The Fusion Thing

The Dallas dining scene is sizzling with the foods of Central and South America, from plantains to pupusas. say hola to Nuevo Latino.

I ADMIT IT: I'VE GOT DALLAS STEREOTYPED AS A white-bread kind of place. But whenever I head there for an eating binge, I'm struck by the wealth of ethnic flavors swirling and simmering beneath its blue-eyed, blond-highlighted surface. You want African? Filipino? Turkish? They're all there and more. In the past few months, however, my fancy has been caught by an emerging culinary arena, one with dishes that are destined to become—some already are—mainstream in urban Texas.

If you've noticed that Cuban mojitos are the happy-hour rage, you know what I mean. If you're already hooked on garlic-and-green-herb chimichurri sauce, Argentina's answer to pesto, or if you've nibbled a fried plantain slice in lieu of a tortilla chip, you're on the wavelength. Thanks to its location, Texas is a major launching pad for the Latin Century. We have been schooled in the ways of chiles, corn, and beans ever since Texas was an unruly province of Mexico. But a few decades ago, immigrants from Central and South America started bringing their own robust tropical flavors and traditions north. Some of these, also native to Mexico, are familiar (think empanadas, ceviche, guacamole, mangoes, and achiote). Others are decidedly exotic (Peruvian roast guinea pig, anyone?). Meanwhile, just as American chefs have raided the larders of Japan, Thailand, the Mediterranean, and the American Southwest for their fusion fantasies, they're now prowling all of Latin America. What to call this new melting pot? Nuevo Latino will do as well as anything.

Probably Dallas' best short course on Central and South American staples is the sampler platter at Gloria's, a mini-chain of five Salvadoran cafes. (I love the original little papaya-and-chartreuse building that has stood in the blue-collar environs of Oak Cliff since 1986.) The anchor of this starch fest is a creamy tamal flecked with bits of mildly seasoned chicken, potato, and tomato that you spoon right out of the banana-leaf wrapper. Then there are the slices of yuca, or cassava, a mild, tropical root that is a bit like a parsnip; they're a blank canvas for any salsa you want to drizzle on them. The black rice is actually white rice mixed with finely mashed black beans, and the beans themselves are excellent. You'll want to eat the plump, cheesy, gordita-like pupusa while it's hot, because once it cools, this baby sets up like portland cement. The tangy, slightly sweet slices of fried plantain remind me of bananas, only mealier. In sum, this is everyday, working folks' food, a perfect introduction to El Salvador's indigenous fare. And by the way, Gloria's cuisine (and waiters) are exceedingly child-friendly. I watched a two-year-old at a nearby table fling pupusas and smash plantains with his bare fist, and all the server did was roll his eyes and say, "Coochi-coo." (If you aren't feeling adventurous, the menu offers plenty of Mexican food, like enchiladas verdes.) 600 W. Davis, 214-948-3672, and four other locations. Dinner entrées $8.95-$14.95.

At breakfast and lunch, the sun pours in like honey around the small tables and vases of full-blown roses at La Duni Latin Café. At dinner, candles flicker as friends talk and laugh at sidewalk tables. Owners Espartaco and Dunia Borga have come up with imaginative takes on various homestyle South American cuisines at this two-year-old enclave in central Dallas' upscale Knox-Henderson area. She's from Colombia; he was born in Spain and grew up in Mexico, South America, and Europe. Together, they bring a sophisticated, cross-cultural freshness to familiar dishes. If I had to eat one thing every day for the rest of my life, I could hardly do better than Espartaco's wonderfully tender pollo al aljibe, half a roast chicken in a celestial sauce of pan juices, champagne, and sour-orange juice. It showcases the refined, urban part of the South American equation, while dishes like the Venezuelan pabellón criollo —flank steak stewed in a salty tomato-achiote salsa and shredded into a moist mountain of meat—represent the rustic, country part. (If that sounds familiar, it is. A very similar dish goes by the quirky name ropa vieja —"old clothes"—in Mexico and Cuba; America's sloppy joe is a distant relative.) Accompaniments include nuggets of fried sweet plantain, simple black beans, and rather ordinary garlic rice. Latin Americas' love affair with sweets has led pastry queen Dunia to create a beauty pageant of desserts. Her panque de limón —a voluptuous, coarse-textured vanilla sponge cake with citrus accents and a rakish cap of meringue—makes me think of Mae West. 4620 McKinney Avenue, 214-520-7300. Dinner entrées $9.95-$17.95; closed Monday.

Chef James Neel's colorful Caribbean and South American Bistro Latino is just as feisty and fusion-forward as it was when it opened almost two years ago. Attention is paid to details here, and even simple dishes get star treatment. It's one thing to serve perfectly cooked salmon filets with an interesting green-papaya slaw, but it's more impressive when equal care is taken with an inexpensive appetizer of oniony ground-beef empanadas in a fabulous flaky crust. I also love Neel's Spanish gazpacho, a vegetable garden of flavors in a chilly tomato broth. Other cuisines inspire his side dishes, which run from yams mashed with brown sugar, which would be right at home on a Thanksgiving table, to rice spiced, Mexican style, with chile, the grains as dark as mahogany. All the desserts sounded suitably sinful, but my friend Susan and I finally settled on the crêpes with chantilly cream and dulce de leche —luxuriously thick caramelized goat's milk. And after I threatened to stab her hand with a fork, she let me have the whole thing. 6112 Luther Lane, 214-360-0922. Dinner entrées $12.95-$18.95; closed Sunday and Monday.

Mind you, I haven't field-tested this theory yet, but I'm betting that one of the best places for women to meet men in far north Dallas is the salad bar at Fogo de Chão Churrascaria. Why? At least two thirds of the customers at this Brazilian-style steakhouse are male. If they can afford the $39.90 prix fixe tab, they're

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