When it comes to Latin American cuisine, Venezuelan food is on the other end of the taste spectrum from Mexican eats. Think less hot and spicy, and more sweet and savory.
Cilantro & Ajo isn’t just the name of the new South Side Venezuelan restaurant. Those words are the key ingredients in every dish. (Today’s language lesson: “ajo” means “garlic” in Spanish.)
Husband-and-wife team Anthony Goncalves and Marlyn Parra opened the East Carson Street business in September with more than 300 recipes collected over a lifetime spent in the kitchen. In 2015, the couple emigrated to Pittsburgh from Venezuela, where they operated an international restaurant called El Gusto Criollo.
“It’s easier for everybody to compare our food with the Mexican food. When they come here they expect to have spicy food,” says Parra, adding that she makes a homemade hot sauce that people are welcome to dab on their meals.
The menu is made up of simple street foods that folks can devour on the go or sit and savor inside the colorful, cozy cafe.
Empanadas are the most popular items. The deep-fried hand pies come with an assortment of fillings, including cheese and ham, chicken, shredded beef, black beans and cheese, seafood and bacon and gouda.
Pabellón bowls are the new restaurant’s other big sellers. In the last month, Parra says she has sold 472 servings of the filling combination of rice, black beans, sweet plantain, shredded beef, chicken or roasted pork, queso fresco and avocado.
Plantains also take center stage in something called patacones, a flat, fried banana topped with your choice of meat, coleslaw salad, queso fresco and ketchup.
Brown lemonade, a traditional beverage made with cane sugar and lime, is a refreshing complement to the entrees, which include vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
For dessert, have a cool square of Venezuelan flan made with milk, eggs, caramel and rum sprinkled with coconut shavings.
Parra says she wanted to open the restaurant to give Pittsburgh’s large Venezuelan population a taste of home and to educate others about the country’s culinary heritage.
Several Spanish classes from nearby universities have begun meeting weekly at Cilantro & Ajo to sample different foods and practice their foreign language skills in a real-world setting. Parra and Goncalves are happy to explain the menu to anyone unsure of what, or how, to order.
On Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., there are specials highlighting different cities in Venezuela. It’s a sort of cross-country road trip for the taste buds. Venezuelan singer Carlos Parra performs live, adding to the authenticity.
Before opening, people advised Parra and her husband to offer more international flavors beyond Venezuelan. But the couple knows Pittsburghers aren’t afraid to try new things.
“I believe in this place,” Parra says. “Our goal is to let everybody know that our recipes are amazing and our food is made with love.”