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By Kaitlin Steinberg
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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.
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.
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.