Latin culture and cuisine run as parallel as the stripes of a serape—its very vitality sewn into the close-knit social fabric and bright colored culinary fare. These are the countries that gave the world some of its most beloved touchstones—chocolate from Honduras, corn from Argentina, potatoes from Chile, chillies of Ecuador, tomatoes and vanilla of Mexico, and endless coffee beans thanks to Brazil. From the mountains of the Andes to the rainforest of the Amazon and all the playas in between, the diverse lands of Latin America transcend national borders with dishes deserving of global reverence.  


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BRAZILIAN  Crave the Rainforest

Glamorized by Copacabana’s provocative beaches and its enormous, raucous Carnaval festival, the country’s cooking practices and traditions show characterizations of African, Amerindian and of course a strong Portuguese influence. Dishes vary greatly among its continental size, often melting pots of native and immigrant populations. At Vila Brasil Café, where the husband and wife owners relocated from São Geraldo do Baixio, diners can enjoy a buffet of authentic Brasileira ingredients to make a salad, snag some sides of feijões (black beans), arroz (steamed rice) and Yucca fries. The main attraction however, remains the many cooked meats seared on oversized metal skewers. Amongst the army of carnivorous helpings sautéed with garlic and onion, choose from Coração de Frango (chicken hearts), Linguiça de Porco (pork sausage), Picanha Acebolada (grilled steak tenderloin), Carne Alcatra (rump meat) and Frango á Milanesa (breaded chicken breast, option to be wrapped in bacon). Served with pimento spicy garlic sauce for a party in the mouth. Many exotic fruits and nuts native to Brazil are offered in eight different sucos (juices) such as acerola, cashew, manga and cajà.    Vila Brasil Café, 3230 Clark Rd., Sarasota, 941-487-8649. 


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COLOMBIA  Binging Bogota

Colombia’s influence comes from its diverse fauna and flora as well as cultural traditions of indigenous, Spanish and African cuisines, with slight Arab influence in some regions. Being one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, Colombia intrigues its visitors with colorful cities and its varying culinary fare across six different regions. Recently opened and with flavors hailing from Medellin, The Colombian Point offers Entrada al Punto, a house sampler of staple finger foods to kick off your meal found under ‘Antojitos’ (appetizers/cravings,) enjoy a sampling of four chicharrónes (pork belly/rind) on mini arepas, four mini beef empanadas and four chicken stuffed potatoes, fried with egg and peas. Served with traditional Creole salsa, house chimichurri and aji sauces. Insider tip: wash down with a bottle of Aguila pilsner—la cerveza that defines the Colombian way of life.  The Colombian Point, 402 North Washington Blvd., Sarasota, 941-316-4045.  Mi Sitio Colombian Restaurant, 3650 Webber St., Sarasota, 941-921-3604.  


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PERUVIAN  Munchu Picchu

Rich in ancient Incan archeological sites. Rich in fresh, refined flavors. Peru’s colonial heritage and culinary terrain remain an exemplar of fusion cuisine due to its vast multicultural history. (No, we’re not going to make you eat cuyo, even though it remains part of the Andean diet and a delicacy the past 5,000 years.) Owners of Brasa & Pisco bring Sarasota urban-Peruvian dishes such as Lomo Saltado—beef marinated with soy sauce, red wine vinegar and garlic, sauteed with veggies—served with hand cut fries and side of white rice. For something a little more inventive, try the Quinoa Risotto with perfectly seared ahi tuna, served on a bed of tri-color Peruvian yellow pepper quinoa risotto, made of queso fresco and parmesan. Top it off with the Lucuma Cheesecake, flavored with lúcuma pulp (fruit native to the valleys of Peru and Ecuador) on a graham cracker crust and drizzled with dulce de leche. On the flipside of town, stop in to meet the owners of Maemi, hailing from coastal Lima. Here, you’ll find your beloved ceviches in their most authentic form—made with the freshest pescado (fish) and camarones (shrimp), soaking in lime juice and peppers and served with yams and choclo (corn grown in the mountains of Cuzco). If you’re feeling daring, order the Anticuchos—beef heart marinated in red wine vinegar, red hot peppers, garlic and other exotic spices for eight hours, then grilled till tender. Goes down quite nicely with a bottle of Cusqueña golden lager (Peru’s national beer). Insider tip: be sure to ask for Maiz tostado (cancha corn nuts) as a native must-have to snack on while waiting for main courses. Dip in Maemi’s house sauces—the Rocoto pink sauce made of spicy hot rocoto peppers, and the Huacatay verde sauce made with the fruity aji amarillo chile.  Brasa & Pisco, 8347 Lockwood Ridge Rd., Sarasota, 941-870-4992.  Maemi Peruvian Cuisine, 3482 17th St., Sarasota, 941-366-6585. 


