Let's Do Latin

By staff March 1, 2004

When it comes to Latin food, Sarasota is no Miami-a mixing bowl that's got some of the most varied, and many say best, Latin restaurants in the world. But we do have a rapidly growing collection of Latin restaurants that are offering flavors from Mexico to Bolivia and Peru and beyond to adventurous diners.

Just a few short years ago, your choices of Latin restaurants here were the Columbia on St. Armands and Raul's Cuban, downtown across from City Hall. Sure, the legendary Plaza Spanish Restaurant had been a landmark since it opened in the 1920s downtown, but it disappeared a few decades ago, along with many of Sarasota's serious art, architecture and literary players who drank and dined there into the 1970s. Now, only the Columbia survives from that era, still serving its justly famous garlicky salads and paellas.

But in recent years, immigrants from Latin and South America have been arriving here in ever-growing numbers, and they've brought their varied cuisines with them. Quite a few have opened restaurants, perhaps initially to feed fellow immigrants who missed the flavors of home; now these places-small, friendly and offering a window into the culture as well as the cuisine of another country-have started to attract a mainstream following as well.

Local diners are discovering that although recipes are no respecters of borders, there can be several distinct cuisines within a particular country. For example, in the United States, we have local cuisines as different as those of New Orleans, Santa Fe and Omaha; and each is certainly "American" in its own way. Likewise, countries such as Peru and Mexico have a half dozen or more different food styles, mostly based on what grows in a particular locale.

With modern shipping and the ever-increasing presence of once exotic foods in local markets, ethnic cooks can now find and cook with the ingredients that shaped their native cuisine, whether it's Baja-style Mexican, Puerto Rican or perhaps rural Cuban. It's the varying combinations of different (sometimes very different) ingredients that make each cuisine its own. And remember that authenticity is relative: Fried yucca flowers will be found on Brazilian platters here, but so far, no Peruvian restaurateur has brought roasted guinea pigs to Sarasota.

Today, Sarasota abounds in good Latin restaurants spread throughout the community, and nearly all are a genuine step beyond the bland, gooey cheese plates of mass-appeal, chain-style Tex-Mex. There are too many to include them all in a single article, but here are some of the standouts.

For authentic Cuban, with its black beans and rice foundation, now that the Plaza and Raul's are long gone, there's the popular El Habañero (417 Burns Court, 362-9562). A favorite of downtown business people, it has a fixed special and soup Monday through Saturday at an average price of $6.95. For example, Tuesdays are classic ropa vieja (beef cooked slowly until it softens into meltingly tender "ropes") and red-bean soup, while Fridays feature boliche (thinly cut beef wrapped around savory vegetables and then baked) and fish soup.

In addition to Cuban and Spanish, we can choose among Brazilian, Guatemalan, Puerto Rican and Peruvian cuisines, along with styles of Mexican ranging from the street food of teeming Mexico City to the seafood of the lonely shores along Baja Peninsula.

In fact, if there's one thread tying many of these Latin outlets together, it's their inclusion of seafood dishes, using both local and imported products. Finding treats such as shrimp, or even octopus, tostadas and snapper Vera Cruz, red snapper cooked with tomatoes, peppers, onions and a dash of fiery red peppers, is easy in Sarasota these days.

Old-timers will remember a short-lived, pretty good Peruvian restaurant (complete with the obligatory Peruvian boiled potatoes in various sauces and several ceviches) downtown near Five Points in the 1980s. What few may know is that it sold more Peruvian products than seafood out the back door, until the DEA caught up with the staff and the place closed down.

Today, we have legitimate (and much better) Peruvian eateries, such as Selva Grill (2881 Clark Road, 927-3500), the darling of many local foodies for its sophisticated rendering of Latin tastes with seven or eight kinds of ceviche (raw fish that's "cooked" by marinating in oil, lime or lemon juice and spices, and probably the most traditional Peruvian food of all) every night. In addition, plates of at least four different fish are available, each prepared with distinctly Latin sauces and sides.

For non-fish eaters Selva Grill offers skirt steak with sweet plantains or duck breast with panca (Peruvian barbecue) sauce; among the starters are exotic items such as the Selva salad featuring pounded beef, chimichurri dressing and fried eggs. Main course range from $15 to $25.

Javier's on Siesta Key (6621 Midnight Pass Road, 349-1792) is another source of Peruvian tastes, with fish, scallop and shrimp dishes plus pork pico flavored with Peruvian brandy, or Peruvian tamales filled with white corn, chicken, peanuts, black olives and aji pepper. Tiny beef empanadas are another Javier's specialty, and don't miss the tapas sampler of grilled chorizo sausage and bacon-wrapped sea scallops. Billed as a wine bar as well as restaurant, this intimate, friendly restaurant offers some interesting South American wines as well. Main courses range from $14 to $20.

