Local Spotlight

Latin Bites: Peppers and Pisco in Perfect Harmony

Latin Bites has come a long way. First a catering business, then to its miniature space in the Warehouse District on Nance and now to its greatly expanded location on Woodway.

The new venue is open, airy and bright. You can saddle up to the pisco bar -- the only one in Houston -- or to the cebiche bar where you can view all that is going on in the open kitchen. It's an inviting environment not only because of the space itself but because of the customer service provided by the owners and staff.

The family-run Peruvian restuarant has been recognized numerous times: The ceviche was named No. 55 on Katharine Shilcutt's 100 favorite dishes of 2011 and executive chef Roberto Castre was named Eater's chef of the year that same year.

At a recent media dinner I was able to try some favorites on the menu done up with a twist to show off what Chef Castre's cooking is all about and I even learned what real pisco sours are supposed to taste like.

The evening started with a surprise amuse-bouche: beef tartare served in an aji amarillo (Peruvian yellow pepper) sauce with grated aji amarillo on top. You'd think with so much pepper on one plate your palate would be overwhelmed, but the beef stood on its own with the peppers adding a subtle heat, sweetness and tartness. The amuse- bouche was served with the first cocktail of the evening -- a pisco sour, the signature cocktail of Peru, authentically made with fresh egg white. It is a smooth and sweet cocktail with no harsh bite to it. This may be because Pisco Porton was used, a premium pisco. But don't be fooled -- pisco is 43 percent alcohol.

The second dish was my favorite of the evening, a rocoto-infused causita with aji amarillo huancaina sauce topped with duck escabeche and arugula. It's a mouthful to say and a mouthful of distinct flavors all at once to eat. Traditionally, causa is made by layering potatoes, but in this case it was a dish of smooth sweet potatoes infused with rocoto chiles. The smoky duck escabeche paired perfectly with the spicy cream sauce. It wouldn't be a meal from Latin Bites without a ceviche and the tuna tiradito is a great example of what they do best, the fresh seafood infused with aji amarillo was presented beautifully with wonton strips, cucumbers and sweet potatoes.

The next few dishes were a mixture of old school Peruvian cooking with the Chef's modern edge -- Aji Gallina (shredded chicken in cream sauce), traditionally served on the menu with rice, but served here on top of a home-made tart. Lomo Saltado, the most notable dish from Peru, was served inside a corn cake topped with cheese and resembled a shepherd's pie. It was hearty, filling and absolute comfort food.

The sweet dishes stood up to their savory counterparts. The intermezzo was a strawberry and rocoto pepper sorbet that was addictive, the sweetness hitting your palate first with the heat lingering at the back of your mouth. Dessert was a cheese cake infused with purple corn, green apples, pineapples, cinnamon and topped with pisco infused grapes.

A Porton Piscoffee, coffee with piso, cinnamon, cloves, Bailey's and Kahlua was the perfect way to end the meal.

The memorable meal was made all the more special by the hospitality of the staff. It's no wonder that faithful customers have followed Latin Bites to its new location or that new customers in the area have embraced the restaurant and Chef Castre's creative take on traditional foods from his roots. It looks 2012 is only going to be bigger and better for Latin Bites.

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Minh T Truong