While Mexican food is proliferating over the local restaurant landscape of late, it’s been a while since a new purveyor of other Central American comestibles has hung out its shingle (to my admittedly limited knowledge). Luckily, anchors like Acajutla, Mamenche’s and El Rancho persist. Even the unique-slash-weird Cafe Roma is creeping up on a decade slinging Salvadorian and Guatemalan food. The arrival of Latino’s in Chinatown has broken this novelty drought, and is certainly deserving of your attention.
Latino’s was preceded in its premises by a Filipino restaurant-night club that fell short on both accounts. The present tenants have replaced their chain mail curtains and scuzzy vibe with a bright, open, family-friendly space with a colourful paint job and big TVs extolling the restaurant’s menu and drinks in detail to a percolating Latin music soundtrack. The stage and disco lights remain, though, and the staff are ready to indulge your penchant for karaoke, should you have such a thing.
The priority here was trying the food. Latino’s doesn’t veer too far from the expected in terms of selection, but they do stress their gluten-free and vegetarian capabilities, which is always reassuring to those constituencies. Carnivores should be satisfied with the range of meats and meat styles that can be applied to tostadas, tacos, burritos, enchiladas and chalupas, or they can shoot the works with the Churrasco Argentino ($65.99) a serving of three meats and sides fit to feed six. There was a brief but tense conversation about whether four of us could surmount such an order, but we resolved to spread out to cover more ground.
Two of us, however, could not resist the pupusas ($14.99), and I was one of them—on a dare, I ordered mine “diabla” on the spice scale. The remaining co-diners opted for enchilladas rojas and chalupas ($15.99 each) respectively. On a whim I ordered a cactus salad ($10.99) for the table.
The whim was well-received. The cactus salad is a platter of freshly shredded iceberg lettuce topped with spears of pickled cactus, avocado slices, and feta cheese. It had a refreshing lime-juice snap, and the distinct savour of the tender cactus spears was not unlike mild pickled green beans. It was most agreeable.
Just when I was starting to wonder where the next course was at, more big oval plates landed in front of us. My three pan-browned pupusas came with the customary accompaniment of fermented cabbage slaw called curtido, fresh salsa, sour cream and the promised ramekin of angry red diabla sauce. Along with house-made tortilla chips dolloped with rich refried beans, there was also a mound of truly delicious tomato rice studded with veggies. In fact, everything on the plate was a little bit of just right—I could have eaten a whole bowl of the earthy, silky refried beans with the crisped tortillas and pico de gallo. The pupusas—panfried cornflour turnovers usually filled with cheese, beans and/or seasoned meat—were a little firmer than I’m accustomed to, but that didn’t make them wrong. The crisped exterior harboured a hearty cargo of tender shredded beef and cheese, the flavour of which not even sweat-popping diabla sauce could obscure. I didn’t try my co-diner’s chicken pupusas, but his medium salsa, tinted a less alarming yellow, was a more reasonable balance of heat and pepper flavour. The chalupas—corn tortillas topped with black beans and meat—and enchiladas rojas, wherein meat is rolled in tortillas and smothered in a rich roasted vegetable sauce, also met with approval.
For dessert we shared some flan, which was not as custardy as we expected, but still toothsome and served with chocolate sauce for bonus marks.
Not quite sated in my desire to get to know Latino’s menu, I went back a couple of days later and found the same friendly owner-operators ready to serve me. I had the tacos ($14.99) with carnitas—three corn tortillas very filled with steamy simmered pork, topped with chopped onions and cilantro, served with a thin but very zesty tomato sauce as well as the house medium salsa, plus more of that delicious tomato rice. That it sits squarely in the pack quality-wise with Edmonton’s noted taco stands is no faint praise. But I’m even gladder there’s another Central American restaurant in town doing tasty, honest homemade food at pretty much exactly the same price as everyone else.