Ambience, Cheap eats, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Strip District


I was born amid Mexican food. Maybe that sounds weird.

Irish and Italian on one side of the family, Russian and Ukranian on the other. Maybe that makes the Mexican food thing sound weirder.

I get that.

But it was the dominant not-made-at-home food of my childhood. We ate it a lot. It’s something I seek out in every city I live in. (The worst I’ve ever had: this joint in Philadelphia which was cruel enough to compensate with absurdly good mango margaritas. Yet I swear they made refried beans from a powder. Go figure.)

Not long after I hit the ground here in Pittsburgh, I heard about Reyna’s in the Strip District. Tortilleria in back, taco stand out front on Penn Ave. I chose a gently raining day to stop by. Forgivable, but not my only mistake.

The special when I go by is a crab empanada for $3. I adore empanadas. They’re almost like little calzones, though not the big-as-your-fat-eighth-grader variety: a shell of fried dough filled with almost anything. Beef and potatoes, say, or raisins and lamb. Almost any kind of leftovers could wind up making a truly inspirational empanada. The dough is important, too. It should be crisp and firm. Mush is nobody’s friend.

So I should have seen the microwave. I noticed the electric griddles for heating up whatever people ordered to put in their tacos and was a little nervous already. Those things don’t normally get hot enough to brown meat.

I order the empanada. Dude pops a premade one in the microwave. Oy. How old was it already? Hours? Weeks? And with crab in it, that’s a whole ‘nother problem.

Then, yeah. Mush. Hot mush.

I see the sign that says house-made tortillas. Tacos can’t be a bad idea. I’m a little on edge because of the empanada. And the tacos are $2.50 each. For taco-stand tacos, this is a little high. Most places, $1.25 or $1.50 is a good ballpark.

What I order then is almost like a test. One of my favorite things in a taco is lengua. Beef tongue. Done right, it’s rich, meltingly soft and like nine kinds of incredible.

Lengua has a very strong beef flavor which isn’t for everyone. It’s become kind of a staple of mine, in part because I like it and in part because it’s a good way to get a measure of a place. Get lengua right and lots of other things are bound to be right — or wrong in all the best ways. That’s fine, too.

Dude takes some precut little cubes of lengua and tosses them on the grill. They look a little gray, but nothing I can’t handle.

“You want everything on it?” Dude asks me.

“Cilantro y cebolla,” I said. Chopped cilantro and raw onions.

“Traditional Mexican,” Dude says. “I like that.”

He hits the tacos with a little fresh lime juice and we’re good to go.

It’s started to rain a little more, so I hunch under an awning next to the taco cart to eat. The corn tortillas are good. They taste fresh and complement the rest of the taco well. And the lengua: a little chewy but nothing to worry about. Flavorful. Solid. Not spectacular.

Still: better than I expected. But I don’t have to move nearby or anything.


13 thoughts on “Reyna’s.

      • If I have a less-than-stellar food experience, I tend to just not write about it. That’s certainly not as noble as your approach. Keep up the great work…enjoying the new voice in the ‘burgh food blogging scene.

      • Nothing noble about it, man. The conceit, I guess, of this place is that it’s about exploring. I don’t regret going there, but I think I should be honest about what I found. It’s also about telling stories. You’ll notice I don’t write traditional reviews. If there’s nothing I can bring to something — no story to tell — then I won’t.

  1. that sucks they used a microwave on the empanada

    i’m a fan of the steak tacos there- didn’t dig their chorizo that much (i think it might be i’m more a spanish chorizo fan). i like edgar’s guac, the salsa etc etc

    great blog!

  2. sb says:

    Have you checked out Mendoza Express in Greentree yet? Having grown up in the burgh, I obviously can’t speak to the “mexicanness” of it; hell, I even actually like Qdoba for what it is. (ie: not mexican.) However, I’ve always liked Mendoza and it’s a tiny place worth trying out if you are on a quest for good food. I’m currently in a country with no Mexican food at all, so my mouth waters at the thought.

      • sb says:

        For the moment, the Netherlands, but only for another week until I am back in Pittsburgh. There’s not exactly a giant Mexican population here, though rumor has it that there is a place in Amsterdam…

  3. Adam says:

    Check out Las Palmas in Brookline (you might even hit a new neighborhood). Their taco stand, only open on weekends, is fantastic. I’m a big fan especially of the chorizo, which is made by their butchers inside the attached store.

  4. Pingback: Smoke Barbecue Taqueria. | eatsburgh

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