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Outside The Box

Latin American food sparkles in Matthews

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Traveling east on Independence Boulevard through Matthews you pass the successful new and already crowded Sycamore Commons Shopping Center on the left. Up a bit on the right, just before the I-485 exchange, is an older shopping center with a forlorn vacant big box backsplash still fronted by a number of hopeful out-parcel businesses. One such innovative bright spot and another step in the epicurean evolution of Matthews is the transformed fast food out- building now housing Mi Tierra, Latino Grill & Fritanga.

Co-owner and Nicaraguan native Natalia Herrera tells her story simply, "We came here (to Charlotte) and we were not able to find real Spanish food. There was only Mex-ican food. When my husband and I were looking for a house we saw a lot of Mexicans and South Americans working around the construction sites. So I suggested to my husband that we should start a lunch truck."

In 1994, she opened Los Caporales, a lunch truck. "That is a Mexican name which does not translate well," she continues. "It means "taking care of the people.' My first truck was very popular. Two years later I started a second lunch truck. When we opened the first truck, we were serving only Mexican food. Then we slowly introduced South American food. Now we can do Nicaraguan, Colombian, Cuban, and other South American food."

In addition to her lunch trucks business, Natalia Herrera has helmed a popular food booth at the annual Latino Festival for the past eight years. Herrera had developed such a popular local following that in July of this year she and her partners Mario Herrera, her husband, and Maurice Herrera, her brother-in-law, opened the free standing 87-seat Mi Tierra, Latino Grill & Fritanga at 11450 East Independence Boulevard in Matthews.

Converting a fast food space into a restaurant presents challenges. The entrance to Mi Tierra leads you through the fluorescently lit take-out counter into the tranquil dining room delineated by arched alcoves and walls painted in warm tones. Hand-hewn wooden booths line the wall while tables are scattered throughout the interior. Pictures of South America and kitsch dot the walls. Miniature beach umbrellas shade the tables' salt and pepper shakers from the dropped lighting.

This is not the tiresome Latin American rice and beans scene. Although Herrera offers the typical Mexican compadres, Nicaraguan and South American dishes are her center. In fact, she plans to introduce a new menu soon. She says, "We will keep the Mexican items on at lunch, but at dinner we will focus on Nicaraguan, Colombian, and Cuban food." She recently added a Cuban chef to the kitchen staff. She also plans to add seafood items, another staple in many Latino cuisines.

Nicaragua is a country filled with potentially serious natural disasters waiting to happen: earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, and landslides. The cuisine, however, is a mild blend of Latino and native cuisine. Items such as char-grilled meats, fried plantains, roots such as cassava (yucca), corn, and stews are common. One national dish, vigoron, is a mix of cassava, pork rinds, and cabbage. Another is gallo pinto, which means speckled rooster, a luscious mix of red rice and beans.

Slide into a booth to enjoy these moderately priced plates ripe for a hungry horde. Golden and piping hot sliced cassava arrived with a piquant cilantro dipping sauce. Thick slices of fried maduros had that mushy candied yam mouth feel and contrasted with the crispy fried thin strips of ripe plantain. Both dishes incited a similar revelatory effect.

Grilled dishes are accompanied with a triad of sauces: a heady herbaceous chimichurri, a blend of olive oil, vinegar, parsley, oregano, garlic and spices; salsa encurtido, a native Nicaraguan onion sauce; and a Cuban mojo vinaigrette sauce of olive oil and garlic. The Parrillada mi Tierra ($12.99) is a hearty mix of the three char-grilled plates on the menu. Deeply flavorful tender chicken, and thin strips of well cooked, though a tad chewy, sliced beef and pork were soon enveloped in the perfume of the chimichurri. Buried beneath the meat was a counterweight of thinly sliced vinegary coleslaw. This platter is more than enough for two. To finish we chose a velvety rice pudding with strands of cinnamon bark that proved a delightful end.

Herrera says that Nicaraguan beer is too expensive ($7 per beer) to offer at this time, but they do have domestic beers as well as those from Mexico and Peru. Soon they hope to add Colombian and Venezuelan beers. Also on the menu are the Central American mixed (non- alcoholic) drinks such as tamarind and cacao. These are sweet, but without sparkle.

These drinks, however, are the only elements that do not sparkle here. Ironically, Herrera's homespun Nicaraguan dishes are the antithesis of what was originally created in this cookie cutter box. Mi Tierra is one of those happy discoveries that unexpectedly delivers a good meal when there were no expectations at all.

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