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MEXICAN  Sips Between Salsa

Mexican cuisine began about 9,000 years ago, when agricultural communities such as the Maya formed, domesticating maize (the ground cereal grain of corn used to make your favorite carb load for food items like tortillas and tamales). Hailing from the tequila capital of the world, Guadalajara, the owner of Catrina’s Tacos & Tequila Bar make dreams come true with the Catrina’s Nachos. The Chille Relleno is a fun option served as a giant poblano pepper, stuffed with either cheese for the vegetarians, and/or picadillo (ground beef with carrots, potatoes, onions, raisins and lots of spices). And a major Mexican standout dish deems to be the Molcajete—a mix of sizzling grilled steak, shrimp, chicken, chorizo and queso fresco, served in a stone molcajete dish, aka Mexico’s version of the mortar and pestle, used to make salsas and guacamole. Speaking of, snag the addicting avocado-based dip with fresh pico de gallo and cotija at Plaza Mexico Bar & Grill. Insider tip: Go for the extra option on the menu when ordering guac—a made-to-order tableside version by the chefs, for an immersive Mexicano experience. Catrina’s Tacos & Tequila Bar, 1525 4th St., Sarasota, 941-260-9737.  Plaza Mexico Bar + Grill, 1894 Stickney Point Rd., Sarasota, 941-999-3652. 


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CUBAN  Revolutionary Fare

Cuba’s collection of tropical recipes share spices and cooking techniques of Caribbean flavor. Lest we forget the famed Cuban sandwich (sometimes called a mixto), prevailing as a popular lunch item that grew out of the once-open flow of cigar workers between Cuba and Florida. Recently opened, La Chuleria Café does it big with the ‘Cubano Sandwich Supremo,’ clocking in at more than a foot long. With the pressed bread baked fresh every morning, the generous proportions of ham, salami, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and a mustard/mayo spread come together for classic flavors done right. Insider tip: order a cup of Cuban soup to dip the sandwich for some added flavor from the pollo broth. If half your heart is in Havana, the Puerco Asado (roasted pork dish) remains an island favorite amongst hungry regulars. But for the folks looking for lighter fare, try the Toasted Rellenos—stuffed plantains with seasoned, grilled shrimp. Served piping hot and gone before you know it, the meal washes down nicely with an imported can of Jugo de Guayaba (guava juice). Additionally, head over to Rincon Cubano for a nod-worthy rendition of Ropa Viejo—although translated, “old cloth” in English, it’s nothing like worn fabric. In fact, the shredded/pulled flank beef stewed with vegetables remains the national dish of Cuba. After, indulge in Rincon’s many signature Latin desserts, such as the creamy flan, rice pudding or selection of Cuban puff pastries filled with sweet or savory fillings. La Chuleria Café, 2385 12th St, Sarasota, 941- 330-1067.  Rincon Cubano, 1756 Honore Ave., Sarasota, 941-706-3472.  


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VENEZUELAN Farm to Truck Fresh

Venezuelan cuisine will have you saying, “¡dame más!” due to sumptuous domestic dishes like Hallacas—corn dough wrapped in plantain, filled with a stuffing called guiso, made with beef, olives, pork, capers and many vegetables. And we’re lucky enough to have not one, but two Venezuelan food trucks for Sarasotans to enjoy authentic Latin street food with a twist. The guys at Code941 custom built their truck from scratch from an old empty 1979 van. The black cruiser serves up many choices of stuffed Arepas, including the grilled chicken, smoked chorizo and lomito (the popular steak option cooked “parrilla” style on the grill). Relocating to Florida from Maracaibo, Code941 keeps it as much like home as they can with homemade arepa patties and accompanying sides like tequeños (fried breaded cheese sticks). Two brothers from Maracay make up Kuwai’s bright yellow set of wheels, and stay true to their roots by offering the same variety, flavor and culture in their food that they grew up with. Pepito sandwiches are handheld delights and pair great with side of papas caracas. If you can somehow manage to save room for dessert, Kuwai has two options—the torta 3 leches and tora de pan.  Code941, 10522 52nd Ct. E, Parrish, 941-592-3414.  Kuwai, 3005 South Tuttle Ave., Sarasota, 941-718-8215. 


