Welcome Back, Las Velas

Sure, the date on the calendar might tell you that end is near for the month of July. But the mood in Market Square these days is more Cinco de Mayo now that Las Velas re-opened its doors for business. Nearly eight months after a fire shut down the Mexican hot spot, owner David Montanez is once again saying "Hola" to customers in search of authentic spicy dishes from South of the Border. While the official Grande Re-Opening happens Friday, we stopped in for a sneak peek — and a margarita — of the only restaurant that offers a bird's eye view of the Square.

Above it all, we slowly sipped our beverage as the lunchtime crowd strolled into the Square to listen the Wednesday Mid-Week Music concert — and walked up to our perch to reacquaint themselves with Las Velas' authentic Mexican meals on a menu that's as familiar as an old friend's smile. By noon, sunshine and happy patrons filled Las Velas and David was grinning from ear to ear as he watched his staff serve tray after tray of freshly prepared platters of food that will leave you satisfied and wishing for a midday siesta.

Las Velas' food focuses on the flavors of David's youth, growing up in Mexico City and moving to the Riviera Maya region.  We're happy to report that you'll find all your favorites on the menu, including enchiladas, burritos, fresh seafood and traditional soft-shell tacos. A little twist - you can now get your tacos Mexican style (onion and cilantro) or Tex-Mex (lettuce, tomato, cheese).  And, everything is as muy delicioso as we remember.  Plus, you'll want to try some new features such as the soup of the day and a new ingredient in many of the meals — blanco queso. In case you "no hablo Espanol" that translates as a tasty traditional white Mexican cheese that's as delicious to eat as it is to say. While he wanted the re-opening to recreate Las Velas as it was before, we think you'll enjoy the physical changes made the cut like windows that open onto the Square, tile where there was carpet, and the bar has been opened up so the interior seating now has a grand view of the Square... David hopes to add a few new touches such as an al fresco lunchtime taco stand and a full-blown annual Cinco de Mayo party.

We're plenty pleased that Las Velas is back on the Square. Truth be told, David admits that he received a tempting offer to set up shop way out in the ’burbs. We're happy to report that he remained true to Downtown and the Square because as he says, "Market Square is where things are really happening." Of course, we second that — and are glad to welcome back one of the most happening restaurants in the Square.


Free Wheeling In The Square

Ladies and Gentlemen, stop your engines.

That's right, the classic chassis spotlighted in this year's Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix annual Downtown Parade will once again pull in to Market Square this Wednesday, from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. This must-see caravan of antique autos will start rolling at 10:30 a.m. from the Spaghetti Warehouse at 26th Street in the Strip before stepping on the brakes at USX Plaza, PPG Place and, of course, the Square.

A local tradition that knows how to put the pedal to the metal for a good cause, the parade and display are just two of the many PVGP events that benefit the Allegheny Valley School and Autism Society of Pittsburgh. The real winner of the PVGP are the kids and adults with autism and other developmental challenges who will receive residential care, treatment and support from event proceeds. Always a big draw, the cars include every type of four-wheel beauties from Model-A Fords to sporty European roadsters to All-American Muscle Cars made right here in the U.S.A.  Out of approximately 95 antique, classic and race cars in the parade, organizers anticipate 50 cars in Market Square (weather dependant) and about half of those are expected to be Porsches, the 2011 Marque of the Year.

Now, along with all those fabulous autos from yester-year, DJ Kelli Burns will be spinning classic cars songs and other tunes to keep your feet tapping throughout lunchtime and beyond. And don't forget that the auto display is just one of the many preliminaries that leads up to the Grand Prix race in Schenley Park on July 24. Celebrating its 29th year, the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix is the only race of its type run entirely on city streets. So get your motor running now and head to the Square this Wednesday.

Another group of free wheeling types will put the rubber to the road when Bike Pittsburgh hosts a BikePool Extraganza in the Square on Friday, from 7:30-9:30 a.m. Part of the group's Car Free Fridays, this pedalpalooza is open to anyone on two wheels looking for fellow bike travelers who want to buddy up for the ride to Downtown or other parts of the city.  As Bike Pittsburgh's Lou Feinberg points out, bike pools are a great way for newbies and others to learn the rules of the road and enjoy the camaraderie and benefits of riding in groups.

