Bright, fresh and lively preparations built on approachable ingredients make Nuevo Latino cuisine more accessible to operators and diners.
This article first appeared in the 15 September 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
In the 12 years since Chef Douglas Rodriguez opened Patria in New York City, foodservice's trickle-down effect has carried the vibrant flavors and native ingredients of Nuevo Latino cuisine beyond dedicated, fine-dining kitchens such as Patria to mainstream American and global menus.
Credit growing consumer exposure to regional culinary heritages, a rising U.S. Hispanic population and more broadly available ingredients for drawing Nuevo Latino-inspired fare (also described as Latin-fusion or Latin-influenced cuisine) to the forefront. Independent restaurateurs, chains and foodservice contractors all dabble in the bold, bright format, which marries traditional ingredients and flavors of South and Central America, Cuba, Mexico and the Caribbean with classical techniques and modern twists.
Carrying added cachet from their healthful profiles, Latin American trademarks such as citrus juices, tropical fruit, garlic-tinged marinades called mojos and the parsley-and-olive-oil-based condiment chimichurri are well within reach for any kitchen. Also appearing on menus are broadly applicable adaptations of recipes such as anticuchos (grilled skewers) and seviche.
"The term Nuevo Latino means something different to different operators," says Greg Drescher, senior director of strategic initiatives for The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif. "In my mind, it implies a kind of fusion or upscale reinvention of Latin cooking."
Indeed, chefs across the industry have their own ideas about how Latin influences fit the industry's wide-ranging concepts.
To Christian Fischer, corporate executive chef at Woodbury, N.Y.-based Lackmann Culinary Services, Caribbean-Latin themed choices he's adding to campus menus mean bold flavors without intense heat. Fischer developed a sweet-and-spicy marinade of guava nectar, cumin, garlic, onion, ground chipotle and balsamic vinegar for South American Grilled Pork Chops; his Roasted Garlic Mojo-Marinated Pork Tenderloin gets a blend of grapefruit juice, olive oil, lime juice, garlic, cumin, rosemary and pepper.
Doug Bond, director of culinary operations at Dallas-based Chili's Grill & Bar, says Latin accents mesh well with the casual-dining chain's Southwestern theme. He pairs a version of chimichurri made with cilantro, garlic and lime juice with two types of fajitas: Steak and Portobello, and Citrus Fire Chicken and Shrimp.
"Our cuisine represents a cook's tour of this area, from Mexico and Key West to the Caribbean and South America," says Chef de Cuisine Greg Howe at The Ritz-Carlton Members Beach Club in Sarasota, Fla., where he uses caramelized ripe plantains as a sweet counterpoint to foie gras and menus deep-fried green plantains with roasted-tomato salsa as a signature starter. "It's not the traditional food of those regions; it's a combination of styles and ingredients."
Such free-form attitudes define many operators' approaches to Latin influences. They borrow liberally from rich culinary traditions, calling on cooking techniques, recipe frameworks or single ingredients to freshen menus with intriguing new presentations.
Traditional and contemporary takes on seviche, a Latin American staple, have become one of the cuisine's most widespread calling cards on mainstream menus. Awakening palates with their fresh, acidic tang, the citrus-"cooked" concoctions are great vehicles for seafood, both local varieties as well as widely available types including octopus, squid, red snapper and scallops.
Chef de Cuisine Sarah Nelson's contemporary-American, small-plates menu at Fixture in Chicago matches pasilla-marinated lobster seviche with cactus-pear emulsion and jicama salad, another common component of Latin-American cuisine. At Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Las Vegas and Chicago, shrimp-and-scallop seviche is a nod to the concept's Miami roots, where Latin-Caribbean influence runs deep.
Chef-partner Gary Baca's blend of the shellfish with red and yellow peppers, jalapeño and red onion is marinated in lime, lemon and orange juices four hours ahead of service.
"The seafood has to be great quality, and you have to handle it properly," Baca says. "You need to marinate it long enough so it's tender, but not so long that it becomes tough and rubbery."
Upscale hotspot SushiSamba, a Japanese-Peruvian-Brazilian fusion concept with locations in New York City, Chicago and Miami, crafts spare and elegant sashimi-style seviches, which also are called tiradito, with salmon, tuna and yellowtail.
Sliced into strips at the restaurants' sushi bars, the seafood is dressed to order with Latin accents including guava paste and mojito sauce (syrup, mint, lime juice and olive oil) for king salmon and a combination of grapefruit juice, red jalapeño and almonds with tuna.
Chiles: Next Generation
To breathe life into a menu mainstay of lobster spring rolls at New American restaurant RooBar in Falmouth, Mass., Chef Creighton Peet recently began using aji panca paste for a dipping sauce with piquant, fruity undertones. He also uses aji amarillo chiles (purchased whole in brine) to make vinaigrette with oregano, yuzu, brown sugar, sesame oil and peanut oil. The dressing is drizzled over seared diver scallops served with udon noodles.
