One of my most potent memories of South America is the food. Whether it was Carne Asado, Lomo Saltado, or good old Ceviche, the flavors were always distinctive and bold . While I’m still waiting for a Pittsburgh restaurant to offer alpaca, South American food is making an appearance around the city. With a new Peruvian-inspired restaurant in Squirrel Hill, as well as taquerias popping up around the city, Latin American cuisine is expanding throughout Pittsburgh. Alma, a more upscale Pan-Latin restaurant located in Regent Square, goes as far as to cite each item on the menu with the country from which it originated. Even more, it serves an authentic Pisco Sour, Peru’s national drink (although Chile also claims ownership), complete with egg whites.
While Alma is a clearly studied take on Latin-American cuisine, it is not without flair or wit. An order of shrimp ceviche, for example, is served elegantly in a martini glass, with a slice of fried plantain sticking up. The dish itself is not for the light of palate; the intensity of the lemon juice and chiles can be a bit much to take. Only cubes of sweet potatoes mellow its sharpness. An appetizer of Papitas Rellenas (potatoes stuffed with ground beef) is a dish much easier to handle and all the better for it. The outside of the potatoes are golden and crisp, though when cut open, the majestic combination of meat and potatoes turns the dish into a melt-in-mouth savory sensation. The meat is rich and a topping of pickled onions and fresh salsa add color. Alma offers a soup du jour, and their cup of vegetable soup was surprisingly complex. With mushrooms, arugula, and a healthy kick of chiles, the soup tastes exciting.
At Alma, the simplest dishes often pack surprises. Their Vaca Frita, instead of being sautéed until crispy (as is traditionally served in Cuba), is just beef brisket. Served without gravy and on top of rice and pigeon peas, the dish is simply adorned. Yet the meat is so tender that adding a sauce would only compromise its natural flavor. Even more, the brisket juices soak into the rice and peas, complementing its already creamy texture. Alma also offers fish of the day, and an order of scallops, while deviating from traditional South American cuisine, is heavenly. Served with a delicate ginger-mango sauce, the scallops are cooked to perfection. The subtly sweet sauce, with a bite of ginger, only enhances the buttery scallops. Alma also offers several vegetarian dishes. While their black bean burgers are certainly filling and peppery, they could benefit from chutney to add some excitement. A dessert of Molten Lava cake is rich, dark, and not too sweet, while a side of cinnamon ice cream seals the deal. The only real hiccup in an otherwise great meal was a side of fries. While the fries had a pleasant crunch, a topping of chimichurri was far too salty, rendering the fries nearly inedible.
Despite the quality food, Alma’s atmosphere does not appear promising. The tile exterior and cartoony sign suggests a tacky family restaurant. Half the restaurant is floored in linoleum tiles, while the other half in wood. Colorful hanging lights add a sense of playfulness, but the atmosphere still feels cold. Still, the food at Alma effectively makes this lack of ambiance a slight qualm. Wait staff offer solid recommendations and, while not always knowledgeable about the menu, are ready and willing to hunt down answers.
The word “alma” translates to English as “soul,” and Alma certainly provides for the soul. Whether it’s a cup of the stomach-warming soup or even-better-than-your-grandma’s brisket, Alma knows how to provide for simple pleasures. Still, the research in each dish shows, making Alma an authentic door into modern Latin American cuisine. Geography never tasted so good.
(Alma is located on the corner of Forbes and S. Braddock in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Regent Square. Entrees range from $13-$21.)