Now that Pittsburgh has, at last, a selection of top-notch tacos vended from sidewalk stands and trucks, is there still a place for the humble taqueria? Can a forthright, inexpensive menu centered on tortillas and fillings — devoid of gringo clichés, Mexican-American hybrids and high-profit-margin margaritas — cover the fixed costs of a storefront? On a well-traveled block of the South Side at the foot of the Birmingham Bridge, Bea's Taqueria is giving it a go.
It's a bare-bones operation. To say the interior is nondescript may be saying too much. One orders from a counter in the rear, sits on a stool at one of the tables in the front dining room to eat, then returns to the counter to pay. The kitchen is on view behind the counter, more by accident than design. But the large storefront windows offer a front-row seat to the parade of revelry on East Carson Street, and the food itself is something to celebrate.
Ten years ago, Bea's offerings would have been groundbreaking in Pittsburgh. Fifteen different fillings, all but one meat-based (can you even name fourteen different kinds of meat?) are available as tacos at $2.50 or $3 apiece, or in burritos at $7.50 or $9 apiece. Beyond this are tostadas (interestingly, available only with shredded beef or chicken), enchiladas and a couple of soups. The variety in fillings, not preparations, is the essence of the taqueria; Bea's entire menu may fit on a postcard, but you could eat tacos till you burst and still only scratch the surface of the many Mexican delicacies on offer.
Despite the heat, we wanted to try the soups. The menu describes both pozole, the crimson pork and hominy stew, and a Salvadoran beef soup. Unfortunately, neither was available on our visit. The sole employee on duty, while perfectly competent, was not conversant in English (nor are we in Spanish), so we could not ascertain whether this was due to an anticipated avoidance of hot broth during a heat wave, or simply because the soup had run out. Instead, we endeavored to sample every filling they had. Not all 15 of these were available, either, but there were plenty to try: chicken and shredded chicken, roasted pork and al pastor, ground beef, shredded beef, lengua (tongue) and steak.
Shredded chicken lent savor to an exceptional quesadilla, thick with filling and perfectly crisped on the outside. The amount of flavor was far beyond what we normally expect from chicken unless it's gussied up with accompaniments. Bea's fine shreds, red with the salsa in which they had been cooked, were well moistened, and the absence of any large chunks made it a pure flavor experience.
And so it continued with everything we tried. A burrito stuffed with saffron rice and cheese nonetheless starred savory steak, while tacos — served according to authentic tradition, in doubled corn tortillas that had been warmed on a griddle — were all tasty. Al pastor, pork cooked with pineapple and onion, had a slightly sweet tang that appealed even to Angelique, a pineapple skeptic. Lengua featured a fine dice of the rich, dense, yet tender tongue meat, well enhanced by creamy guacamole.
Perhaps best of all was shredded beef on a tostada, the ultra-crisp tortilla of which was deep fried while we watched. The meat was robust and tender, the base layer of creamy refried beans served to anchor it to the tortilla "cracker" while adding its own earthy flavor, and a squirt of salsa verde from the condiment table brought notes of brightness that played especially well against a lush dollop of sour cream.
Bea's food is so exceptional, we wouldn't care if they never updated the furnishings or decor. The only thing that would have improved our experience was the presence of every item on the menu; at a place that gets tacos and tostadas so right, we like to think the pozole would also prove worthy. But for Bea's to keep its kitchen fully stocked, we Mexican-food lovers must do our part and keep the dining room stocked — with customers.