Saturday, September 24, 2011

…Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen

Don’t talk to strangers. 

That line is engrained in our brains as small children. With all of the creeps out there, it’s just too hard to tell who is a child predator, and who is just a nice person. For a child with a poor sense of judgment, it’s better to tell them not to talk to strangers. Period.

As we get older, though, our judgment improves, and it becomes more and more necessary to talk to “strangers”, or people that we have never encountered before. New people enroll in our school, recruiters want to talk about options after high school, interviewers want to see if we’re good candidates for a job – it’s almost impossible to not talk to “strangers”.

I have always had a problem talking to people that I don’t know – I guess I’m shy, but it’s more like I’m shy, until you get to know me – and then you would never imagine that I was ever shy at all.

Even going to gatherings where I don’t know anyone causes a certain amount of panic inside of me. I tend to cling to the people that I know, and I rarely meet and interact with new people, unless they spend time with the other people that I know.

I’m a wallflower.

Going to meet Clara for our experience at Ají Picante was a big step for me – I had never met her in person before, and it was just going to be the two of us dining at the restaurant to try their food. Luckily, we got along great, and it wasn’t awkward. I suppose that finally at the age of 31, I am starting to overcome some of my “shyness”.

During our conversation, Clara had mentioned a website called “Meetup”, where people join different groups, based on their interests, and go on these “meetups” to interact about their interests. This is how she met people when she first came to Pittsburgh, and my first thought was, “No way could I just show up somewhere, not knowing anyone, and be functional.” She joined the FoodBurgh Meetup Group, which is a group that tries out different local restaurants every few weeks. Some people are food bloggers, some are “foodies”, and others are just people who like to go out and try new restaurants.

Huh. My interest was now piqued.

A week after Ají Picante, Clara tweeted at me to say that the next FoodBurgh Meetup was going to be at Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen in Regent Square – a place that I had been dying to go to because it was featured in the China Millman article (that sparked my epiphany) and I had sampled and loved their Shrimp Ceviche at Savor Pittsburgh. She invited me to come, and I immediately registered with to become a part of this group.

Disclaimer: I am not encouraging any high school (or even younger) students to join and become a part of The advertisement of this site is for informational purposes only. Perhaps this is something that you can become a part of when you’re out of high school, but I do not recommend it to you now.

So, I arrived at Alma after about a 15-minute drive, and had to find somewhere to park – this was the only downfall of the experience. On street parking…parallel parking. After two trips around the block, I decided to park on a side street in the residential area around Regent Square and walk up to S. Braddock Avenue, where Alma is located. I went in, asked for the FoodBurgh group, and was led to the table, where Clara and several other people were already seated.

I introduced myself to the people I was seated around, and we shared stories and talked about the menu items. 16 people were part of our group, and I was not able to interact with all of them, which was ok, since I’m better in smaller-group settings, anyway (remember – new people –still shy). For our small group, I was looked to for some expertise on the traditional Latino foods, and we had a difficult time deciding on menu items. Three of us – Jeff, Fernando, and myself, – decided to order three different entrees, and then share each dish with the others so that we could try more menu items, since we were being so indecisive.

We’re brilliant.

As we waited for our entrees, plantains and the famous Shrimp Ceviche from Savor Pittsburgh made their way down the table, and we sampled them – of course, the ceviche was fantastic, and I loved the plantains – not too greasy, and cooked to perfection. Jeff, Fernando, and I had also ordered the empanadas as an appetizer for ourselves, since there were 3 to a serving. Jeff thought that there was too much pastry, but I thought that they were pretty well balanced…

…I wasn’t kidding when I’ve said that they look like beef pierogies, was I, kids?

The entrees arrived. Oh, wow. Just the smells alone were drool-inducing. Jeff ordered the “Arepa de vegetales con plátanos maduros”, a Colombian arepa (a corn cake, like they serve at Conflict Kitchen – only they are Venezuelan, not Colombian, remember) with beets, avocado, cabbage, and cilantro, with a side of plantains. I’m not a fan of beets, but I made sure that when I tried it, I tried it with all of the ingredients, including the beets.

Still not a fan. The rest of the dish was great, though.

I ordered the “Camarones al caribe con ajo”, basically “garlicky shrimp”, which, according to the menu, is native to Cuba. I love garlic, and luckily so did Jeff and Fernando, because this dish was very garlicky. No complaints from any of us, although I will tell you that it took a lot of toothpaste, mouthwash, and gum to get the garlic taste out of my mouth (and off of my breath) for the next 24 hours. I also liked the fact that it was paired with the vegetables and rice so that the garlic flavor wasn’t masked or combined with other strong tastes.

Fernando ordered what would have been my #1 choice from the get-go – the “Bife steak chimichurri con gallo pinto” – an Argentinian skirt steak with chimichurri sauce (cilantro-based), black beans, and rice. The meat was falling apart (which means it was cooked perfectly!), and the chimichurri was a great complement to the meat, black, beans, and rice. 

After all of this food sampling, I was in heaven – so of course, when Clara suggested dessert, it wasn’t hard to cave. The platos principales were delicious, so dessert had to be delectable.

Uh, yeah. It was. To say the least.

I knew I couldn’t get flan, after all of my preaching in class about how flan is NOT the only dessert that people in Spanish-speaking countries eat (although you would think so from our textbook). I decided upon the “Biscochito de chocolate con dulce de leche y helado de canela” – warm chocolate cake with cinnamon ice cream. Fernando ordered the same. 

Jeff went with the “Pastel de tres leches con fresas en dulce”, a traditional Latino white cake dessert made with three types of milk: sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and whole milk, then topped with a sweet glaze, berries, and whipped cream. 

I wish I knew what was beyond heaven, because of the platos principales put me in heaven, the desserts took me further. Simply delicious. I think that the Tres leches cake was even better than my chocolate cake, and I tend to prefer chocolate over white cake.

I was surprised at the end of the night how comfortable I had become with this tableful of strangers – people I had never interacted with before (with the exception of Clara), neither in person nor through Twitter – and I made it through without regret. How in the world did I manage?

The food. It did it.

I will definitely come back to Alma, perhaps with this group, perhaps with others, but I will always remember that it was a great means for me to come out of my shell, eat fantastic Pan-Latin foods, and interact with a great group of people.

Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen
7600 & 7606 S. Braddock Ave. (Regent Square)
Pittsburgh, PA 15221


FoodBurgh Blog:

Food Collage Blog (Clara's Blog):


"Latin American influence gaining momentum in Pittsburgh restaurant scene" by China Millman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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