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
Once I was able to stop staring at the server as we waited for our food, I became newly hypnotized by the wall-length window that looks into the bustling kitchen. It's one thing, as a restaurant critic, to enjoy a dish based on its taste, creativity and presentation alone, but a new element is added when I'm able to see behind the scenes and get a feel for the care with which each plate is produced and assembled.
It's not a huge kitchen, but I didn't witness any near crashes or waiting around by staff to use a piece of equipment. The chefs worked like a well-oiled machine, which explains how the food is able to come out so fast even when the restaurant is full. I saw them using flaming woks, paintbrushes, various containers of colorful sauces, angular molds and stainless steel cream whippers to elevate ancient cuisine, and the juxtaposition of humble quinoa and handcrafted macarons was both mouthwatering and entertaining.
Compared with other South American cuisines or the ever-bastardized Mexican food popular across the United States, Peruvian cuisine is much lighter. You won't find any heavy refried-bean dishes or even tortillas. There is a great emphasis on fresh seafood (any and all of it, including octopus and squid), and though aji peppers are in nearly everything, Peruvian food is not particularly spicy. Even when the staff at Latin Bites describe meals as "spicy," what they mean is pungent, not hot.
5709 Woodway Drive
Houston, TX 77057
What Peru does share with Mexico is an emphasis on flavorful sauces and condiments; what salsa and mole are to Mexico, any of the dozens of aji variations are to Peru. The chiles are such a cornerstone of Peruvian cuisine that there's hardly a dish on the Latin Bites menu that doesn't include them in some form. And the food is all the better for that.
After uncovering the history of Peru and its foreign settlers throughout dinner, we weren't exactly hungry for dessert. I often find myself disappointed by dessert after an amazing meal. If a chef's specialty isn't sweets, I'd prefer to let the flavors of the meal linger in my mouth and in my mind rather than wiping them away with a slice of dry chocolate cake.
I needn't have worried at Latin Bites. My mother, who has recently gone paleo (don't get me started) and no longer eats desserts, refused to split one with me after either of our meals. She insisted upon getting her own. All thoughts of her carbohydrate and sugar consumption flitted away at the first sight of suspiro limeño, a dulce de leche mousse with a creamy, lemony Italian meringue topping garnished with lime zest and quinoa. The combination of citrus and caramel was unexpected, but they complemented each other, so the dessert was neither too sweet nor too sour.
Another standout from the dessert menu is the chocolate hazelnut flan, which is available only at dinner. It's smooth and creamy, as flan should be, but it's not like your average custard to which chocolate has been added as an afterthought. It's almost fudge-like but somehow smoother. It's surrounded by a puddle of crème anglaise that, once the flan has been consumed, is scooped up with a spoon and eaten like soup. None of that glorious vanilla custard was going back to the kitchen on that plate. No, sirree.
Of course, it's difficult to save room for all these incredible desserts after an appetizer (or two) and an entrée (or two). The plates are fairly small but deceptively filling, and once I started eating, I found it hard to stop. The aji de gallina is a revelatory dish and something I've now taken to calling Peruvian comfort food. It's shredded chicken in an aji chile and peanut cream sauce: sweet, savory, tart and incredibly delicate and nuanced while simultaneously evoking memories of Grandma's chicken pot pie, if my grandmother had been an adorable old Peruvian woman.
Lomo saltado, a classic Peruvian dish with Asian influences, also provided a mix of comfort and edge. The chunks of beef tenderloin — possibly the most tender tenderloin I've ever had the pleasure to not have to chew — were a perfect medium rare and swimming in a juice of soy sauce, oyster sauce, red wine and vinegar, each of which could be discerned. It was similar to a stir-fry one might find at a Chinese restaurant but with more dimension due to the exceptional quality of the beef and the lack of a syrupy-sweet MSG-laden sauce so common in Americanized Chinese food.
It's hard to say what I'll order next time I go to Latin Bites. I'm soothed and intrigued by the fusion of flavors in the aji de gallina and the lomo saltado, but half the fun of the place is seeing what kind of union of disparate cultures and tastes Castre will bring into being next. That said, I see a great deal of tiradito tres sabores in my future.
There's something about the combination of fresh raw fish, creamy leches de tigres, choclo and sweet potato puree that takes me on a mental vacation to the beaches of Lima and the Inca ruins that dot the city. Each dish is filled with an abundance of history made even more expressive by the juxtaposition of modern techniques, plating and atmosphere. One spoonful of tiradito, and I imagine even a mighty Inca emperor would fall to his knees in reverence.
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.