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Local Eats: Cocina Mendoza

Located right off the Red Line on Mount Lebanon Blvd., this eatery is difficult to spot, but you'll have no trouble remembering it once you've had your first visit.

When it comes to dining out, you can rely on your old standbys or you can try something new. Give your favorites a break from time to time and try one of our recommendations. You and your appetite may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Overview: Right off the Red Line at the Mount Lebanon Shops resides an authentic Mexican eatery housed in an inconspicuous storefront. As hard as it is to spot, it is hard to forget once you've enjoyed a meal at Cocina Mendoza. The food is fresh and flavorful, priced about right for the generous portions and quality of the food. The lunch menu, with its low prices and ample portions, is of special note. The restaurant also features a full service bar with television screens programmed to telenovelas, world news, or international sports events, especially soccer. Unless you're grabbing a taco at Las Palmas's weekend stand, better Mexican cuisine you're not liable to find in the South Hills.

Environment:  The restaurant recently redid its interior, and the transformation, albeit subtle, has given the restaurant a slightly warmer atmosphere. Where it used to feel a little stale, a little cold, with a few changes to the floors, walls, and table set up, the place feels more intimate, more polished but retaining its casual, relaxed charm. The tables and chairs can be reconfigured to suit a large dining party. For four or less, the booths give a sense of privacy even in a bustling room. Dining alone? Eat at the bar and enjoy the company of those who might be stopping into to grab a quick meal or a few drinks.

Satisfy your thirst: There are the typical beer choices that any average Mexican restaurant offers, but go big with a margarita, especially during the $4 special. The bar is well stocked with various liquor choices (including tequila, of course), so don't feel constrained to the obvious drink counterpart to your burrito. They make a particularly good cocktail here. Not interested in an alcoholic beverage? Soft drinks, iced tea, and Mexican soda are available.

Satisfy your hunger: You're already eating the complimentary chips and salsa. Go ahead and order the guacamole too. They make it fresh and the quality shows. Just don't be surprised if you're scooping up the last bits with your finger. For further starters, cheese dip with chorizo makes a delicious, if heavy duty, appetizer, but it definitely requires sharing. For the main course, go simple with the pork burrito, or try any number of the authentic meals. With its smokey, pseudo-chocolatey mole sauce, the enchiladas de mole is instantly satisfying. Feeling like a little bit of dinner, a little bit of breakfast? Order the huevos rancheros: Three fried corn tortillas topped with fried eggs and salsa and finished with refried beans and cheese. Also, the Lenten special fish tacos are extraordinary and simple, with thinly coated, well baked fish fillets topped by fresh pico de gallo and lettuce. It's a special so good it deserves a permanent spot on the menu. The menu also features various meal combos, even vegetarian specific specials, so if you're really hungry, make sure to check those out.

Dessert: Fried ice cream or flan. Always go for the flan. Or just order another margarita!

Service:  Quiet, efficient, if a little aloof. The lunchtime service is well managed and brisk. The servers mostly leave the patrons to their food and conversation.

Overall: It's difficult to find decent Mexican food in Pittsburgh, so it's especially gratifying to have a quality place like Cocina Mendoza in the neighborhood. The attractive qualities just continue to add up: Convenient by trolley, plenty of parking out front, and great food for fair prices. Run in midday for an inexpensive tasty lunch or get your money's (and appetite's) worth with a combo platter at dinnertime. Basically anytime is a good time for Mexican food, so any time is a good time for Cocina Mendoza.

Check out food writer Emily Fear's food blog, Forked!

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