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Restaurants & Institutions

Nuevo Latino Heats Up; A Big World South Of The Border Is Now Being Rediscovered

By Barbara Sullivan, Special to R&I

21 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 Restaurants & Institutions, Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.

Restaurants & Institutions

Volume 114, Issue 21

If you had asked someone 10 or even five years ago if they had tasted any good ceviche lately, or tried a pork adobado dish, it's likely that you would have been met by a blank stare.

Those living in Miami and Los Angeles probably knew these Latin American dishes, but for the rest of the country, South of the Border cuisine largely meant tacos and burritos. Today, the bold, big flavors of Nuevo Latino–encompassing Caribbean and Central and South American foods–are everywhere, and diners are trying such dishes as Lamb Ropa Vieja (Mas, in Chicago), Churrascos a Caballo (Jicama Grill, Louisville, Ky.) or Pollo Criollo with Steamed Yuca con Mojo (Patria, New York City).

"You see lots of things on menus now that were not there just a couple of years ago," says John Manion, executive chef at Chicago's Mas restaurant. Guava vinaigrette, for instance. "Guava is very perishable, but now the difference [in using it frequently] is the demand. Achiote, it's a seasoning that's becoming more popular. Coconut milk, dende [Brazilian palm] oil...these products are all becoming part of the fabric now."

Randy Zweiban says that it's one of the biggest cooking trends to reach the restaurant scene in years and predicts that it will continue to be a major force. Of course, he's executive chef of Chicago's Nacional 27 (a Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant), so he's probably a little biased. But certainly the growth of Nuevo Latino cuisine continues its spread across the country and will likely continue with the increasing Hispanic population and growing sophistication of American taste buds.

A basic definition of Nuevo Latino says that it's the integration of the food cultures of Central and South America and the Caribbean. The number in Nacional 27 means the 27 countries and islands in that area. Culinary influences from Cuba and Puerto Rico reached the United States first, and now we're seeing more and more from Brazil and Peru.

Some of the increasing fascination with these flavors has even been attributed to the popularity of–or at least, fascination with–such Latino entertainers as Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin.

Voyages of Rediscovery

Many Americans have experienced one of the "gaucho" or cowboy restaurants such as the Brazilian Fogo de Chão, featuring unlimited amounts of churrasco , or meats. Americans, especially in the Midwest, love their steak, so churrasco is a natural.

While those restaurants certainly have their place, one of the musts in heightening and prolonging the Latin American trend is adapting traditional dishes to American palates.

An example is the pork, potato salad and slaw dish that Zweiban prepares at Nacional 27. It's a grilled smoked pork tenderloin that's been marinated in adobado (red chile) sauce and served with a warm bacon-purple potato salad and chimichurri slaw. "It's a reinvention of the American barbecue," Zweiban says.

Likewise, Anthony Lamas, the young chef-owner of Jicama Grill in Louisville, Ky., puts his spin on dishes his mother made. "I do a pork and beans dish that my mother used, but I use pork tenderloin and she used pork butt," he says. "It's traditional, but upscale. And I like to use Kentucky flair. Grits, that's a Southern dish. But I do a Latino version of shrimp and grits. I take corn from Indiana, a paprika-garlic cheese from Kentucky, some chipotle chile and [add] that to the grits, and then I rub the shrimp in achiote and cilantro, and I have Nuevo Shrimp and Grits."

Lamas menued six ceviche dishes when Jicama Grill opened four years ago. Now he has 15. "I was the first person to serve ceviche in Louisville. No one was doing this food when I opened here. When I was working [in other restaurants], I felt like an artist with one hand."

Born in California to a Puerto Rican father and Mexican mother, he is part of a wave of young Latino chefs branching out on their own, exploring flavors of their childhoods.

"This is a trend that is still small, but evident," says Tom Miner, a principal at Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant consultant and research firm. Although Lamas' restaurant is upscale, Miner talks about the growth of small, Latino-operated casual operations, such as Fresca in San Francisco.

Owned by a father and son, Julio and Jose Calvo-Perez, this home-style Peruvian spot now has two locations with all entrées under $20. The aji , a Peruvian chile, is found in most dishes, and Peruvian "comfort foods" abound. Among them are Aji de Gallina , which combines chicken breast, chile cream sauce, potatoes, hard-cooked egg and rice, and Mahi Mahi with Basil Boniato, fish that comes served with the Latin American sweet potato.

Another trend that many see coming soon is the inclusion of more Latin American dishes in convenience markets and supermarkets. "You see so many Asian products now, and the next big boom is going to be for products from Latin America," says Zweiban. "You can buy sushi now. I can see a day when you can buy slow-roasted, marinated Cuban pork. You're going to see lots of spices in bottles popping up, such as mojo, chimichurri and chile sauces.

"After all," he says, "it's bold, sexy, vivacious food that parallels the culture. People are beginning to see the culinary treasures from Latin America."

Barbara Sullivan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.


A Nuevo Latino Sampler

By Barbara Sullivan

Dishes and ingredients from Central and South America and the Caribbean are becoming more common, often intermingled with Spanish or Asian influences.

Empanada De Jeneiro : Brazilian-style empanadas stuffed with ground beef, olives and hearts of palm

Chino Latino , Minneapolis

Seared tuna served on black-bean muneta purée with lemongrass-scented mango-ginger mojo , topped with ripe-tomato salsa and marinated asparagus

Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar , Philadelphia

Ropa Nueva : marinated skirt steak with beef ragout, boniato purée and chimichurri

Habana Bar-Restaurante , San Francisco

Plantain-crusted goat cheese salad with arugula, spinach and guava vinaigrette

La Bodeguita Del Medio , Palo Alto, Calif.

Mambo Combo Paella: chicken breast, pork loin, mussels, shrimp and calamari roasted in saffron-infused rice

Mambo Grill , Chicago

Sautéed Bahamian black grouper marinated in teriyaki and sesame oil with orange liqueur and lemon-rum sauce

Ortanique , Coral Gables, Fla.

Moqueca Misto : shrimp, squid, bacalhau (dried salt cod) and crayfish with coconut milk, roasted cashew dende (Brazilian palm) oil and chimichurri rice

SushiSamba Dromo , Miami Beach

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