Volcano Rice Wows The Crowd: Laudable New South American Dishes at Latin Bites

The volcano rice arrived at our table to a chorus of wows: three hot stone bowls sizzling, crackling and steaming hot, with a colorful assortment of vegetables and meats arranged around a perfectly round yellow egg yolk. A Peruvian version of the Korean dolsot bibimbap, it was chef Roberto Castre's take on a fried rice -- an homage to the Peruvian Chinese food, known as chaufa, so ubiquitous in his homeland, Peru.

After the sizzling died down, servers were on hand to mix up the ingredients inside the hot stone bowl -- carrots and zucchini, Peruvian-marinated pork and chicken, chinese sausage, egg and more, all blended together with golden-crisped Jasmine rice to make one of the best fried rice dishes you'll have the pleasure of eating.

"This is one of my favorite restaurants in the city," said Felice Simmons, one of the Urban Swank bloggers sitting next to me at a recent media lunch held at Latin Bites. "Everything that I've ever had here is delicious."

I couldn't agree more. Every time I visit Latin Bites, I find another dish to add to my list of favorites in the city. During my first visit, back when they were still at their old location on Nance, I fell in love with their lomo saltado (stir fried beef chunks), their pollo a la parilla (rotisserie chicken), and their pappas a la crema (potatoes with cream sauce). Those still remain some of the best Peruvian dishes I've ever tasted.

Last summer, it was a stunning pulpo al olivo, or octopus tiradito with olive oil. Last fall, I was gaga over the duck confit with cilantro rice (and came back for it to celebrate my birthday), and a tuna tiradito with maracuya, or passion fruit. And this past summer, when I was eating sandwiches all over the city, the chicken club sandwich blew me away with its depth of flavor and textures, coming in number one on my list of Seven Stellar Sandwiches.

And yet, even with this list of greatest hits, Castre continues to create anew. On this recent afternoon, he was introducing new dishes with more of a South American theme. "We're still a Peruvian restaurant," explained Castre's sister and partner, Rita. "But we have clientele from Colombia, Venezuela and other countries who have been asking us for more South American dishes."

Castre's answer to this demand comes in the form of a palta rellena, or stuffed avocado, which was plated with a swoosh of avocado aioli. The halved ripe avocado was stuffed with a chunky pinkish mixture of potato salad with beets, apples, carrots, green peas, queso fresco and micro mint. The effect was like eating an avocado version of an ambrosia mix, with a creamier queso fresco that is lighter than mayonnaise. I loved it.

A goat cheese salad -- lightly honeyed bulbs of creamy goat cheese crusted with almonds and pecans atop a salad of arugula and red cabbage with slices of apple, dried cranberries and apricots -- was also delightful, and had a sweet and tangy passion-fruit dressing.

A mango and shrimp ceviche wowed for its complex marriage of flavors. I'm not typically a fan of shrimp ceviche, because if the shrimp are too big or not sufficiently cooked, they can have a slimy, inedible taste and texture. Castre was smart to poach the shrimp, which not only gave the crustaceans that pretty orange hue, but also a good, crisp bite. Combined with the velvety-smooth sweet potato puree, and mango with mint and ginger, diced as finely as mirepoix, it was definitely a ceviche worthy of the Houston Press Best Ceviche title for 2013.

We sampled many other dishes that day -- a deli sandwich of ham and turkey on a croissant with brie cheese and a piquillo pepper tapenade; a crispy vegetarian panini filled with grilled portobello and roasted red peppers; a rockin', fully deboned, fried chicken with honey-bacon glaze over purple mashed potatoes; Ricotta and black truffle-stuffed ravioli in a creamy marsala cream sauce; Andean-style creamy risotto topped with antichuchero-marinated beef; and a chicken and waffle slider from their brunch menu -- all of them delicious and worthy of a repeat visit.

And with that, I leave you with this video of the volcano rice in all its glory.

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