Just north of Fruitville Road (501 N. Beneva Road, 954-6956) you'll find Tondero, Sarasota's newest-and perhaps most authentic-Peruvian food. Tondero offers eight choices of ceviche, Peruvian fish chowder, parihuela (seafood soup) and shrimp chowder along with both fish and mussel broths. Entrées include Peruvian-style octopus in a creamy olive sauce and fresh fish prepared in any one of five styles, along with cau cau de mariscos, a seafood casserole made with Peruvian yellow peppers. The special one night recently was fresh sea bass with either creamy shrimp or creamy spinach sauce.

Non-fish eaters have a choice of steaks, including a la probre, with fried eggs, plantains and rice. Now that's an option you're not likely to find at some chain steak joint. Entrées run from around $12 to $18.

Just around the corner to the north (935 N. Beneva Road, 373-0502) is arguably the liveliest Mexican restaurant in Sarasota: Cabo Café, serving a distinct style of Mexican. Chef Jim Calvin presides over a sparkling room that feels as though it's on the beach, and the atmosphere along with the food mean customers are smiling widely when they make their their way out the front door.

Cabo does almost exclusively Baja-style Mexican (that's seafood, with a huge marlin on the wall to make the point). You'll find great grouper or rock-shrimp tacos that fill a whole plate, fresh wahoo (a favorite Baja fish also caught in Florida) whenever it's available, and a special of the house, octopus tostadas. Old Ensenada hands will remember both those and the fish tacos especially fondly. You can also get giant grouper or rock shrimp burritos; or if you're a landlubber, perhaps you'd rather have your burrito stuffed with ground pork seasoned with smoked jalepeños, bacon and potatoes or colorado (red) style with beef, roasted tomatoes and red chiles.

Spicy seafood soup is always brewing and daily specials include a ceviche or two, a recipe that found its way north to Mexico. Entrées range from $6 to $18.

Still north of Fruitville, at 130 N. Lime, you'll find Jalapeño's (954-0415), a restaurant so Mexican that only the friendly owner seems to speak English and you seldom hear it at the tables. To some of us, that's a very good sign indeed.

Jalapeno's is largely mainline, home-style Tex-Mex food-that great marriage of Northern Mexico and Southwestern U.S. cuisine-but with plenty of tasty seafood items. For example, you can get a dozen fresh shucked oysters to start, and there are generally a couple of fish or shrimp specials. Shrimp tostadas are also a standard menu item, as are both shrimp and seafood (shrimp, oysters and squid) cocktails. Word of mouth about the caldo de mariscos (seafood soup) first brought me in the door, but don't miss the Oaxacan-style chile relleno stuffed with cheese and lots of great beef, pork and chicken dishes if you've any room left over. House specials here are priced from $7.25 to $14.95.

For a chile relleño of an entirely different kind, Guatemalan-style, stop by what's become one of Sarasota's most successful and long-lived Latin restaurants, Two Amigos (402 N. Washington Blvd. 365-6583). In Guatemala they stuff their chile relleños with a wonderful-tasting, finely chopped vegetable and pork mixture that really wakes up the taste buds. That's typical of Guatemala, where vegetables receive what to us is unusual treatment, such as chicken in pumpkin sauce and even (in certain areas of the country) poppy seeds in the lemonade.

Two Amigos (some of us are such regulars we call the place Dos Guys) has several combination plates that allow you to sample several items at one sitting without being a total glutton. Another not-to-be missed item is the tacos de barbacoa (barbecued beef)-sure proof that the reason God made fat was so things would taste really good.

It's a pretty plain room, especially compared to many of the other Latin spots in town, but you'll also find many stars of the Sarasota business world grabbing delicious quick meals at Dos Gu..ah,..Two Amigos. Entrées range from $5.50 to $10.95.

For a straight Tex-Mex fix downtown, plus the fun of a dining room that's beautifully open to the outdoors during pleasant weather, there's Two Senoritas (1355 Main St., 366-1618, and now a branch at 6290 N. Lockwood Ridge Road, 361-5533).

Big platters of tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and combinations, of course, combine to make this one of the most popular Tex-Mex spots in the city. You can even make up your own combos. And they've lately added fish and shredded-beef tacos to the offerings. A full bar offering an array of good margaritas guarantees a full house on weekends. Entrées range from $6.25 to $14.95.

