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