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Return Trip 

No matter what route you take to the relocated FIESTA LATINA RESTAURANT, you'll feel like you've arrived.

Neither common sense nor MapQuest.com will tell you that the most fitting way to get from downtown New Orleans to Fiesta Latina is to travel the airport road, pretending you're about to valet park at the terminal but quickly veering off onto Airline Drive at the last moment. At Fiesta, the travel is all gustatory. By the time you trundle into the restaurant's parking lot, which waits down the road -- just an off-road U-turn and a couple of lefts across three lanes of oncoming traffic later -- you feel as though you've really arrived. And you have: It's the most extensive (and in many respects the best) Latin American cantina accessible without boarding an airplane.

The building used to be a diner, and long before that a pharmacy; traces of those incarnations mingle with Fiesta's ranchero-style adornments and the large-screen television showing Marc Anthony videos in a way that feels both down-home and cinematic -- like a truck stop in a spaghetti Western. In crossing the threshold, you step over an Rx symbol constructed of tiles, and the bar is arranged behind a soda counter with swivel stools. A Ms. Pac-Man game in the front room is in harmony with the family-friendly tone set by the three Salvadoran proprietors, siblings Ana Ruth, Delmy and Daniel Cruz.

Weekdays, there are always a few single men putting away Tecate and tacos in equal proportion; with barbacoa (juicy, shredded beef) and carnitas (salty, charred pork) tacos priced at $1.50 a pop -- including raw onions, cilantro and a fiery green salsa -- there's little incentive to stop. On weekend afternoons, multiple generations, often dressed in finery, congregate around the larger tables, nearly every member with a different shade of agua fresca -- pineapple, tamarind, passion fruit, cantaloupe or horchata gritty with ground nuts and spices. The freshly made drinks are ladled into clear plastic cups that border on pails, and they're somehow easier to score than the preciously distributed tap water.

You won't miss anything in bypassing the gratis chips, which are sometimes stale, and the thin, warm salsa, but the menu is otherwise packed with don't-misses. Skipping the pupusas would be like leaving Disneyland without hugging Mickey Mouse -- every table needs an order. Griddle-browned pockets of corn masa stuffed with either a nice, oily, white cheese, larded pork, smooshed beans or all three, pupusas are the ultimate snack food (take note for your next plane flight): inexpensive, easy to eat, bland enough for kids and disproportionately filling. A side garnish of marinated cabbage (curtido) accompanies every order, and cheese pupusas may be prepared with additional loroco, the subtly vegetal buds of an edible flower imported from El Salvador.

Plantains in some form are another must, either crisped into chips, ripe and candied, or green and fried like a potato. My own weakness is for the fried plantain fingers served with two "dips" -- rich, purplish refried beans and a cool, sweet-sour cream.

There are enough variations on beef, pork, chicken, soup and breakfast (served all day) that discovering a favorite in each category would require either multiple trips or a family reunion. My own shortlist includes salpicon de res, a cold salad of chopped beef, mint, onion and lime that might remind you of Thailand's larb; choripollo, which pairs a delicious grilled chicken breast that appears to have been tenderized by an 18-wheeler with two knobs of tangy housemade chorizo shot through with red chile; and the challenging camarones a la diabla, which is ostensibly what the devil would do with shrimp and chipotle chiles if he were Mexican. I also favor the beef tripe soup with its mild, stomachy flavor, chewable belts of tripe, and corn, cabbage and squash hacked into not-so-dainty wedges and chunks.

Downy, tomato-stained rice, a cup of unmemorable kidney beans and a small salad accompany most main courses, along with a choice of starch; after one handmade corn tortilla, even the plantains seem inadequate. And, if your waitress believes you can handle more (mine laughed in disbelief), there are desserts. The thick flan has a pleasant, burnt caramel flavor and the sweetness quotient of a toasted marshmallow; a serving of tres leches cake is more saccharine still. Around the time that I first wrote about Fiesta Latina, in 2001, when it was holed up in a strip mall on Veterans Memorial Boulevard, a drunk acquaintance who lives Uptown cornered me in a bar to complain, "You keep writing about these restaurants in Metairie, Kenner, the West Bank ... I don't go to those places; no one goes to those places." Three years later, shortly after the restaurant moved to its current location, which positions itself even deeper in Kenner, I treated this acquaintance to lunch there. He guarded his pollo asado (marinated and grilled chicken breast) like a pit bull with a raw T-bone, and his will softened palpably before a plate of fried plantains. I'm happy, but not surprised, to report that he has since returned on his own gas money. Anyone would.

click to enlarge Siblings Daniel, Ana Ruth and Delmy Cruz offer the most - extensive Latin American cantina in the area. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Siblings Daniel, Ana Ruth and Delmy Cruz offer the most extensive Latin American cantina in the area.
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