In 2017 La Palapa moved locations in South Side and expanded their menu. Our review is from before the move and we hope to check out the new location soon!
When it comes to finding authentic Mexican cuisine in Pittsburgh, it is truly a difficult task unless you know exactly where to look. Rather than celebrate the incredible food culture of Mexico, we are only able to find poor imitations and Tex-Mex restaurants that are just not the same.
But one South Side restaurant is going against the grain and is making some of Mexico's best meals right here in Pittsburgh. That restaurant is La Palapa and, along with their food cart of the same name, this one is changing the way we look at Mexican cuisine in the city.
No Frills Mexican in Pittsburgh
When we think back about our dining experiences in Mexico, we recall eating at local restaurants in out-of-the-way villages. Some of our favorite spots were incredibly basic and only had a one page menu (all in Spanish), no music in the background, little to no decorations adoring the walls, and only maybe a TV on in the corner playing soccer. There are no sombreros available for someone with ordering a birthday flan, no 64-ounce margaritas in colorful goblets, and certainly very few menu items you're used to seeing.
La Palapa is setup very much in line with what we remember, and their no frills approach to Mexican cuisine makes sure you focus on the only thing that is important: the food!
Tacos, Tortas, and Tortilla Soup to Start
Outside of the fact that the dining area at La Palapa is very basic, the first thing you'll notice is that the menu has a lot of unique menu items. If you've never been to Mexico, many of these, like the tortas and flautas, may be new to you. But for those who have visited our neighbor to the south, you'll be in a state of euphoria as you see some of your favorites making their way into this great city.
We resisted the urge on ordering the entire menu (although were tempted because everything was quite affordable at < $10 per plate on average) and settled for three of our favorites from Mexico- tacos (naturally), tortas (a jump sandwich with fillings comparable to a taco with extra toppings), and tortilla soup.
Tortilla soup in Mexico can take on various forms, ranging from the rich and savory to the more acidic depending on what the base stock is made from. The tortilla soup at La Palapa is of the rich variety with an onion and cilantro base that is also filled with poblano pepper strips and corn, and is the perfect soup for those wanting a taste of Mexico you've likely never had before.
As mentioned above, tortas are massive sandwiches that have the fillings of a taco but are also topped with other ingredients like beans, lettuce, and avocado to make one massive sandwich. Your choice of filling is key as not all of them play well in the sandwich concept as the bread and toppings can outshine the protein filling (the pulled pork was an unfortunate miss for us, but we're more than happy to try a new combo next time).
Although the tortas were a bit of a miss, the true gem of La Palapa is their tacos as they are perhaps the most authentic Mexican tacos you can find in the city. Starting with the ubiquitous double shell (the first sign a Mexican restaurant knows what they are doing), the tortillas are loaded up with your choice of filling (we tried three: barbacoa, rajas, and chorizo), and is then topped with Mexican crema, cilantro, and, if you are daring, their homemade habanero hot sauce (if you like heat, it is a must).
We do not use the word addictive much on this site, but this is the only word worth using to describe these little Mexican perfections. The highlight of the three was certainly the rajas taco, which is strips of cooked poblano peppers in a cream sauce (one of our favorites from Mexico), and makes for a striking contrast to the other more common tacos you may be tempted to order.
After trying these, it is going to be hard for anyone to order anything else from the menu in future visits. So if you're looking to try new Mexican cuisine, be sure to order it on your first visit in addition to a couple of tacos, because odds are good you wont want to try anything else on a return trip!
La Palapa is located at 2224 E Carson Street in the South Side.
For more authentic Mexican tacos in Pittsburgh, be sure to check out Las Palmas! Or, for more reviews of Pittsburgh restaurants, click the previous link to be taken to our directory of every review on Discover the Burgh!
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