Tacos, jerk chicken ... what's not to like? When we got word of Casa Rasta, where these two great tastes taste great together, we set forth immediately for Beechview.
The tiny storefront is down from the main drag, but telltale red, yellow and green lights left no doubt as to our destination. The interior consisted of little more than a pair of tables and an L-shaped counter with stools, but it was warmly painted and accompanied by a tempting little outdoor patio with views of trolleys going by on one side and the sunset over the South Hills on the other.
The sign advertised "fusion," but there was not much distance to cover in combining the tropical, sometimes spicy flavors of both Caribbean and Mexican cuisines. The weekday menu consisted almost entirely of traditional taqueria fare along with jerk chicken served either as wings or as taco filling; weekends bring Caribbean or Mexican specials.
A small, simple salsa-slash-salad was in some ways the most potent fusion on offer. Depending on the dish with which it was served, its mixture of diced, soft, ripe avocado and crispy green mango acted as a cooling bite, a semi-creamy condiment or a satisfying filling. Elemental as it was, it was a real treat.
The "salsa salad" was served in lieu of a dressing alongside the jerk chicken wings, where its mild, sweet-tart flavor muted any kick from the spicy rub. In truth, the seasonings packed some heat but weren't punishing, and the chicken was perfectly moist and tender beneath a thick sauce whose sweetness was fruity, not sugary.
Angelique also tried the jerk chicken shredded and wrapped in a burrito with black beans, rice and that ubiquitous avocado-mango mix, here acting as a salsa and moistening the other ingredients. The combination of chicken, beans, rice and fruit was satisfying, lending the burrito several dimensions of texture and flavor, from mushy and earthy to chewy, tangy and pepper-infused. There was enough of each ingredient to give it a distinctive presence, yet the burrito was not overstuffed. A beef burrito was also a success, with fine, tender shreds of deeply flavored, warmly seasoned meat.
Each of the fillings on the menu was available in tacos, tostadas, burritos and tortas. In keeping with best practices, tortillas were doubled up for the tacos, an authentic touch that we appreciated. Among the fillings we tried — which were all but the "soyrizo," or vegetarian sausage — the standout was cochinita pibil, pulled pork, accented with strips of red onion and minced leaves of cilantro. Despite these garnishes and a light sauce, the flavor of the pork predominated: Rich and savory, it had the incredibly moist, tender texture for which pulled pork is renowned.
Brilliant red chorizo, topped with minced onion for brightness and texture, was a little spicy, very flavorful and short on grease almost to the point of dryness. A vegetarian taco filled with strips of mild poblano peppers and little discs of potato erred on the side of blandness.
We sampled carnitas — citrus-marinated fried pork — on a tostada with rice and lettuce. This meat had the tenderness of the pulled pork but the dryness of the chorizo; fortunately, this was tempered by guacamole crema, whose vegetal creamy texture supplied some of the juiciness.
A side order of Mexican rice had virtually no flavor at all. But despite this and a couple other stops short of perfection, we think Casa Rasta adds some spice to the Beechview business district — as well as to Pittsburgh's small, but growing, Central American dining scene. Its marriage of compatible cuisines from Jamaica and Mexico is harmonious and unique.
Moreover, Casa Rasta is small, unpretentious and cheap; most everything on the menu costs just pocket change, and in this context, we find it easy to forgive a couple of missteps. Pittsburgh needs more places like this to go for an inexpensive meal with something to please everyone in the family; who needs a kids' menu when you can order the little ones a $2.50 taco? That's what we call a happy meal.
But most importantly, what Casa Rasta does well, it does very well. Diners who order its specialties will be rewarded with much more than their money's worth.