In the history of American dining, there are pivotal moments when a cuisine makes the sublime leap onto white tablecloths. It happened to Italian when the spaghetti joint morphed into the Tuscan trattoria; it happened to Cajun when Paul Prudhomme invented blackened redfish. Now, up from the lunch counters of a hundred barrios, comes the delicious cooking of Latin America: exotic enough for North Americans to play the menu game of "find the steak"; incredibly fattening, yet high in beneficial complex carbs and unsaturated fats--actually, high in everything; culturally avant-garde and politically correct, but with rum-based cocktails of Hemingwayesque potency.
Of course, to most North Americans, the cuisine of the 20 nations south of the Rio Grande is still represented almost entirely by the taco. But in the past six months Nacional 27 has begun packing in mostly Anglo crowds in Chicago, while Calle Ocho, Bolivar and Vandam have opened in New York and the mantle of hot new place in Los Angeles has been seized by Asia de Cuba, serving high-concept Latin-Asian fusion cuisine. It is a trend that reflects the growing Hispanic influence on North American culture, but minimizes the risk of biting into a habanero pepper that has kept Americans from many Mexican dishes, according to TV chef Susan Feniger, co-owner of the new Pan-Latin Ciudad in Los Angeles. "On television and in our [earlier] restaurants, we explored everything Mexican," she says. "Now the trend is to a broader Latin theme."
"People understand a lot more of what I'm doing than they did even five years ago," agrees Norm Van Aken, founder of the wildly acclaimed Norman's New World Cuisine in Coral Gables, Fla. Van Aken, who grew up in Illinois but moved to southern Florida to cook, was a leader of the Mango Gang--a cohort of Miami chefs who pioneered a cuisine native to nowhere in particular, but with ingredients and techniques from all over the Caribbean and South America. They'd add some ginger and lemongrass, too, if they felt like it. The new generation of Latin chefs, many of them Mango Gang disciples, have been simplifying Van Aken's flamboyant cuisine and bringing it closer to its roots in specific national cultures. At Nacional 27, chef Randy Zweiban cooks authentic-sounding dishes like boniato and plantain fritters and ropa vieja, the classic Cuban stew of braised and shredded beef. The Cuban-born Alex Garcia, of Calle Ocho, has two kinds of dishes on his menu: "There are Anglo dishes, like chicken and mashed potatoes, that I modify: I add saffron to the potatoes, I marinate the chicken with lime and cilantro. And there are authentic dishes, like chupe, a chowder with potato, carrots, fennel and shrimp. I make it accessible to you, you have it, you love it and you come back."
It is a cuisine that depends on a steady supply of immigrant cooks and imported ingredients like fresh hearts of palm, Amazon fish as big as beach balls and alarmingly large, knobby and hairy root vegetables. The beef is usually Argentine, lean and robust-flavored. Taking a bite of Calle Ocho's thick bistec with yucca fries, a New Yorker who rarely ventures south of Ft. Lauderdale remarked with delight: "You can taste the grass!"
Which, perhaps, not everyone wants to taste in his steak. As with any unfamiliar cuisine, chefs must balance authenticity against the risk of revolting their customers. They do wonderful things with guinea pigs in Peru (and in Brooklyn, if you know where to look), but you don't have to worry about one turning up uninvited on your plate. The people at Vandam ordering chef Fernando Trocca's yucca-dusted foie gras with caramelized mango (a $15 appetizer) aren't Colombian cabdrivers, they're upper-middle-class New Yorkers. One thing restaurants needn't import from South America is customers.
C'mon, It Tastes Just Like Pollo The menu terms are new, but Latin American cuisine isn't all that strange to North American tastes. Here's a quick glossary: