Nuevos Amigos | Wine & Dine Review | Creative Loafing Charlotte

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Nuevos Amigos



Nationally, the nuevo Latino cuisine trend apparently has come and gone. It passed us by. What remains, however, are some Latino ingredients and food items, such as yucca, jicama, and empanadas, finding their way onto mainstream restaurants' menus. Even though Charlotte doesn't have any nuevo Latino restaurants in the wings, the area is booming with traditional Latino restaurants, not to mention groceries, bakeries, and more. During the past 10 years, the Latino population of Charlotte has grown considerably. The 2000 census estimated that seven percent of Charlotte's population is Latino, or about 39,800. La Noticia, a Spanish language newspaper, estimates the actual number is about 65,000. There are no records as to the increase of Latino restaurants. I was unsure what the Latino community thought of these new Latino restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries; who better to speak with than the people at La Noticia? I met with Luis Matta, La Noticia's editor, and Eduardo Perdomo, the paper's advertising manager, for lunch at the small Restaurante el Pulgarcito de America on Central Avenue in early September. Matta told me that he, Perdomo, and others from the newspaper visit area restaurants on a regular, but informal, basis. Their explorations are not sources for reviews in their paper. Both Matta and Perdomo are from Colombia. Matta, who moved to Charlotte in 1999, grew up in Medellin, a city in central Colombia. Of his native food, he says, "The region I come from is famous for beans. We also have a dish, bandeja paisa which is a large plate containing beans, rice, and three types of meat including blood sausage and bacon." Although Matta hasn't been there, bandeja paisa can be found as a Saturday special at La Cascada on South Boulevard. Matta also noted that arepas are inherently Colombian. Arepas, a staple food, are made from a very starchy, precooked corn flour, similar in texture to cornmeal. The flour is then mixed with salt and water and cooked quickly on a griddle. Small circular arepas are crisp and pale brown on the outside, and white, slightly doughy, and dense inside. Matta's favorite Mexican restaurant is Taqueria La Unica on Central, a restaurant that opened its third location in Charlotte last summer on Eastway Drive. There he orders the pork tacos el pastor. Matta also enjoys Latorre's, Latin-American Cuisine, downtown. He says, "At Latorre's the food is not actually typical, but it is an interesting combination of foods." Matta also enjoys the food at the annual Latin American festival just held at the Mint Museum. "For me it's interesting. It's a big event. I go to try the differences and find the similarities," he says. "You can find the same food in different countries and it changes. Yucca changes from country to country and frijoles (beans) have many variations. Pupusas are the same as arepas, but thicker and stuffed." Eduardo Persomo was an architect in Columbia before he and his family came here in 1996. One of his favorite restaurants is the Cuban La Gran Havana on Albemarle Road. There he orders the Lechon Asado, roasted pork with rice and plantains. Both Matta and Persomo agree that the best market for Latino food and ingredients is Celestino Hernandez's Carniceria La Mexicana, Butcher Shop on Central Avenue, and his smaller shop on South Boulevard. Restaurante el Pulgarcito de America, located in the space formerly occupied by La India Bonita, is on one of my favorite eating blocks in Charlotte. Across the parking lot are the Thai restaurant, King and I; the Vietnamese Huong Viet; the Santa Dominican La Canasta Dominicana Restaurant; and a large oriental market. El Pulgarcito e America, which Matta explains means elbow of America and is used frequently in conjunction with the name of El Salvador, opened in July 2000. New owners Giovani (Henry) and Delmi Chirinos bought the restaurant in September (between my visits) from a couple in Boston. Giovani Chirinos is from Honduras and Delmi Chirinos is from El Salvador. The dining room is simple and pleasant and the health rating hangs prominently across from the entrance. Most of the items on the menu are from El Salvador or Mexico. New to the restaurant is the daily morning special: a plate of beans, plantain, cheese, cream, and two eggs for $4.99. Also the Chirinos plan to offer Sopa de Caracol, a Honduran specialty soup with snails, coconuts, yucca, and chilis, and Gallo Pinto, the Costa Rican national dish of rice and beans. El Pulgarcito specializes in pupusas, which are such a common food in El Salvador that shops called pupusarias specialize in them. Pupusas are to El Salvador what tortillas are to Mexico: the vehicle in which another food product is wrapped. These, however, are thicker than a tortilla and resemble a corn pancake which has been flattened on a griddle and then filled with a choice of refried beans and cheese, cheese alone, or pork and cheese. A tasty treat for $1.50. The Mexican tacos ($3.95) here are the soft tortilla variety and flavorful with a lusty squeeze of the accompanying quarter lime. The chicken sandwich ($4.95) was first rate on a fine glossy large bun slathered with refried beans and mayonnaise and augmented with thick wedges of avocado, small pieces of chicken, romaine lettuce and slices of jalapenos. Beware, some of the slices of jalapeno are julienned, which have a tendency to resemble bell pepper. The highlight of lunch, we all agreed, was the side of delicately fried yucca strips almost glistening with an unexpected soulfulness. If you do not speak Spanish, communication may be a problem here. When Matta, Perdomo, and I had lunch, our server deferred to them and spoke an animated sort of Spanish. On a second occasion, without the help of my Spanish speaking friends, I found myself relegated to pointing at pictures from the menu and was glad I had asked most of my questions on the first visit. Giovani Chirinos noted they have many "American" (his phrase, not mine) customers. Restaurante El Pulgarcito de America is a place which has no culinary statement to make, no over-the-top menu. This is traditional Latino food where customers come to eat their fill of simple, good-tasting, home-styled food. And it is an especially nice place to make new friends. Let's hope that's one trend that's here to stay. Restaurante El Pulgarcito de America, 4816 Central Avenue. 704-563-6500. Hours: 9am until 10pm daily. MC, Visa.

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