Speaking of full bars, check out the one at the Latin Quarter (6844 14th St. W., Bradenton, one mile north of Sarasota/Bradenton Airport, 753-0081) for real nightclub fun and a taste of Puerto Rico, the country that brought us fried plantains and extremely interesting spicing sauces far beyond mere peppers. These can include cloves, lime peel, sour orange juice, cilantro and cinnamon.

Items such as bandeja paisa-a platter with rice, pork cracklings, eggs, cornmeal patties, beef and plantains-draw big, friendly crowds weekends here, too. Much quieter during the week, when you can stop by for authentic daily luncheon specials or what may be the longest and best-priced happy hour in the area, with 75-cent beers and two-for-one margaritas from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Check over the Latin Quarter menu carefully and you'll even find some genuine Mexican favorites, such as flattened chicken on the grill. Plus there's live music Fridays and Saturdays, with a dance floor stretching through almost half the length of the building to accommodate those who just can't wait to shake off the week's blues. Dinner entrées range from $7.99 to $10.99.

If Manatee County is too far to drive, head to Rio Samba, a tiny, Brazilian-inspired restaurant (5758 S. Tamiami Trail, 929-9778) at the south end of Sarasota. Like the U.S., Brazil is a land of many regions and matching cuisines, some of them at least in part imported from Europe, as you'll see.

But look for tropical fruits, fruit juices and glazes over meats, and although Rio Samba's menu is still limited, it's also very promising and will hopefully expand soon.

For example, you can get authentic Brazilian churrasco misto platters of assorted grilled meats served with rice, beans, yucca flowers sauteéd with garlic and onions and vinaigrette sauce for one or two. Or opt for yucca sticks with Parmesan cheese, floured chicken marinated in white wine served over pasta...and who knew that eggplant Parmigiana over pasta (beringela a Parmigiana), obviously brought in by Europeans, has become a favorite dish of Brazil? A main course at dinner runs from $8.99 to $13.99.

There are two more mid-town Latin favorites, one an oldie with new owners and another a hot, trendy new spot. Bianca's is better known as the old Cafe Campestre (northwest corner of Webber and Beneva, 923-5356), whose owner retired back to the old country (Mexico) after selling to the owners of Bianca's Mexican Grocery at Ninth and North Washington Boulevard-a classic immigrant-moving-up story.

Some of us have been eating fine Tex-Mex out of the backroom/kitchen of that grocery almost since the day it opened about four years ago, so you're in good hands in the family's new venture, a real restaurant-and did I mention, a beautiful room, too? Entrées range from $6.95 to $10.95.

Cantina Latina (3800 S. Tamiami Trail, Suite 3, 954-1330) truly symbolizes the increasing sophistication of Sarasota's appreciation of Latin foods. Its menu offers a sampling of Caribbean and Mexico City-style Mexican: fajitas, quesadillas and tacos loaded with yummy fresh cilantro.

Those genuine Mexico City-style tacos will take you straight back to the Zócolo. And they're just the beginning at Cantina Latina. Appetizers include both Argentinean and Colombian sausages (interesting differences). There's a real Cuban sandwich, along with Cuban-style pork roast, those Mexican-style fajitas and quesadillas and side dishes that fill most of a column on the menu. And don't miss the Costa Rican-recipe desserts, such as chocolate tortes and cream cheese flan.

Live music Friday (for dancing, starting at the very appropriate Latin hour of 10 p.m.) and Saturday nights (table serenade) draws a good crowd presided over by Amanda Jarcia, whose Latin credentials are impressive. Born in Columbia, she grew up in Costa Rica, moved to Southern California, then to Tampa and finally, Sarasota. Entrées range from $6.95 to $9.95.

And finally, mi Pueble (4436 Bee Ridge Road, 379-2880 with a new branch at 530 U.S. 41 Bypass S. in Venice, 486-0005) enjoys a big local following. Maybe the most flexible of a flexible bunch of eateries, mi Pueble has lots of choices for its combination plates, chicken and beef prepared several different ways and fajitas available with beef, chicken, shrimp or veggie style. It's another extremely attractive room, and entrées range from $5.50 to $11.95.

Other Latin-flavored spots are out there, with more opening all the time, so don't limit your exploration to this list. Much of the fun is in making new discoveries, and for most of us, the biggest challenge in "eating Latin" in Sarasota these days is finding enough time to try out all the new entries on the restaurant scene. In addition, several Latin grocery outlets are also selling tasty goods from a kitchen in the back and-lucky us-they provide the foundation for an ever-growing Latin food influence in Sarasota.

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