The transformation of Mexican dining in Pittsburgh over the past two decades has been a godsend for those of us craving more — and more authentic — than simply seasoned ground beef, iceberg lettuce and margarita mix.
While we’re still waiting for Mexican cuisine to receive the deeply authentic, regional approach that has been lavished on Italian and even Indian food, Pittsburgh now has a fairly solid line-up of taquerias, and the sit-down options have improved as well. For the most part, we now expect the bland Mexican-American cuisine of yore only at the chains and a few tired holdouts.
The decor of Totopo Mexican Kitchen and Bar in Mount Lebanon evokes familiar tropes — cobalt-blue tiles, rustic metalwork — in a stylish, vaguely sophisticated way.
A cursory glance at its menu formed a similar impression: entrees consist mainly of tacos, burritos and enchiladas filled with chicken or (ground) beef, while sides are limited to salad, black beans, refried beans and “fiesta rice,” complete with corn and peas. But the menu also highlights a few of the country’s regional traditions and is large enough to offer such variety as tamales in both northern and southern styles.
“Totopo” is the word for “tortilla chip” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, so we were pleased to have a complimentary bowl of warm, housemade chips brought to our table. Unsalted, they cried out to be dipped in the accompanying salsa, but it was disappointing — puréed and mild to the point of blandness.
That was not the case with tortilla soup, however. Typically, the broth of this soup is based on chicken stock, and it often contains chicken, as well. Totopo’s was a vegetarian version with a thick, almost creamy texture that had more in common with a good tomato soup or, even, a bisque. The flavor was tomatoey as well, but subtly so, with plenty of savor and seasonings that stopped just short of spiciness.
Labor-intensive tamales of any style aren’t common at local restaurants, so we were impressed that Totopo offers two. Northern-style, a steamed corn husk filled with meat, is by far the more familiar to Americans. Totopo’s had been cooked (or formed) poorly, so that it was dried out at one end and didn’t have a lot of flavor regardless. But the new-to-us southern style — cheese and poblano, but no meat, wrapped in a banana leaf — was much more interesting and better-tasting. Actually, what was most striking was the texture: Where husk-wrapped tamales tend to be relatively dry, the masa harina in the banana-leaf version was soft and moist, almost custard-like, with the cheese in the filling blending seamlessly into the corn. It would have benefitted from a distinctive salsa, but it was a treat nonetheless.
In general, even where Totopo stuck to Mexican-menu standards, it executed at a high level. Fiesta rice tasted ho-hum, but the texture — light and fluffy and perfectly moist — was far superior to what old-school Mexican places cooked up. Similarly, Totopo’s refried beans looked like all the rest, but offered more depth of flavor, and a slightly looser texture, than most. The ground beef taco was too mild — the bottle of Cholula hot sauce on our table got a workout — but the texture was excellent, and there was enough seasoning to enjoy the crumbles that fell to the plate on their own.
We also had a mixed verdict about the Ensenada fish tacos. They were well proportioned and filled with excellent tempura-style cod, but the slaw was strangely sweet and the creamy chipotle sauce added virtually no heat. A too-sweet cilantro dressing also ruined (for us) an otherwise perfectly acceptable green salad.
Enchiladas, burritos, tacos, quesadillas and other Mexican-restaurant classics can be ordered in meal-size portions on their own or in combos with others. This is great for people like Angelique, who have a hard time narrowing down their favorites. An enchilada verde and chile relleno combo was satisfying enough, but unremarkable. But a “drowned” burrito — with a roasted-tomato salsa on top — finally brought a little kick to the table.
Far from expanding the options of Mexican dining in Pittsburgh, Totopo is more of an upscale version of the Mex-American restaurants that were our gateway to the cuisine decades ago. This is about as good as that style of cooking can be, and we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that the margaritas are made with fresh citrus juiced in-house.