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Tortillas Times Two 

A pair of Kenner neighbors show the area's growing diversity of Latin American cooking

A small Kenner strip mall provides something like one-stop shopping for the Latin American flavors that have grown increasingly prominent in the area since Hurricane Katrina. Las Carnitas (opened last summer) and Taqueria Madrid Chilangos (opened in October) share a wall in the strip mall, conduct much of their business in Spanish and serve most of their meals with warm tortillas. Beyond those similarities, though, the two restaurants are as different from each other as Chinese cuisine is from Vietnamese.

Las Carnitas is run by Angela Duran, who for years has operated Angela's Latin Meat Market in Metairie. The offerings at her new café are akin to Nicaraguan soul food, with a large steam table of daily specials like chicken, ribs, fatty pork skins and shredded beef dished up in huge portions with piles of rice and beans, scoops of yellow potato salad and a slaw of vinegar-soaked cabbage and carrots.

Right next door, Taqueria Madrid Chilangos is a rendition of the casual, family-friendly restaurants where owner David Montes grew up eating in his native Mexico City. 'Chilangos" is what people from Mexico City call themselves, Montes explains, and the Madrid reference is a holdover from the restaurant space's previous life as a Spanish eatery of the same name. Taqueria Madrid Chilangos is a blend of the comfortable, contemporary American restaurant " with its full bar, flatscreen TV, clean, airy dining room of 80 padded seats and modern, open kitchen " and the sort of Mexican food that asserts authenticity as convincingly as a handheld lunch from a taco truck. That is no coincidence. Montes ran a taco truck in Houston for years. He drove it to New Orleans six months after Katrina, following the surge of Latinos who have moved here for reconstruction work. He and his wife Patricia were doing well, working from a shuttered gas station on Veterans Memorial Boulevard. Then, last summer, Jefferson Parish politicians launched a campaign against taco trucks, changing permitting laws and sending enforcement officers after their operators and those who rented them space.

Montes likes his new home. He says he appreciates the friendly people he meets here, the traffic is less intense than in Houston and there are fewer Mexican restaurants competing for business. So with the parish government trying to close his taco-truck business, he decided to open a full-service restaurant instead.

Tacos are the centerpiece of his menu, and they are very good, but there is much more. For instance, the Milanesa steak is pounded thin, breaded and fried like some panéed Italian dish, though abetted by creamy black beans, crunchy cilantro and onion and drizzles of cool, pleasingly sour crema. My own favorite dish here is the alambres, a hash of bacon, ham, beef chunks, pineapple, onions and peppers strung together with strands of melted mozzarella, permeated with smoky flavor and edged with ribbons of char from the griddle. Meals are served on stylish platters, and wooden bowls of house-made chips arrive instantly and at no charge. Everything on the menu is priced below $10.

At Las Carnitas, Duran and her crew achieve minor culinary engineering feats by balancing slabs of meat, hills of rice, pools of gravy and gardens of garnishes in such a way that they manage not to collapse and blend together until you direct them to do so with your plastic fork. The meats change from one day to the next, but usually include a specialty that is loosely translated for non-Spanish-speaking customers as 'creamed chicken." This is a tender half chicken in smooth, mellow, orange-colored gravy that tastes something like an Indian tikki masala. Fried chicken is crusted with garlic, and chewy planks of steak are smothered in onions and peppers. There are sweet, soft-fried plantains and slabs of yucca, bone-white but infused with garlic for flavor and great with a shake of salt. None of the food is spicy without a trip to the self-serve tray of salsas by the cash register.

A pass through the salsa bar is also a highlight of a meal at Taqueria Madrid Chilangos, but the essential thing the two neighboring restaurants share is the evident work ethic of their owners.

Duran dashes between her two businesses throughout the day. She might spend the morning packing up plastic bags of thin-sliced steaks soaked in herbaceous marinade and ropes of chorizo in the tight confines behind her market's butcher counter. The lunch rush will likely find her a few miles away at Las Carnitas, plating the fried meat pies called pastelitos and mixing pitchers of mora, a sweet, refreshing blackberry drink.

Meanwhile, Montes says he and his family work from about 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week to keep their Taqueria Madrid Chilangos on a three-meal daily schedule.

'It is very hard work right now," Montes allows. 'But when you have a dream and you want something, you can take it. That's what this is for us. I work hard with my wife and we are catching our dream."

click to enlarge Patricia and David Montes (front right) with their staff at Taqueria Madrid Chilangos. - IAN MCNULTY
  • Ian McNulty
  • Patricia and David Montes (front right) with their staff at Taqueria Madrid Chilangos.
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