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ARGENTINIAN Tastes of Tango

Argentine people have a reputation for their love of eating and sharing, influenced strongly by European Mediterranean cultures. So if ever you find yourself partying in Córdoba or hiking through Patagonia, you’ll most likely find yourself at an asado, a popular social event/cooking technique referring to having or attending a barbecue over a grande grill or open fire with friends and strangers alike. And if you happen to be a South American expat, then Argentinian Pastry here in Sarasota will satisfy your homesick cravings. Insider tip: get to the bakery early in the morning to ensure a bag of fresh-out-the-oven pastries filled with crema pastelera (custards typically only found in Argentina). Beyond, discover more of the decadent culture with authentic treats such as Alfajores de Maicena, chocolate or vanilla cookie sandwiches filled with dulce de leche and covered in shredded coconut. Other sweet meals include Milhojas, aka “thousand leaves cake,” a multi-layered cake made of puff pastry rolled with dulce de leche icing and topped with shaved almonds, as well as the famous Chaja Cake, a naughty dessert of sponge cake, filled with peach slices, whipped cream and meringue.  Argentinian Pastry, 3608 Webber St., Sarasota, 941-960-0069.

 

Uncorrupted and Untamed

Perhaps the first distilled spirit in America, the hunt for good mezcal begins in the mountains and deserts of Mexico, where wild agave grows abundant and free. Horse-backed mezcaleros seek these out, hacking the pointed leaves from the squat and spiny succulents to get at the heart—or piña—within. Harvested by hand, hearts are baked for days in earthen ovens dug into the ground and overseen by the mezcaleros, then crushed and the juice fermented into a smoky and striking small-batch spirit to capture the palate’s imagination and reflect the land and people from whence it came.

For Sarasota residents, the journey to find good mezcal has gotten a lot simpler, as cocktail bars and lounges all around town respond to the ever-curious alcohol enthusiasts with an ever-growing selection to sample. “People want exotic,” says Brad Coburn, owner of Pangea Alchemy Lounge, who has watched mezcal’s rise in popularity over the last few years and now serves more than a few at his own establishment. At Pangea, mezcal is one more point of entry into and exploration of a new culture, and Coburn can lead lucky guests through the entire tasting process, which is as involved, if not moreso, than wine. “If you get right in,” he warns, “you’re going to blow out your palate.” Begin by rubbing a drop between your palms and inhaling the aroma, then wet your lips with a few drops to feel the heat. Sipping comes next, over the tongue first and then under the tongue after, while keeping the nostrils open. Then you can swallow.

And don’t forget to swing by the Gator Club for Mezcal Mondays, where bartender Josh Hojnacki and friends explore the wide variety of nuance available in the many mezcals on offer, each a product of its terroir. “You’re tasting the struggle of what the desert is doing to this plant,” he says. And for an authentic tasting experience, sip it from a pair of the club’s copitas—wide-mouthed traditional vessels—along with orange slices and sal de gusano. And over on 4th Street, Catrinas Tacos and Tequila Bar is jumping into the mezcal game with both feet, with in-house mezcal expert Karol Ortiz looking to expand the mezcal menu in the coming months. “Make it as popular as tequila,” she says, “and instead of ‘Tacos and Tequila,’ maybe we’ll be ‘Tacos, Tequila and Mezcal.’” And for some local pride to go with international flavor, look for Bosscal mezcal, founded by a Cape Coral-based entrepreneur and distilled using traditional methods by a fourth-generation mezcalero in Durango, Mexico. —P.Lederer

 


Las Bebidas

Pisco Sours—try the Peruvian
version of brandy at Selva Grill and Brasa & Pisco, whom stir up respectable versions of the country’s national cocktail of choice, with pisco as the base liquor, freshly squeezed lime juice, simple, egg white and Angostura bitters. 

