate-glass windows – is neither a tattoo parlor nor a biker hangout. I’ve heard both.
Yo Rita is unlike anything on East Carson Street, a cosmic snafu as it relates to South Side bars with kitchens. Gone are the Mexican/American imitations that appeal to students and midnight revelers. Its savvy owner can be caught washing windows and bussing tables, while the chef motivates a supporting cast of cooks who double as front-line wait staff.
Yo Rita doesn’t operate by the rules and rhythms of either Mexican restaurants or kitschy corner taverns; it operates by the rules and rhythms of chef Kevin Sousa. For those unfamiliar, he is one of Pittsburgh’s brightest, boldest chefs, a tireless innovator with a penchant for all things eclectic and most recently known for dabbling in molecular gastronomy.
Sousa has worked his magic all over town, with cheffing stints at Kaya, Soba, Bigelow Grille and Red Room. Now he’s in the process of opening up his own place, Salt of the Earth, on Penn Avenue along the Friendship/Garfield corridor. It will offer communal tables, music, food and wine, and a bar facing the open kitchen.
In the meantime, what’s a top-notch chef like Sousa doing in a wink of a place on the South Side? It started out as just a consultation, with Sousa there to get the kitchen on its feet, but he says he is now involved for the long haul.
The fun began in June of 2008. Jacqueline White had lost her partner at Iguana Grill and was casting about for her bearings as she endeavored to take her enterprise, renamed Yo Rita – combining a Bronx "yo" with "rita," the final syllable of margarita – in new directions. "I wanted to do something exceptional, something unique, all for under 10 dollars," explains White.
This past June, Sousa was in the midst of preparing a summer barbecue on the site of his new restaurant when he heard from White. The two had never met, but White had been following Sousa’s career and blog from afar. "We instantly hit it off," he relates. "I was thinking about how to keep the buzz on my new venture and figured I could use a paycheck."
"What would you do if this were yours, with no risk?" she proposed to the guy, who loves a challenge. She was looking for a straightforward, unvarnished opinion. Sousa complied, advising a complete kitchen overhaul. Within a few weeks, they had cleaned house. The menu was scrapped – nachos, burritos, even "Wing Night" had to go. New cooks were brought in. "Real cooks," says Sousa. Then one night, at the beginning of July, Sousa and White simply stopped serving the old menu. At that point, every sprig of cilantro had to be spot-on beautiful.
Today, flour tortillas, from Reyna’s in the Strip District, come fresh out of the oven every morning. They serve as the canvas for Sousa’s creations and as a showcase for his gift of layering flavors that become entirely new tastes.
And that’s just for starters. Sousa butchers the meat and fish himself. Dressings and sauces are rendered with a judicious hand, and his approach is always fresh and resourceful. Now Yo Rita has become a winning confluence of casual yet imaginative food served in an easygoing atmosphere, with a focus on "fresh."
One of our favorite servers, Krissy, delivered a basketful of crisp triangle chips, an opener providing a familiar touch and something de rigueur in such unconventional environs. They were served with two choices of salsa: spicy (they aren’t kidding around) for chili-heads who favor endorphin jolts and not-so-spicy for those less adventurous. Either way, they’re as dangerous as cookies before dinner.
On to soups, which change daily. I love the hearty tortilla soup with roasted corn, pico de gallo and cotija cheese; and a jerked pumpkin and apple soup with goat cheese. (Although it’s almost Christmas, I’m already trying to imagine Sousa’s summer gazpacho.)
The tacos here are nothing short of amazing, wooing serious diners along with the South Side crowd, some of whom I noticed peering in with raised eyebrows.
One taco variety features chicken livers – a winner using a quince-based paste with roasted-garlic aioli piled atop a salad of raw white onion, pickled red onion, guava and spicy Creole rice crispers, which are inspired by Creole dirty rice. Texture obviously plays a big part in Sousa’s repertoire.
A favorite at the moment is a pork taco. It stars pork shoulder braised with red wine and aromatic spices (star anise, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon) until it falls apart. The supporting cast includes a rich, spicy mole made with chocolate, dried fruits, nuts and chiles. This taco offers a succession of stimulating textures and vivid flavors: First there’s the softness of the pork and herbs followed by the crackle of shredded cabbage. Sharp Granny Smith apples and jalapeño ensure a stinging contrast to the sweet mole – a beautiful balance.
Then there’s a black-eyed-pea taco complemented with spinach, corn, epazote, goat cheese and garlic oil. Or try a sushi-grade ahi-tuna taco with gingered slaw, avocado, jalapeño, cilantro and a touch of lime foam – a nod to Sousa’s famed molecular gastronomy. Other taco options: potato, avocado, fresh-water eel, flank steak, duck confit and chorizo. Seasonal taco selections include beets with manchego cheese, spicy peanuts and garlic confit; morcilla (Mexican blood sausage); walleye pike and a mixed root vegetable with a sunnyside-up quail egg.
One seasonal taco I tried is especially worthy of note: Braised veal cheeks with fried green tomatoes and arepas (cornmeal cakes) with shredded cabbage instead of lettuce were a brilliant move. When cabbage is this fresh, it’s crunchy and almost flavorless. "A textural event," proclaimed the chef. I doubt I’ll ever use iceberg lettuce in a taco again.
Sousa has a vegetarian following, and unlike most chefs, likes the challenge of creating something interesting in this vein. A beautifully textured seitan (wheat gluten braised in vegetable stock) is available – fantastic in tortilla soup or starring on its own in a taco with horseradish, huitlacoche, asparagus, corn, avocado and a pungent epazote. Tofu tacos with red curry, butternut squash and pomegranates are new on the menu.
And don’t miss a jícama chop salad, worthy of noting every ingredient: edamame, corn, melon, radish, mint and goat cheese – then all dressed up with pickled-pepper vinaigrette.
Sorry to report that you’ll have to wait until next season for the soft-shell crab taco with Old Bay aioli, pico de gallo and habañero peppers. It’s absolutely heavenly!
"We’re definitely a different menu for this area," contends White, a traveler and great fan of street food. "Sometimes you just don’t want to get dressed up and have a linen napkin; sometimes you just want to go out for good food and not mortgage the house," she laughs.
Keep in mind that this is not meant to be authentic Mexican food. Be sure to check the back of the menu for its capsulated glossary, though we had more fun buzzing with Krissy, whose panache filled in any potential cultural or culinary gaps.
Here’s one compliment I overheard and will share with you: Someone said that the "feng shui" at this new spot has the right "chi" for the kind of food it serves. So as the frost gathers on the windows – I love the way that Jack’s Bar, across the street, renders a glow like a sun setting inside Rita’s thanks to its pink and yellow neon – savor the votives flickering on the bar, cozy in and wink at your neighbor.
Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.