"Unlike the small percent of really high-end restaurants that can try all kinds of things, most of us have to appeal to mainstream diners," Peet says. "I try to integrate eclectic, more-obscure ingredients to introduce people to new things and keep myself invigorated as a chef."
Both fiery aji amarillos and milder aji pancas spark sauces commonly matched with anticuchos, grilled skewers traditionally featuring beef hearts. This popular South and Central American street food, often sold with corn on the cob and boiled potatoes, fits seamlessly into American kitchens in beef, chicken or seafood versions.
At mj2 Bistro in Park Ridge, Ill., Chef-owner Mike Kurotobi char-grills sirloin anticuchos to serve with grilled Yukon potatoes and chimichurri. Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg, Calif., accents "Latin-inspired" chicken skewers with aji amarillo, mango mustard and toasted pine nuts.
Corporate Executive Chef Michael Cressotti's six anticucho varieties at SushiSamba include shrimp with chimichurri, miso-glazed sea bass, and teriyaki chicken livers. He pairs beef tenderloin skewers with aji panca and marries chicken with aji amarillo, toned down with chicken stock, lime juice and sugar, a combination that also complements an organic chicken teriyaki entrée.
"Aji amarillo works well with the entrée because the heat balances the sweet teriyaki. It has the same effect in the anticucho because we garnish that with a sweet, balsamic-soy reduction," he says.
Matched with traditional dishes such as anticuchos or familiar American fare, purchased or house-made sauces and marinades offer simple gateways to Latin flavors. Among the best-known standards are mojos, marinades combining citrus juices, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, chiles and spices, and chimichurri, the spicy, parsley-and olive-oil-based condiment.
Chefs often team vibrant mojos with savory, slow-cooked pork dishes-another Latin-American institution-though they also work well with chicken and seafood.
At Marc and Didi Zudar's Deli & Cafe in Tampa, Fla., pork tenderloin marinates at least 24 hours in lemon-garlic mojo with oregano, salt and pepper for a popular sandwich served on Cuban-style bread. Sour-orange mojo accompanies the Yucatan Double-Cut Pork Chop at Spice, an Asian, Indian and Latin American restaurant in Seattle.
Latin-influenced sauces and marinades highlight the limited-time menu at The Melting Pot, a Tampa, Fla.-based fondue chain. Citrus-marinated pork tenderloin is accompanied by a mojo-like dipping sauce of citrus juices, roasted pepper, tomato, cilantro and garlic, while a special cheese fondue contains Mexican chorizo and chimichurri made with cilantro, parsley, garlic, lemon juice, red wine, chipotle and olive oil.
While much of the recent Latin influence on menus originates in South America, the Central American country of El Salvador is home to a simple, versatile dish poised to gain menu traction. Pupusas, pan-fried masa cakes typically filled with meat, cheese or beans, require little more than simple dough and fillings to make and are easily tailored to a variety of concepts.
Chef-owner Bob Kinkead features shrimp-and-crab pupusas with Salvadoran crema, guacamole and green cabbage-jalapeÁ±o slaw on his seafood-heavy menu at upscale seafood restaurant Kinkead's in Washington, D.C. The dough (made with masa, grated potatoes and tomato purée) is stuffed with grated Jack cheese, rolled into small pancakes and pan-fried. The seafood mixture is spooned on top and garnished with cilantro, queso blanco and chopped green onions.
"We have a huge Salvadoran population in our kitchen, and it's one of the dishes they make for themselves. I thought it was a terrific vehicle for all sorts of things," Kinkead says.
At Bin 555 Restaurant & Wine Bar in San Antonio and Dallas, Chef-owner Jason Dady says the main components of his pupusas-masa and roasted pork-are a natural fit for his Texas clientele. Pork shoulder is braised with guajillo chiles, fennel, onion and tomato. The cooled, shredded meat is stuffed into masa dough with Muenster cheese, pan-seared and finished in the oven. Dady serves two to an order as an appetizer, topped with mango-mint salsa.
The Next Batch
As American palates become familiar with the approachable elements of Nuevo Latino fare, operators can find further inspiration from dedicated, Latin-themed menus. Check out these selections that soon could reach broader audiences.
- Alfajores: Sweet sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche cream, often dusted with confectioners sugar or coated in chocolate shells
- Feijoada: Stew with beans, salt pork and sausage served with rice, collards and orange slices
- Humitas: Tamale-like packages of seasoned, puréed fresh corn with onions, wrapped in corn husks and steamed, baked or boiled
- Mofongo: Fried green plantains mashed with garlic, olive oil, salt and pork cracklings
Tostones: Twice-fried, sliced green plantains
- Vaca frita: Crisp-fried, shredded beef with onions served over rice