Totopo Continues Proud Mexican Culinary Traditions

Freshly made tortilla chips (totopos) and salsa.

Freshly made tortilla chips (totopos) and salsa.

Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon has blossomed over the years into an avenue of international cuisines. The latest addition to this mélange is Totopo Mexican Kitchen and Bar, which opened nine months ago. Totopo is in the former location of Walnut Grill.

The restaurant sports a beautiful interior of rich, deep hues of muted red and green. Owner Juan Grimaldo and his wife designed the place with the help of a friend in Mexico who sent up custom-made Mexican light fixtures, wrought iron, and other design flourishes. The overall look is comfortable and classy, yet festive.

Totopo seats over 100 people, and in warmer weather, the windows open wide and patio seating is offered. The bar sits in the center of the restaurant and has about 30 stools.

Owner Juan Grimaldo.

Owner Juan Grimaldo.

Born in the central Mexican city of León, Grimaldo has family in Chicago, where he lived for awhile, and also has a friend in Pittsburgh. He eventually came to Pittsburgh to live, met his wife, and they are now comfortably situated here. He says that the Mt. Lebanon community has been very welcoming and supportive of his endeavor.

According to Grimaldo, Totopo is the Aztec word for tortilla chip. He chose this as the name because it is a humble staple and an important part of his Mexican heritage. The restaurant’s tortilla chips are quite good, made on the premises, and served with fresh salsa as a lagniappe.

Totopo's margarita.

Totopo’s margarita.

Grimaldo said, “One thing that differentiates us is that we make as much of our food items fresh in-house, even if it increases our food and labor costs.” He cited their sauces, special toppings, and signature margarita. He continued that their margarita recipe is made with real orange and lime juices, not from a bought mix. The margaritas are amazing. I had one on the first of my two dining visits and found it just right: not too tart or too sweet. Refreshing and tasty.

Another item where freshness is taken to the max is the guacamole. I ordered it as an appetizer, and a few minutes later, much to my surprise, an employee came to our table and set down a tray on a tray jack. On the tray were all the ingredients to make guacamole. He asked if we wanted all the ingredients, naming them off: “Tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, cilantro.” I asked for it light on the cilantro, and he scooped out the avocado meat and started mixing it and the other ingredients in a mortar and pestle. The resulting super savory guacamole was creamy and delicious. All the flavors combined together for one glorious result. It was so good, if Totopo would make an ice cream cone tortilla, I would put it on top and walk around eating it.

On my first dining visit, I was joined by friends CM and CC; there hasn’t been so many Cs together since the band C+C Music Factory was jamming. For apps, I started off with the aforementioned guacamole and tortilla soup. The soup was good with creamy tomato flavor and  crispy tortilla strips immersed.

Next up were our entrees. I created my own combo plate with a northern style tamale, southern style tamale, and beef taco. I had been on the hunt for a killer tamale, one stuffed with a lot of filling. So far, my search had been unsuccessful.

Combo plate (l. to r.) beef taco, northern tamale, southern tamale, fiesta rice.

Combo plate (l. to r.) beef taco, northern tamale, southern tamale, fiesta rice.

The northern style tamale was served in the familiar corn husk wrapper. The tamale’s steamed corn dough body was moist and had the subtle, dense corn flavor that good tamales have. Inside it contained a regular amount of spicy chicken, cheese, and salsa verde. The southern style tamale came in a banana leaf wrapper. A standard amount of roasted poblano peppers and cheese, whose flavors gave it a gentler flavor profile, filled the steamed corn dough.

Neither one of these tamales was crammed with fillings as I had been looking for in my killer tamale search. Then it hit me—my search might be looking for the wrong thing. The tamale was probably more about the steamed corn dough casing being moist and flavorful and not about being crammed with fillings.

I later asked Grimaldo what makes a great tamale. The first thing he said was “the corn dough is everything, it has to be moist.” He then added that the protein and salsa has to be right too. I told him I hadn’t seen southern style tamales with their banana leaf wrappers. He said in Southern Mexico, the land is more jungle-like and corn is not as plentiful as in the north, so they steam tamales in banana leaves. It seems like the most important thing about a great tamale is the steamed outer body. Totopo’s tamales fit my new search criterion quite well.

Ensenada fish tacos with refried beans and fiesta rice.

Ensenada fish tacos with refried beans and fiesta rice.

CC ordered the Ensenada fish tacos, which are pieces of cod cooked tempura-style and topped with Ensenada slaw, creamy chipotle sauce, and cilantro on flour tortillas. CM ordered the cilantro lime chicken tacos, which were composed of pieces of grilled chicken, cheese, lime cilantro sauce, guacamole, and pico de gallo on corn tortillas. Both were very happy with their choices and gave the food writer a taste. He agreed with their assessment. My beef taco was good as well.

Tacos come two to an order and are served with fiesta rice and black beans. Combo plates are served with a choice of two sides. I chose the refried beans, which were delicious. The fiesta rice was less lively as a stand-alone item and could have used a little sauce or spices to perk it up more.

On my second visit to Totopo, CM joined me again. This time, I opted for steak fajitas, which come with fiesta rice and refried beans. I asked for black beans instead of refried. My love of fajitas started when I lived in Clearwater, Florida; I would eat them at a happening joint called the Tex-Mex Cantina on the causeway between Clearwater and Tampa.

Steak fajitas with black beans and fiesta rice.

Steak fajitas with black beans and fiesta rice.

As CM and I were munching on the complimentary chips and salsa, I heard a tell-tale sound approaching behind me. It was the sizzle of my fajitas. Our server placed them in front of me. They continued to sizzle, releasing a fragrant aroma of steak, onions, and bell peppers. My eyes and nose were already enjoying the fajitas; it was definitely time to let my tastebuds join in on the pleasure. Accompanying the fajitas were all the accoutrements—fiesta rice, black beans, sour cream, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, three flour tortillas kept warm in a foil wrap, shredded lettuce, and diced tomatoes. The steak strips were tender and full of flavor. The fajitas were very pleasing to all of my senses.

Chilaquiles.

Chilaquiles.

CM went in an adventurous direction, ordering the chilaquiles. The entree consisted of scrambled eggs on stacked layers of crisp totopos with grated cheese and tomatillo salsa. It was garnished with cotija cheese (a Mexican hard-bodied, cow’s-milk cheese similar to a feta), sour cream, cilantro, and tomato. I tasted a few of the totopos with scrambled eggs and toppings on them. They were very good with the savory green sauce offering a delicious interplay. However, the key to eating this heapin’ helpin’ is to steadily eat your way down the layers. If you dawdle too long, the chips on the lowest levels start to get a little soggy from the sauce settling to the bottom.

We each tried a shooter of Patrón añejo. Añejo is a type of tequila that is aged for at least one year, and oftentimes longer, in oak casks, offering a smooth, complex taste with subtle notes of caramel and toasted oak. The añejo was served with salt on the shot glass and a wedge of  lime. CM chose to drink it as a shot while I savored the deep flavor by sipping it. We toasted Entertainment Central, our patron for the meal.

While dining at Totopo, make sure to try one of the restaurant’s fabulous desserts. Among the offerings are fried ice cream, a long-time staple of Mexican restaurants in the U.S. CM chose the churros, which are fried dough sticks filled with vanilla; topped with cinnamon sugar, whipped cream, and chocolate; and served with vanilla ice cream. He reported it delish.

Flan with a caramel sauce.

Flan with a caramel sauce.

On my first visit, I tried the flan, a Mexican custard. While a teenager growing up in Pittsburgh, I had my first taste of flan. My mom had a friend who was of Mexican heritage, and she would occasionally bring over a flan for us. It was a subtly delicious dessert. Totopo’s flan was superb as well, sweetened up with a lusciously rich caramel sauce. Another after-dinner star is the tres leches cake, an airy, sweet, iced vanilla cake soaked in three types of milk. It was a very interesting cake, having been soaked in milk, yet not falling apart, and satisfyingly sweet.

Tres leches cake soaking in a sweet three milk sauce.

Tres leches cake soaking in a sweet three milk sauce.

Additionally, the service at Totopo is truly exceptional. The staff is well-trained and friendly, stopping back at the table often to check on how everything is and if anything is needed.

Other menu selections include Mexican appetizers, soups, salads, enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas, some specialties, and even a few vegetarian dishes. Appetizers range in price from $3-$12, entrees from $8-$14. And yes, there is a Taco Tuesday at Totopo with taco specials. On the beverage side choices include smoothies, horchatas (made with rice, milk, vanilla, and cinnamon), margaritas, mojitos, sangria, wine, and American and Mexican cocktails. There’s also 14 beers on tap, including American craft beers and Mexican beers featuring Dos Equis, Negra Modelo, and Corona. Totopo takes great pride in its tequila selection, which highlights noted brands in several different categories of tequila: añejo, blanco, mezcal, and reposado. Not sure what tequila or mescal to pick? Try the tequila sampler.

Grimaldo says upcoming plans include adding a few additional entrees to the menu and acquiring some new Mexican furnishings for the restaurant. We look forward to seeing those items in future visits. Grimaldo wants his restaurant to have a different feeling, a different vibe than most. He has accomplished that. Whether looking for a fantasy escape to Mexico or an everyday good meal, Totopo is a great option.

Server Chuy Segoviano prepares guacamole tableside to order. Click to play video:

Totopo Mexican Kitchen and Bar
660 Washington Road
Mount Lebanon, PA
(412) 668-0773

Hours:
Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Photos and video: Rick Handler

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and enjoys a good dining adventure.