By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
As soon as the sauce of the tiradito tres sabores reached my taste buds, I knew I was embarking on unfamiliar territory. A glance at the menu confirmed my suspicions. Rocoto. Limo. Choclo. I had no idea what those words meant. No wonder my senses were so delighted.
The flavors I experienced were first tart and citrusy; my mouth puckered from the impact of lime, and as I braced for a continuous onslaught of acid, I was met instead with a creamy, mellow heat evocative of cream of poblano soup but with a different spice and sweetness than that of the poblano pepper.
This, then, was the aji rocoto, aji limo and aji amarillo that combine to make the leche de tigres that the menu promised, a trio of Andean peppers each with a slightly different essence. Bold heat, earthy citrus, and the essence of sundried tomatoes and bell peppers, when blended with lime and fish broth, somehow become smooth, creamy and even comforting. Which is an odd thought for a cold dish of raw fish and spices. But it was. The tiradito was comforting, and it suddenly became clear to me why recipes like this with ancient aji peppers and chewy, starchy choclo corn have been made and eaten continuously since before the height of the Inca Empire.
5709 Woodway Drive
Houston, TX 77057
Peruvian food is like a history lesson on a plate. The crunchy quinoa garnishing many of the dishes was first domesticated by the Andean people more than 3,000 years ago. The Incas revered the grain as sacred, but Spanish colonists believed it to be peasant food and suppressed its cultivation. The large, starchy choclo grains that provide a textural contrast in Peruvian ceviche or tiradito have been found in ruins of Andean villages that were at least 3,600 years old. Archaeologists have found sweet potato remnants in ancient towns in Peru dating back as far as 8000 B.C.
I tell you all this to highlight the delightful contrast inherent in each plate brought out to my table during multiple meals at Latin Bites in a small strip center in Uptown. The decor, the presentation and even some of the flavor combinations are undeniably modern, but the ingredients have been cultivated by the Peruvian people since long before the New World was a dream in the back of an explorer's mind.
Traditional arroz verde is packed into metal cookie cutters to create an aesthetically pleasing cube shape, rather than presented as a mound of rice on a plate. Empanadas are served with a side of aji rocoto huancaina sauce made from rocoto peppers, cream cheese, queso fresco and crumbled crackers on sleek, modern, white plates with a special compartment for the sauce. Desserts feature small amounts of seemingly decorative (until you taste them) sauces spread across the plate with a paintbrush or dotted around the dish with a modified squirt bottle. The elements of design taken into account when plating a meal add an extra dimension to the experience.
Then there are the flavor combinations. Going into a meal at a Peruvian restaurant, I had no idea how much of the menu would be influenced by cultures outside of South America. Latin Bites states on its menu that the cuisine is inspired by "millenary Inca culture and a mixture of African, Asian and European gastronomic influence." It's not exactly fusion per se, but it's not straightforward Peruvian food, either. It's also not a novel concept. The traditional food of Peru has an amalgamation of cultural influences that began when the Europeans, and later Asians, began colonizing there hundreds of years ago.
This is how you get dishes that combine aji amarillo-infused potatoes with Spanish shrimp escabeche or traditional Peruvian beef tenderloin sautéed with soy sauce in a wok. This is how you get creole-influenced shrimp chowder filled with Peruvian corn and queso fresco. This is how you get tiramisu with a layer of lucuma fruit native to the Andes. This is what makes Latin Bites so unexpected and so wonderful.
Latin Bites opened in 2010, first as a catering company, then as a hole-in-the-wall joint in the Warehouse District. In early 2012, it expanded to its current location on Woodway, and it's a good thing. Even in a space that can seat more than 100 people, the place is packed for dinner most nights, and it's easy to see why.
The family-run restaurant is helmed by Roberto Castre, who was named Eater's chef of the year in 2011. The ceviche was named No. 55 on Katharine Shilcutt's 100 favorite dishes of 2011, and I guarantee there will be a Latin Bites entrée on my upcoming 100 favorite dishes list as well.
A delightful meal at Latin Bites is made all the more memorable by the staff, many of whom are Peruvian and all of whom are genial, helpful and knowledgeable about the menu. After my first meal at Latin Bites, my Peruvian waiter remembered my mother and me and came to ask us about our dinner during any spare moment he got, even though he was working in a different section of the restaurant. It probably didn't hurt that both my mother and I were flirting with him nonstop. I'm pretty sure he was flirting back, but it may have just been his Spanish accent and Latin nature that led both of us — my 60-something-year-old mother and myself — to be completely entranced by him.
I agree with gossamersixteen, this is a fantastic review, Ms. Steinberg. If the Mrs. and I didn't already have plans for Austin--and Fonda San Miguel--this would be our cheat-day spot. Whelp, know what we're doing next weekend.