by Sara Roahen
But as the name suggests, Fiesta Latina is a golden hideaway serving the simple, happy foods of El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico at prices that, including the drive for some of us, are a drop in the bucket. The room, painted the warm color of papaya flesh, is sparingly decorated with Central American national flags, gourd rattles and bright, woven rugs. And it throbs with the kind of rhythmic Latin music that, for the customers who grew up on it, inspires quiet hand-clapping and controlled foot-tapping; for those of us who didn't, the body's happy responses are more convulsive. Mothers feed their hummingbird babies horchata from straws using that old finger-vacuum trick, and fathers belly up to the bar with their miniatures bundled in white karate suits.
Drawing them all is the kind of straightforward, cheerful food that, although my travels to Latin America are few, tastes right to me, borderless in its ability to comfort. It's a sensible cuisine, a touchable one. And it sometimes seems possible to taste in one, unpretentious dish hundreds of years of hands-on techniques: grinding nuts, chiles and whole spices between mortar and pestle; chopping colorful, fresh ingredients for salsas and pickled salads; tying corn husks and banana leaves around packages of corn porridge; kneading masa and mashing beans.
The most reassuring foods from this kitchen (which, I was told, is El Salvadoran-owned and primarily Honduran-run) all came swaddled in some sort of corn casing. Soft pupusas were freckled with brown pan-kisses; the masa pockets made ideal, palm-size grilled cheese sandwiches and begged the question: why bake bread? They also came smeared with lardy chicharron and always alongside a crunchy pickled cabbage salad. Baleadas "con todo" (with everything), were puffy corn tortillas spread with a layer of refried beans like peanut butter, then filled with pebbly scrambled eggs, spicy chorizo and cream. Unfussy, soft corn tacos crowded in manly chunks of charred, tangy beef (carne asada) and nibbles of fried, chopped pork (carnitas). A sharp chop of onion and cilantro, and a hot, green salsa teased sunny flavor into both.
There's a lunch plate (cena #3) that looks a lot like a breakfast plate, which for me rivaled both chicken soup and cheesy macaroni for mama-style comfort. But prepare yourself for a minimalist composition: warm corn tortillas, two runny eggs, refried beans, sweet fried plantains, a slab of salty white cheese and a cup of cream that tasted like salty butter whipped into sour cream. This amazing cream, and dishes of purple beans, accompany nearly every plate. The latter, either refried or still whole and soupy, tastes sometimes like grill char or other times like bacon grease. Neither version lasts long.
By far the happiest dish was Camerones a la Diabla, hulky pink shrimp swimming in a rust-colored tomato and chipotle chile sauce -- so happy that my table bowed in unison to the creator of taste buds. Camarones rancheros, with another tomato sauce fortified with more oil than spice, practically had us genuflecting. We scooped at these and other sauces with fried green plantains, which were soft and salty like steak fries. Huevos rancheros with refried beans and Honduran enchiladas with salty, cumin-spiced beef both were built upon fun surprises: snappy, fried tortillas. And shrimp cocktail was a lot like gazpacho, served in a whimsical parfait glass with a long, sundae spoon and Saltines.
Only a few plates were not so amusing, like the Mexican combination lunch. A chile relleno had collapsed, its partially battered surface like a leopard shedding its spots. On the same plate, two disrobed beef tamales looked like they had plunged from great height. And the only way I could stomach a whole tilapia, so creepy looking it could frighten a Destin shark and fried to the point of implosion, was by closing my eyes and thinking, fish jerky.
Still, coconut broth was an elegant excuse for pristinely cooked whole crab, shrimp, whitefish and yucca. Flan was as rich as pure cream cheese.
If there's one element of party missing from this picture, it's alcohol. The year-old restaurant doesn't have a liquor license, and bringing your own isn't allowed. There's always a pubescent kid selling Goldschlager shots from a drive-up window down the highway if it comes to that, but pulpy cantaloupe and pineapple purees mixed with water and sugar are good enough to shame Tropicana out of business. Me? I wouldn't stay away if all they poured was the cloudy iced tea.