With city officials recently visiting Minneapolis to discover how Pittsburgh can enhance its already bike friendly status, Lou points out that riding in a group increases every riders' visibility and safety on the road. But the real advantages are in what more experienced riders can share in the way of scenic routes along the city's miles and miles or riverside trails, protected parking spaces at many Downtown parking garages and traffic safety tips.

Biking is a great way to shed a few extra pounds and improve cardio fitness, after all, your ride is powered by the most fuel-efficient engine around — the human body. Plus, bike commuting  can drastically reduce money spent on gas, parking and even car maintenance. And a down the road "plus" is that, environmentally speaking, every bike on the road is one less car, one less fossil-fuel burning vehicle producing exhaust. That's a big plus for the the world around us, including the cleaner air you'll breathe on your bike ride to town.

To help you get rolling, Bike Pittsburgh ride leaders will guide pedalers into the city from various points around the area. To find this Friday's groups, visit the Bike Pgh event page and click on the map. Once they arrive in the Square, the pedal pushers can refresh with treats from NuGo and VitaminWater. On top of that, Bike Pittsburgh staff will be on hand to provide more information on how to find and join bike pools when it's not a Car Free Friday. By the way, bike racks are located all around the Square, so that you can safely secure your ride. So, get your big wheels rolling to the Square. We'll see you there.


Halftime Report on the Square

Okay, just in case you're not keeping score at home, we wanted to let you know that Market Square is on track for a banner year. Just the other day we were checking the record books and discovered that in 2008 — the last full year before the Square's dramatic makeover — 34 events happened in the Square. Which was actually a pretty good total. But at the mid-point of 2011 — the first full year of the transformed Square — we tallied up 32 events so far with even more to come.

So, during this holiday-shortened working week, we've put together a photo album of some of 2011's high points in the Square. And if you look closely, you might even see yourself in a shot or two.

Even during the dead of winter, the Pittsburgh faithful turned out to show their pride during a high-five contest between Pittsburgh and Green Bay fans. While the Green Bay won the battle on the gridiron, we triumphed in the Square. 

We're always proud of our Scotch-Irish heritage in Pittsburgh — especially on St. Patrick's Day.  This year's greening of the Square included special family friendly activities. 

Always a popular lunchtime destination, the Square's menu got even better with the opening of three new eateries this year, including Winghart's Burger and Whiskey Bar.  By the way, Wingheart's is now open until 8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and Saturday noon - 5 p.m.
For one of the meatiest sandwiches in town, the debut of DiBella's rocked the boat with choice cuts on freshly made bread. 

With the opening of NOLA, diners in the Square can enjoy the cuisine of New Orleans and a taste of Mardi Gras all year round.  

The Mayor and other dignitaries gave us a little history lesson as they unveiled a plaque recognizing the Market Square area's role in the Underground Railroad and Abolitionist Movement.

Springtime brings the return of the Farmers Market — a bounty of fresh. from-the-field foods and homemade treats from June through November.

There's something going on in the Square for everyone — including the wee ones. Kidsplay is a great way to introduce the young ones to the Square on Friday mornings in the summer from 10 - 11:30 a.m.

Our Thursday noontime concerts are a great way to relax and enjoy some of Pittsburgh's best musicians. Plus, you can tap your feet with live performances during the Market Square Merchant Association's Monday and Wednesday lunchtime shows and special Friday Happy Hour concerts.

For those seekking something more active on their lunch break, the YMCA has been hosting free outdoor exercise classes every Friday from noon - 1 p.m.

Let's be frank. We take our championships seriously in this town.  Which is why we relished hosting a regional contest to select a male and female winner to participate in the annual Fourth of July Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Championship on the famed boardwalk of Coney Island. Though our champs didn't earn the ultimate crown,
they devoured the local competition with a throng cheering them on. 

Whatever the reason, the Square is just a great place to relax with friends — anytime of the day. 

At the end of the day, Carin Mincemoyer's Diamond Diamonds art installation lights the way
to the heart of Downtown — Market Square. 

To learn more about any of these programs, restaurants or attractions, visit DowntownPittsburgh.com/Market-Square.