At trip to a Jewish deli means Reuben and Rachel sandwiches and maybe a cup of soup. At an Italian deli, it's wheels of cheese, a dozen types of cured pork and, in New Orleans, a muffuletta. But what about a visit to a Latin American deli?
As the new Norma's Sweets Bakery in Mid-City shows, it can mean huge cartons of carne asada and tortillas cooked on the griddle as you watch or a bracingly tart ceviche of shrimp, drum and scallops stored in iced tubs by the cash register. It could mean chimitacos, which are cigar-shaped crunch fests of chicken-stuffed tortillas piled with vinegary curtido slaw. Or it could mean possibly the best Cuban sandwich in town, with ham and crumbling tender roast pork encased in butter-crisped bread that was baked in house.
This Norma's is an offshoot of a bakery and grocery of the same name in Kenner. Shoppers can get groceries, but the Mid-City edition also has a deli with a changing array of hot plates spanning many different Latin traditions.
You'll find stewed chicken and ribs coated with a dark mixture of spices and grill char, all with meat sliding off the bone into a rust-colored liquid to ladle over yellow rice. One day there might be vigoron, a Nicaraguan dish of boiled yuca and chicharones, on another day there's roasted corn sprinkled with crema and white cheese, and there are always a few different tamales. These dense, moist, meat-studded bundles of masa are bound in banana leaves, foil and twine and stay warm for hours.
Norma's is a colorful, engaging place with pinatas strung from the ceiling, bins of cactus and plantain and a tidy dining area in the corner. For those learning to navigate a Latin deli, manager Jose Castillo is ready with advice. The ceviche, he assures, is perfect beer-drinking food, and the large soups are traditional hangover cures. On weekends, these soups include mondongo, which has a broth so unquestionably rejuvenating that even people who aren't into tripe, its star ingredient, may want to consider it on certain mornings.
On more composed mornings, diners might turn their attention to bakery cases filled with a whole golden constellation of the soft, chewy Mexican pastry called pan dulce, long, crullerlike Cuban churros and soft slabs of flan. There are meat pies with beef or pulled chicken and bits of dried fruit inside puff pastry. Others, filled with guava and cream cheese, fit somewhere between lunch food and dessert treat and make good snacks for a buck and change each.
Peer beyond the breadboxes and you'll likely see Norma's other claim to fame — sheet cakes decorated with great extravagance by women who apply icing like comic book artists use ink. After seeing these cakes at a kid's birthday party, I can advise that a bounce house be readily accessible to absorb the potent sugar highs they produce.