Prepare to have your vocabulary expanded. By the time you finish your food at lively, stylish La Sombra, you will definitely know tiradito (Peruvian ceviche), guasacaca (Venezuelan guacamole), and chacarero (a Chilean sandwich). And, oh yes, pisco sour, the sweet-tart, frothy, one-is-never-enough cocktail of Peru and Chile. You will definitely know that bad boy.
South and Central American cuisines have been making inroads in Texas lately, especially Austin (which I’m acutely aware of because, of course, it’s where I live). In February, El Arbol introduced a chef-driven Argentine menu. Five months later La Sombra has pushed the boundary further. Prior to both of these, the ambitious Brazilian cuisine at Sampaio’s got the ball rolling (that La Sombra took over the space that now-defunct Sampaio’s once occupied is yet another sign that life gets a kick out of adding insult to injury).
La Sombra’s 31-year-old chef, Julio-Cesar Florez, hails from Lima, which may explain why Peruvian dishes seem to have pride of place on the menu. Or it could just be that Peru’s cuisine is one of the most varied and fascinating in South America. Indeed, if I had to choose favorite dishes, they would be the Peruvian tiraditos and ceviches.
From the minute I tasted the tiradito de atún—rectangles of impeccably fresh tuna lightly dressed with a blood-orange leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk”)—I couldn’t stop eating it. Not only does it set ice against fire (cool fish garnished with spicy jalapeño and habanero-marinated tobiko) but it’s a gorgeous study in pink, rose, and chlorophyll green. And it’s also full-service, the piscatorial protein augmented by starchy diced yuca. The end result is dynamite.
Ditto the broad selection of ceviche (or “cebiche,” as it’s spelled in Peru), although the one everybody wanted to sample was not marinated fish but mushrooms—slender, exotic hon-shimejis and french horns, to be exact (pictured). Who knew that fungi liked to be snuggled up to slices of black truffle and fresh-off-the-cob corn? Or that the whole ensemble would go with roasted-tomatillo salsa? (Note to self: Put Peru on bucket list.)
I could have lost myself in these emphatic flavors all night, but I can’t say I was unhappy when I discovered the mixed grill—Shiner Bock-marinated hanger steak, pork ribs, and garlic sausage—on the entrée list. Cooked just a touch rarer than ordered and sided by diced potato and butternut squash, the Argentine-style parrilla gaucha was utterly satisfying.
Were there any flubs? Well, yes. But I visited shortly after the restaurant opened, so I’m discounting the pasty béchamel-and-Parmesan fettuccine and the pedestrian braised shredded chicken on risotto. A chef who creates such magical dishes will surely bring all of them up to par. And as might have been predicted, a dessert of warm rice pudding with plump raisins and almond-coconut crumble was spectacular, if that is the right word to apply to a nursery-school specialty. A restaurant with this range—raw fish, grilled steak, rice pudding, and pisco sours—is a