Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen - Regent Square
The Pittsburgh Restaurant Week Food Blogger Dinner was set to start at 7:00. Not knowing how paralyzing Tuesday night rush-hour traffic would be, I sped out of my house in the suburbs around 5:30 with the thought that it would take me an hour to arrive at Alma in Regent Square. The traffic Gods must have been pleased with me that evening because I bahama-breezed* through the Fort Pitt and Squirrel Hill Tunnels and was parallel parking on Flotilla** Way by 6:00. Thankfully, there was a happy hour going on at the Alma Cantina so I made my way to the restaurant for some pre-dinner kibitzing.
Upon entering I quickly realized that I did not know anyone. This wasn’t too surprising since my list of blogger-friends that I’ve actually met in person is about three names long. While “People Are Strange” by The Door’s played in my head, I grabbed a soda from the bar and made my way to an empty table adorned with complimentary hummus. Though the happy hour was quite bustling, no one seemed to have any interest in engaging me (or the hummus) in conversation.
I’m not sure if my inapproachability was related to the fact that I’m a quarter-Mexican and everyone else was white or that my internet persona is a bit douchey. Regardless, it became obvious that I would have to make the first move. Guzzling another Diet Coke gave me just enough caffeinated courage to introduce myself to a threesome in the adjacent corner near the bar. It turned out to be two fellow bloggers- Elizabeth and Lisa – and Elizabeth’s husband (non-blogger civilian). They were extremely convivial and I immediately regretted not introducing myself sooner. FYI - If you ever go to one of these blogger events, I highly recommend that you bring a puppy as an icebreaker ‘cause otherwise they can be quite lonely.
The seven o’clock bell rang and we headed into the dining area for food. Alma’s décor was modern and relatively austere, with a few paintings of Afro-centric folk art adorning the brightly colored walls. Though not particularly large, the space felt quite roomy and acoustically agreeable despite being jam-packed with chatty bloggers. There was a gentleman playing Latin guitar nearby and the music added the perfect amount of novella to the laidback atmosphere. I was joined at my table by Elizabeth and her husband, blogger Quelcy and her companion Jono, and ultimately the fashionably late Gabrielle. Conversation throughout the evening revolved mainly around food, but there were also sundry diversions concerning sexual harassment training, obtuse baby names and where to find the best Shabbat services in Pittsburgh (Spoiler Alert – it’s Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill).
I decided to embrace the spirit of Pittsburgh Restaurant Week and ordered from Alma’s special Prix Fixe*** Menu. I’ve not had a lot of experience with the cuisine Alma focuses on, which concerns Latin American flavors with an African influence, so I just picked three options at random. My meal began with the Ensalada de Pepino con Tomate, Aceitunas y Pan, which Google translates to Cucumber Salad with Tomatoes, Olives and Bread. Though I did not detect anything particularly “Latin” about the dish, I found it to be wonderfully delightful and fresh.
Despite being more doughy than crispy, the large “croutons” held up well in the presence of dressing and refused to get soggy. They tasted scrumptious and were a gazillion times better than the kind that comes in a bag from Giant Eagle. The remaining ingredients were equally impressive. The crisp vegetables and tangy olives provided the perfect amount of sublime tartness to counterbalance the sweetness of the dressing. To sum up my hyperbolic ramblings – this was the best f*ckin’ salad I’ve had in a really long time.
I ordered the Frituras de Maiz Tierno (Sweetcorn Fritters) for my dinner entrée. The fritters were made of corn and arugula, and reminded me of a less-dense potato pancake. I’m not a huge fan of arugula and was happy to find that it only provided a slight note of bitterness behind the grilled corn. The poblano aioli that was judiciously added to my plate had enough spice to grab my attention but was thankfully not overpowering enough to take over the whole proceedings.
I was two-for-two at this point and anxiously awaited dessert. The Arroz con Dulce (Sweet Rice Pudding) arrived and looked delectable, but alas it brought my gastronomic winning streak screaming to a halt. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like it tasted awful or I found a razor blade in it. As far as rice puddings go, it was tasty enough and had the firm consistently I look for in this delicate dessert. It’s just that my adjacent neighbors chose a chocolate cake dessert whose mere aroma made my treat seem more like a punishment than an indulgence. I tried to wring every last flavor drop out of the rice pudding by eating the candied lime peel garnish, but I was still left wanting for a bite of that cake. Oh well, all the more reason to go back to Alma soon!
Final Call: Alma reminded me of my gym-friend Greg. Greg’s this huge muscle dude with a hostile glare that makes him look like a stereotypical bully. That was my original assessment, but after playing basketball with him over the past year I’ve learned that Greg is a really nice dude and one of the most easy-going people around. Similarly, I was expecting an aggressive and possibly disagreeable flavor profile from Alma due to my uninformed preconception of African-influenced Latin food. On the contrary, the food involved nuanced tweaks on familiar dishes and ultimately met the goal of any cuisine – tasting delicious.
* I realize that this doesn’t make much sense but I wanted to be the first person to mention Pittsburgh Restaurant Week and Bahama Breeze in the same blog post.
** Flo-tilla sounds like the name of Flo-rida’s Hispanic hype man.
*** Ok…I admit it…I do not know how to pronounce “Prix Fixe”. I’ve narrowed it down to “prefix”, “pricks fick” and “pry fi”. Currently “pricks fick” is in the lead since it sounds the funniest.