Like most foodies, I'm fond of almost all ethnic cuisines, and I'm always heartened to hear of another attempting a toe-hold in greater Phoenix. Indeed, upon learning of one, my first instinct is to pull on my socks and head out the door quicker than Pope Benedict XVI can sputter "Dominus vobiscum." Problem is, once you get to the eatery in question, it's a real crapshoot, and may not be as exemplary as you hoped. Such was the case with this new Colombian joint in Chandler, Sabor Latino ("Latin Flavor"), where I enjoyed about half of the comestibles I consumed.
Sabor Latino is a clean, cozy little place, opened in August of last year by Ana Garcia, who hails from Medellín, Colombia. The restaurant is bright and airy, painted orange and yellow, with quaint, rustic tablecloths and travel posters all around of Medellín and Cali. The TV is often tuned to MTV Español, especially if Yasmin is serving, a friendly lass who happens to be the only bilingual staff member. Fortunately, the menu is in English and Spanish, so even if Yasmin or owner Garcia isn't present, ordering what you want should be as simple as using a little body language.
I've lived near Colombian restaurants in the past, and I've always had good luck with the savory, heartwarming dishes of that South American country. So I approached Sabor Latino with fairly high expectations, and in case my memory was faulty, brought along a Colombian pal on one dining excursion, so I could ask how it compares to what she and her family cook at home.
Let's hit the high notes first. The empanadas, those Latin American meat-and-potato croquettes that come in various shapes and sizes, were here at Sabor Latino, small, warm and delicioso. They came in a delicate corn crust and were accompanied by tiny containers of tangy salsa, and I could have inhaled an entire plate and been quite pleased with that alone. Wash them down with a bottle or two of sweet Kola Champagne, a Colombian soda pop, or one of the fresh fruit juices made in house, like guava with crushed ice and milk.
Appetizer-wise, my other predilection was for tostones con pollo, wherein a large green plantain is smashed, fried, piled with shredded chicken, and dribbled over with a pink sauce similar to Russian dressing. The green plantain is starchy and just stiff enough to hold all the chicken, but with enough give to make it toothsome. I've had tostones at other places where they put all kinds of gunk on them, but at Sabor Latino the tostones are light and tasty, with that pink sauce giving it just enough zing to make it sing in your mouth.
Of the main courses I waded into face-first, two were especially memorable. The bistec encebollado is a thin strip of marinated sirloin, smothered in grilled onions, with sides of rice, red beans, and a couple of small green plantains. Needless to say, you won't go away hungry from this ensemble. Same can be said of the bandeja con pollo, a hearty plate of a quarter rotisserie chicken, sweet plantains, beans and rice, a fried pork rind, a slice of avocado, a fried egg placed over your rice sunny side up, and a hard, biscuitlike corn patty called an arepa, which I'll get to further on. Overall, this plate left me terribly satisfied. The pork rind with its strip of flesh takes some getting used to, but I'm down with any platter that includes a fried egg. Plus the sweet plantains were sticky and addictive, and the avocado intriguing once my Colombian buddy advised me to sprinkle a little salt over it. This really seemed to bring out the flavor of that buttery green fruit.
Postprandial sweets? There are a few options: rice pudding, a flan made off the premises, and brevas con arequipe, or two candied figs served with a lump of squishy caramel. As unusual as brevas con arequipe may seem to yanquis, this is a true Colombian delicacy not to be missed. After all, who doesn't like caramel? And figs are one of my many gustatory passions, right up there with marzipan, green tea ice cream, and persimmon pudding. I could gobble a freighterload of figs and a volcano full of caramel, for the largest brevas con arequipe ever!
The flan and rice pudding were okay, but I'd steer clear of the mazamorra con bocadillo, which may be the oddest thing I've placed in my mouth since my obsession with Pop Rocks as a lad. Mazamorra con bocadillo is basically al dente corn in a bowl of milk with a bit of candied guava paste on the side. I enjoyed the guava paste, but this corn and milk combo was just not doing it for me. One of those dishes that must be strictly for the home team.
To go back to the arepas for a moment, these were harder than I've had in the past, and didn't seem to have cheese inside, like they sometimes have. Arepas are a staple of the Venezuelan and Colombian diets, and I'm not impugning how traditional these are, only that the ones I've had through sources that use suppliers such as www.arepas.com were more appealing. Arepas.com also sells pandebonos, a Colombian cheesebread similar to the Brazilian pão de queijo, which would make a welcome addition to Sabor Latino's menu.
In addition, I'm a yuca nut, and have always adored the cassava root, no matter how it's prepared. I can't be 100 percent sure, but Sabor Latino's yuca tasted like it had been frozen, not made from fresh. Even when I ate it as yuca frita, or yuca fries, there was that niggling aftertaste reminiscent of the freezer.
The sobrebarriga a la criolla, or sautéed flank steak with all the fixin's, was another letdown, in that it was too chewy to be gratifying. A bit like gnawing on beef jerky, though my Colombian amiga tells me she's had it before at Sabor Latino, and the meat was soft. I can only guess that it was not stewed or marinated for an adequate length of time.
Ultimately, I'm happy Sabor Latino exists, but I'd like to see some improvements. Meanwhile, as long as you order the right things, you'll at least get an inkling of how captivating Colombian food can be.
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