Two Central and South American restaurants serve food that explodes stereotypes of Latino cuisine.
by Pam George Published September 18, 2008 at 05:55 AM
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14 Wilmington Ave.
Manos Latinas Cuisine
2304 Kirkwood Hwy.
Yolanda Pineda was smiling ear to ear. This, apparently, is not unusual. When customers enter Mariachi—the Rehoboth Beach restaurant she owns with fellow Salvadorian José Perez—she typically greets them with a grin.
But Pineda’s lovely smile seemed even wider than usual. A customer had just ordered one of her favorite house dishes, lengua al vino, or, as we say in English, “tongue with wine.”
The customer was my dining partner. And yes, I was hesitant to try something that in its former incarnation could have tasted me back. I have no problem with pork belly, sushi, sweetbreads, steak tartar and crispy chicken skin. Tongue, however, was scary territory, despite the fact it’s a beloved dish throughout Latin America.
Turns out, tongue is no more scary than thinly sliced squares of roast beef, which is what it tasted like. (Just ignore those little bumps along the edge.) It was the sauce, however, that made the dish memorable. Chef Jaime Perez cooks carrots, red onions and celery in sherry wine and Madeira wine until they release their essence. Then he strains the sauce to produce something that is full-bodied yet silky.
“This guy works hard before the food comes to the table,” Pineda later said proudly.
Such selections demonstrate that there is more to Latino cuisine than tacos and tostados. Mariachi is a fun fusion of Spanish and Mexican dishes. Some have an authentic flair. Others receive a nuevo twist.
But Mariachi is not the only Delaware restaurant to expand Americans’ horizons. Manos Latinas in Elsmere offers diners the chance to sample upscale Peruvian cuisine, courtesy of Guillermo Llerena, who honed his skills in Lima, Peru.
Most of the time, both restaurants offer well-presented and well-executed dishes that make each course a discovery. Both manage to combine a mom-and-pop affability with quality ingredients and flavors that often exceed expectations. But this is where the comparison stops. As Mariachi and Manos so aptly demonstrate, the colorful cuisine in Central and South America is wonderfully diverse. Putting the two side by side would be like comparing guava and plantains.
Mariachi has location on its side. Just a block from the beach, the restaurant’s first floor has a bank of sliding glass doors and the second floor features a balcony.
With white tile floors and white linens, the dining room is neat but unassuming, especially when compared to its culinary neighbors, which are dressed to capture tourists’ attention. I pitied the launderer who had to work on my salsa and sauce stains. It looked like I slaughtered something for dinner.
Mariachi’s salsa is not the best I’ve sampled. It was watery that night and the chips tasted stale. Not a good start. A well-made caipirinha however, softened my stance, as did the appetizers.
Mussels floated in a delicious sherry broth spiked with strips of ginger that delivered a zing when I bit into them. The broth was so good that it begged for bread. A tortilla just wasn’t good sopping material.
The flour tortilla came from my queso fundido con chorizo, gooey Chihuahua cheese studded with crumbled chorizo, all served in a mini casserole dish—the kind used for crab imperial. Pulling the cheese apart took some fancy finger work, which was easier when I used the tortilla as a tool. Though not a good dish for a first date, it was ideal for sharing with friends.
Pupusas, however, won the prize, partly because I’ll give nearly anything made with comforting corn flour a blue ribbon. I loved the puffy pita-like gorditas stuffed with pork and cheese. “You must have them with the slaw,” Pineda instructed. We folded the pillows around the vinegary cabbage. Crunchy and soft. Sour and salty. Soothing and invigorating. Opposites really do attract.
I was as enamored of the masitas de puerco, chunks of shredded pork marinated in criolla (creole) spices: garlic, onion, bay leaves, oregano and cumin. Though roasted in lemon juice and bitter oranges from Seville, there was nothing bitter about the dish, which was peppery and robust. And because bitter orange is said to have medicinal benefits, the pork did double duty. A few tortillas on the side would have been welcome.
Mariscada in Gulf sauce just couldn’t stand up to our more vivacious entrées. Scallops, shrimp, squid, mussels and fish nodded lazily in a sherry broth. Though light and fresh-tasting, the entrée taste shrank against the more forward flavors of our other two dishes.
Tres leche cake was suitably soaked with condensed milk, evaporated milk and whipping cream, then topped with whipped cream and a squiggle of caramel. I recommend scrapping the whipped cream on the flan, which masked the wonderful caramel crust on top. Sopapillas were floppy squares of flaky pastry—a sticky, happy mess. But for something sweet, I much preferred a side of creamy plantains, picked at the perfect time and cooked masterfully.
Manos is an entirely different dining experience. On Kirkwood Highway near Elsmere, the small building looks as though it houses the restaurant and the owners’ home.
Traffic streaks by the windows in the dining room, which is decorated with requisite pictures of Peru and llamas. It’s tidy and pleasant, though the glass-front refrigerator makes you think of a sandwich shop and the air conditioner on our visit struggled to produce cold air, despite its loud efforts. I also had to get over listening to George Michael on the radio. Fortunately, the crunchy Peruvian corn kernels—Peru’s version of salsa and chips—soon distracted us.
By far my favorite dish was huancaina. Who would have thought sliced potatoes, served with a sliced egg could seem so gourmet? As was the case with many of Mariachi’s dishes, credit the sauce, in this case a slightly spicy, slightly cheesy concoction made with evaporated milk and aji amarillo, a yellow Peruvian pepper.
The dish’s wholesome earthiness delivered a soul-satisfying flavor. For the same reason, I loved the pastel de camarones, a sort of pie made with layers of mashed potatoes, woodsy mushrooms, shrimp and capers, which added a tart bite. Like Mariachi’s pupusas, the dish combined contrasting textures and flavors. Few Americans would think to combine shrimp and mashed potatoes, let alone throw capers in the mix.
Slivers of tilapia—“cooked” in a lemon, garlic and yellow pepper sauce—lacked the restrained quality of a good ceviche, which is refreshing and vibrant. Instead of titillating our palate, the tilapia alarmed it. Swimming in sauce, the fish was too sour and vinegary.
Sliced steak topped with a fried egg and accompanied by fries was decent, though the meat was a little chewy. But when given the chance, opt for Llerena’s livelier dishes, including the medley of shrimp, peas and tiny carrot cubes tossed in a saffron-infused rice. I was delighted to find fine saffron threads in the bottom of the bowl.
Llerena’s deft hand with spices and herbs made sopa criolla (Creole soup) a slurpable delight. Slender pieces of beef floated in a broth whose creep-up-on-you heat reminded me of Thailand’s tom yum soup. The tomato-based broth also contained thin strands of pasta.
Though we had a bit of a language barrier, service was efficient at Manos. But sadly we were the only ones there on a Tuesday night.
Prices are certainly reasonable for the quality of the food. Appetizers range from $4.99 for Peruvian corn to $12.99 for deep-fried squid to $18 for a mixed seafood plate for two. Most entrées are under $20. But if you order an appetizer, soup and entrée, you’re spending more than you would at many area restaurants featuring Latin American cuisine. That might surprise diners who equate Latin cuisine with cheap family food.
There is nothing mass-produced about either Manos or Mariachi. Each dish tastes as though it was made at home for guests. (In the case of Manos, that was not far from the truth.) Both restaurants seem to have the desire to take diners on a culinary trip to Latin America.
Given the number of entrées I’d like to try, that trip is one I’d like to make often.
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