Chamadiente—try this boozy rum martini made for Venezuelans by Venezuelans, but you can get your craft cocktail passport stamped regardless of nationality at Pangea Alchemy Lab.

El Submarino—Traditionally drank in Argentina and Uruguay, this fun beverage is for cocoa-crazies, filling a glass of hot milk with a bar of dark chocolate to stir and melt inside with a long spoon. Served as a special at Argentinian Pastry. 

Caipirinha—a signature cocktail known throughout all of Brazil, this sweetened beverage is made with fresh limes and cachaça (a distilled liquor from pure sugar cane unique to Brasil). Drink the vibe at Rodizio Grill Brazilian Steakhouse.

Colada—spend early mornings getting hyped on a Cuban-style caffeine boost—an espresso shot sweetened with natural brown sugar, and whipped with the first and strongest drops of espresso—made piping hot at La Chuleria Café.  

Cup of José—snag a caliente mug of single-origin, fairtrade Arabica coffee, straight from the sweeping plantations of Costa Rica and Guatemala, available daily in self-serve canteens at Pastry Art.  

Horchata—sweet, spice and everything nice, this popular Latin sipper takes tiger nuts, rice milk,
vanilla and cinnamon to new heights. Bottled and powdered versions found at Acapulco
Tropical Market. 

Fernet-Branca—To some palates, the polarizing bitter liquor is worse than cough syrup. But in Argentina, it’s so popular that the country consumes more than 75% of all Fernet produced globally. Have a go at it with Pangea’s ‘Root of the Fruit’ cocktail—mixed also with Crème de Cassis, Merlot, egg white and nutmeg. B.Mattie


Foodie Journal | Ocular Vision

If eyes are windows to the soul, Mi Sitio has the most delicious smash-and-grab ever (not) seen.

Strolling into Mi Sitio Colombian Restaurant on an unassuming Tuesday, hidden away in the corner of a strip mall at the intersection of Webber and Beneva, one may not readily expect a culinary confrontation. Not done up like anything fancy, what Mi Sitio lacks in décor it more than makes up in atmosphere. There’s a familiarity. They could film an ‘80s sitcom here; call it Aclamaciones! The regulars post up in their assigned positions, swapping bilingual banter with the servers—four young women who all seem to do a little bit of everything. A woman holding court at a booth to herself looks over a pile of multi-colored plates and recommends her favorites to the obvious newcomers, offering a smile and a wink alongside. You sit, and the seat is already warm, but not in that creepy way. It feels like a home away from home where everything is delicious and nothing would ever, ever be scary.

Then they ask you to eat the eyeballs. “It’s part of the tradition,” says a server named Geraldine, seeing your obvious trepidation. You ordered the Mojarra Frita—a house specialty. It’s a whole fish, they said, a red tilapia riverfish marinated in a special blend of Colombian spices, and you went along. You knew it came with eyeballs—as most whole fish do—but you didn’t know you’d have to eat them. You try the fried plantains first, then some pandebono and buñuelo—a small sampling of the many house-made baked goods available. You dig into the fish proper, dipping flaky chunks into the spicy aji pepper sauce, and put on a show of your delight, hoping to distract. But Geraldine remains impassive. Trapped between her expectant stare and the lugubrious gaze of your lunch, you submit.

Geraldine is suddenly bloodthirsty. “Just tear the head off,” she says, leaning in and helping you pull the poor fishy fellow’s head from his gills. “Now scoop the eyes.” Her eyes gleam as you move in for the kill, and there’s no way to make this pretty. Pressing your lips to the inside of the ocular cavity, you push and scoop the eyes out the back of their sockets and slurp the whole greasy mass into your mouth. Oily and gelatinous, with a hard bead of a lens lending a bit of crunch, the whole thing tastes a bit like salty chicken fat and warring emotions. Shame, pride and something even more primal rear up inside as you raise your eyes to Geraldine and she smiles. “They have a lot of protein and minerals,” she says, and walks away. P.Lederer

Mi Sitio Colombian Restaurant, 3650 Webber St., Sarasota, 941-921-3604.