I admit I was dubious. Having parked near an elevated section of Interstate 10 and picked my way along a sketchy, near-downtown Houston street, I was on the verge of backpedaling when I got my bearings: Oh, I recognize these warehouse lofts and art studios. Stepping into Latin Bites Café, I found a jubilant mood, as customers chatted and sipped their BYOB wine. There’s nothing like stumbling on a cool hole-in-the-wall to make you feel smug.
True to its name, the Peruvian cafe is bite-size, consisting of ten or so tables in a very small, very tall room with vintage brick walls and pale-aqua accents. Chef Roberto Castre’s exceedingly well-priced menu fills two laminated pages dotted with words both familiar (ceviche, sashimi, empanadas) and strange (tacu-tacu, cancha, lúcuma). Ponder your options over chicha morada—a spicy-sweet chilled punch made from assorted fruits and purple Peruvian corn—and prepare for an adventure.
Whatever else you order, you must start with the aforementioned empanadas. These fabulously crusty, Spanish–inspired turnovers come filled with bits of shredded tenderloin with two thick, creamy dipping sauces on the side, one subtly seasoned with cilantro, the other with rocoto peppers. Sweet, hot chiles—called ajis—are a hallmark of Peruvian cuisine, and they turn up everywhere. The kitchen deveins them to reduce the heat, though I am sure that many people in the room would have loved to try them au naturel. We are Texans, after all.
A sampling of the menu’s meaty dishes netted two winners, the first being an amazing, perfectly grilled filet mignon with a lightly spicy, unbelievably buttery panca pepper demi-glace. The second was a grilled half-chicken, a revelation of moist meat (the thigh besting the breast) infused with an elusive berrylike flavor, which we guessed came from a marinade of panca and mirasol chiles. Various accompaniments showed the homey, everyday side of Peru’s crazy-quilt international cuisine; tacu-tacu, a small fried patty of mashed mayocoba beans and rice, made us think of Thanksgiving stuffing, and the minute we tried cancha, we instantly rechristened it “Peruvian corn nuts.”
By my second visit, I was craving some of the raw fish for which the country is famous, so we ordered ceviche. The chunky, gorgeously fresh flounder came in a lime-juice marinade called leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) seasoned with your choice of ajis and garnished with both sweet potato and the oversized native corn kernels known as choclo; other than that it was similar to Mexican ceviche—and delicious.
Dessert exposed us to a couple of Peru’s strange but beguiling native fruits. Tiramisu offered the usual ladyfingers, though here soaked in espresso and pisco and alternating with a mousse of lúcuma, a starchy, yellow-orange fruit that tasted subliminally of pumpkin. But the best was a frozen terrine featuring purées of mango on one end and cherimoya (custard apple) on the other. By the time we left, we were ready to rebook and try the many intriguing dishes we had missed. How often do you get dinner and a culinary travelogue to boot? BYOB ($5 corkage fee). 1302 Nance (713-229-8369). Open Mon–Thur 11–9, Fri & Sat 11–10. Closed Sun. Reservations recommended. $$