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 gainfully employed (or running up a massive credit card debt). And if they’re helping themselves to the awesome array of salad fixings—marinated shiitake mushrooms, smoked salmon, prosciutto, artichoke hearts, asparagus, roasted bell peppers, imported olives, a thicket of greens—they’ve got at least an inkling that they need to counteract the masses of red meat they’re about to ingest.
Brazilian steakhouses like Fogo de Chão (pronounced “Fogo de Shown”) started appearing in the U.S. about six years ago (when this one opened), proving that Americans will pay big bucks to have servers in button-down shirts and baggy gaucho pants ply them with endless skewers of flame-grilled meats (from innumerable cuts of steak to lamb and pork). The theatrics are adapted from the churrasco, the centuries-old South American tradition of slowly grilling meat on brochettes (the restaurant’s Portuguese name means “fire of the pit”). Given how close the idea is to barbecuing, it’s no wonder the restaurants have caught on with Texans (there’s a Fogo de Chão in Houston, plus others in Atlanta, Chicago, and Brazil). 4300 Belt Line Road, 972-503-7300. Dinner prix fixe $39.90.
Not to obsess about this, but a promising venue for men seeking women is the Samba Room, in the same lively neighborhood as La Duni. On my early-evening visit I noticed several groups of young professional women chatting and sipping wine. The stylish, six-year-old restaurant’s menu touches down in Cuba (pressed grilled sandwiches), Brazil (sopa de feijão, a.k.a. black-bean soup), Argentina (grilled skirt steak with chimichurri), and Jamaica (jerk chicken), but chef Brannon Florie’s fusion talents mean that many of the dishes are subtly adapted to American tastes (can you say Caesar salad with chipotle-lime mojo and toasted pumpkin seeds?).
I tried the Venezuelan arepas, big, flat cornmeal cakes that reminded me of moist cornbread. (Incidentally, tortillas, gorditas, pupusas, and arepas are all kissing cousins.) Cut into wedges, the Samba Room’s arepas came with ropa vieja-like shredded beef cooked with tomato and topped with melted queso, a tasty, rather squishy mound that I wasn’t crazy about. But I quite liked my entrée, half a smoked chicken marinated in the fiery sugarcane liquor cachaca and served on white rice liberally studded with raisins and pineapple. The dish was a wonderful study in sweetness: the pineapple was tart-sweet, the raisins were musky sweet, and an accompanying puddle of mango purée was fruity sweet. Even a drizzle of burgundy-habanero chile syrup added a sly note of winy sweetness. Combined with the smoky chicken, the flavors called up comforting memories of ham and pineapple at Sunday dinners past. And in the end, I think that is the key that will open Texas doors wide to this brave new culinary world: When chefs figure out how to meld the exotic ingredients of Central and South America with the tastes we already know, the Latin revolution will truly be at hand. 4514 Travis, 214-522-4137. Dinner entrées $11-$25.