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North Hills Monthly

North Hills Restaurants Celebrate Mexican Culture and Cuisine

Apr 30, 2018 04:59PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Franklin Inn

In an area known for its foodie culture and selection of great eateries, it’s no surprise that hungry diners can find delicious options when craving Mexican cuisine and culture. Four well-known establishments regularly top customers’ lists of favorite destinations.

Emiliano’s Mexican Restaurant and Bar offers authentic Mexican fare. Owner Benigno (Benny) Ulloa relies on dozens of recipes his parents and grandparents brought with them from Mexico and still returns to Mexico periodically. Ulloa has spent his entire life in the trade, learning the ropes in his family’s restaurant before starting his own. Emiliano’s is named for Ulloa’s son, who was born the year Ulloa and his wife opened their first restaurant in the Pittsburgh area.

Chimichangas and street-style tacos are among customers’ favorite items, Ulloa said. Emiliano’s has a wide variety of tacos, ranging from the Americanized buffalo chicken option to more traditional offerings. Tableside guacamole is another popular item; Ulloa’s personal favorites are flautas, nachos and Matador steak.

One thing that sets Emiliano’s apart, Ulloa explained, is his attention to detail. “We make sure ingredients are fresh and of the best quality. We don’t sacrifice quality for cost,” Ulloa said. “We want to be one of the best restaurants in Pittsburgh—not just the best Mexican restaurant.” 

With popular locations in Cranberry, Gibsonia, McCandless Crossing and the South Side—plus a new urban-concept restaurant called Tres Ríos downtown, Ulloa is well on his way. 

The Franklin Inn Mexican Restaurant in Franklin Park will celebrate its 40th anniversary this fall. Owners John and Wendy Cibula purchased the restaurant in 2000 from John’s parents, Henry and Sue Cibula, who opened it in 1978. The senior Cibulas traveled extensively and brought their favorite Mexican recipes and art with them when they returned home; both are featured at the Franklin Inn. 

The menu includes influences from across Mexico. Wendy Cibula explained that items are based on the food her in-laws enjoyed and recipes they learned during their travels. She said subsequent staff members have made delicious contributions to the menu. The current chef, a native of Mexico, has added his family’s traditional favorites as well as his own contemporary creations.

Customers love the Mason jar margaritas, Colorado green chile enchiladas, lobster enchiladas and chorizo burrito, and the Cibulas also recommend the poblano molé enchiladas and Jalisco tacos. 

One distinctive feature about the Franklin Inn is that everything on the menu, from salsa to beans to shredded chicken, is house-made from scratch—including John Cibula’s ice cream and a cilantro jalapeño vinaigrette that they now sell by the bottle in response to customer demand. In addition to traditional salsas, they offer a rotating “salsa of the week” served with fresh-made chips. The Cibulas also partnered with a local butcher who created an exclusive chorizo recipe available only at the Franklin Inn.

Beyond unique menu items and an eclectic art collection on display, the family-owned, multi-generational establishment offers hometown hospitality. “The neighborhood has grown up around us and people know each other through the Inn,” Wendy Cibula explained. 

Perennial favorite Mad Mex celebrates the 25th anniversary of its first location in Oakland this fall. Renowned chef and current president of big Burrito Restaurant Group, Bill Fuller, said that many customers gravitate toward traditional fare such as burritos and quesadillas. Mad Mex’s monthly tacos are another fun and popular menu item, and Fuller said the sriracha fried chicken tacos have been a crowd pleaser. 

Fuller is especially proud of Mad Mex’s margarita selection. Mad Mex offers both frozen and house (on the rocks) margaritas. “We have a cool, seasonal, changing cocktail menu,” Fuller said. “And we stay really different because our ingredients are real—no high-fructose corn syrup, no sodium benzoate, no bottled fluorescent green stuff—just fresh fruit and real ingredients.”

Another distinctive feature among Mad Mex establishments is the décor. Fuller said Mad Mex restaurants highlight authentic Mexican wall hangings and sculptures as well as local artists. “It’s a little bit of Mexico and a little bit of Pittsburgh,” Fuller explained. That philosophy also applies to the food, where Fuller mixes traditional Mexican ingredients and flavors with American approaches to food. The chickpea chili, for example, is a take-off on Mexican posole. 

Fuller explained that one secret to Mad Mex’s success is its widespread appeal. A family of diners including grandparents, parents, and young children recently told him that they love Mad Mex because it offers fresh, good food and that people of all ages feel comfortable there. Whether for happy hour, dinner with the family, or late-night hanging out, Mad Mex has something for everyone. 

“We approach Mad Mex as if we’re having a big backyard party and everyone is invited,” Fuller said. 

With a recently opened fifth location in Cranberry Township, Patrón Mexican Grill has become a treasured institution for authentic Mexican fare in the North Hills. Owner Martin Bolanos opened the first Patrón in Wexford 10 years ago and has become known for offering great food at reasonable prices.

Patrón’s chicken fajitas are a customer favorite, Bolanos said; they receive high praise from effusive Yelp reviewers as well. Shrimp with vegetables and chimichangas are other popular menu items. Bolanos recommended the choripollo (grilled chicken breasts topped with chorizo and cheese sauce, served on a sizzling skillet) as his personal favorite. The recent addition of taco night—a taco and margarita special on Mondays—has been a hit.

Bolanos explained that most of his recipes were learned from his family in Mexico. While he strives to maintain each dish’s authenticity, Bolanos does adjust the level of spiciness to accommodate American tastes. However, he said customers are increasingly starting to enjoy hotter and spicier food.

Patrón’s décor is as authentic as its meals; the furniture is colorful, handcrafted and created in Mexico. But Bolanos said that what truly separates Patrón is its service. 

“Food is our passion and service is our obsession,” he explained of the family-owned restaurant where his wife and children also work. “We try to do the best food and service, and we’re very proud of that.” 

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