I had high hopes for Las Velas and unfortunately it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I’m like that with most Mexican restaurants in the United States. I suppose its due to having lived in Mexico as a temporary resident on two different occasions, so I’m forever spoiled and often, slightly disappointed. While the number of Mexican restaurants in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area is certainly on the rise, I find that a lot are the same, offering your standard Mexican dishes that are most common to the gringo palate. That is one thing I miss about my hometown of Philadelphia, upscale Mexican restaurants where the menu ventures far beyond offerings such as enchiladas and tacos.
Las Velas is located in downtown Pittsburgh’s historic Market Square. I had a slightly difficult time finding it due to not realizing it was located on the second floor. We dined there the same night as the city’s fifth annual Zombie Fest (which happens to be in Market Square), the immediate area was not the sedate place it normally is during the evening hours. Las Velas’ decor is simple but full of Mexican touches. Historic photographs from the early 20th century, think Pancho Villa times, line the walls of the stairwell leading up to the restaurant. Instead of cloths, the tables are topped with glass, featuring a black covering that, when you look closely, you see is a map of Mexico.
When D and I arrived at the restaurant there were only a couple of other diners, although the bar was pretty crowded. (On its website the kitchen hours are posted but the bar is listed as simply “open late.”) D ordered himself a Negra Modelo, a Vienna lager-style beer which came on draft, and for us an order of sopecitos. Although chips and salsa are usually a must for me while dining at Mexican restaurants, I opted this time to skip it since one, I always eat too many and feel full before my entree has arrived, and two, chips and salsa are not gratis (they cost $2.50 for a basket).
The chef and owner David Montanez is originally from Mexico City, but lived for a time in the Riviera Maya area, so menu selections reflect his varied geographic background. The menu features a variety of taco and burrito options, as well as house specialties, and lastly a quite neat concept (similar to what is seen in American Chinese restaurants), which is allowing people to order a particular sauce and then choosing from either chicken, steak, red snapper or shrimp.
I had sopes for the first time while working in Cuernavaca. Sopes are a type of Mexican snack, and featuring a base made from a circle of fried masa of ground maize soaked in lime with pinched sides, then topped with refried beans, crumbled cheese, lettuce, onions, red or green salsa, cream, and sometimes a meat topping. The sopes at Las Velas were small, hence their name of sopecitos, which loosely translates to small sopes. They were topped with chicken, steak, chorizo, and carnitas. I was slightly disappointed because they all tasted the same even though they featured four distinctly different meat toppings. I think it was due to the salsa verde and salsa roja toppings (red and green salsa); the spiciness masked the different tastes.
For my entree I ordered tacos de arrachera, three tacos with marinated hanger steak, onions, cilantro, and salsa. Although the menu said served with rice or beans, I received both (and was not charged extra). I was slightly annoyed as the waiter had asked me which kind of tortillas I wanted (flour or corn) and while I ordered corn, flour were what my tacos came in. I didn’t taste much of the marinade in the steak, and the rice and beans were similar in taste to your rice and beans at chain Mexican restaurants.
D ordered the pollo en mole poblano (chicken in red mole sauce) which came with your choice of three sides (rice, beans, lettuce/pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, rajas which are julienne peppers, papas Leticia, or cheese). He selected rice, beans, and the papas Leticia which he commented while good, tasted like your standard home fry potato. Also accompanying the meal were three warm, flour tortillas. He enjoyed his meal more than I did mine.
Dessert selections weren’t very extensive but did feature a favorite Mexican dessert, sopapillas. (Other dessert selections included fried ice cream, strawberries with cream, and cheesecake). Although there are different versions of sopapillas, at Las Velas it features puffed tortilla chips that have been fried and topped with honey and vanilla ice cream. These were excellent.
Although the restaurant did get much busier by the end of our meal, the wait time for our entrees and dessert was a bit long. Our water glasses were never refilled and when that’s the only thing you’re drinking, the waiter didn’t seem too attentive in that regard (even though D was asked if he wanted a second Negra Modelo before his first was finished).
Las Velas isn’t a bad choice for a night of dining out, I just feel it could improve.
21 Market Square
Pittsburgh, PA. 15222