Nuevo Latino


After hiding for too long in the ethnic-food shadows, Latin American cuisine is finally emerging as a culinary superstar. Merging traditional recipes with contemporary sensibilities, celebrity chefs like Gastón Acurio of La Mar in San Francisco, Julian Medina of Toloache in New York City and Richard Sandoval of Toro Toro in Washington, D.C., have taken Latin American dining to new heights. This Latin fusion cuisine has a name: Nuevo Latino. In Sacramento, the emergence of high-quality eateries serving dishes inspired by the foods of Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, El Salvador and Peru is a welcome trend. Built largely by immigrants celebrating the flavors of their birthplace, the city’s Latin American food scene is growing in scope and stature. It all translates to delicious food served with love.

New Traditions

When veteran restaurateurs Annette Serrano and Tito Class opened LOLA’S LOUNGE in Elk Grove in 2014, the concept was to “pay homage to the interesting cuisines from the Iberian Peninsula” without being too tightly bound by culinary tradition, says Class. The result is an eclectic pan-Latin menu reflective of the Spanish and Portuguese diasporas across the Americas. Think Caribbean-style ceviche; Brazilian skirt steak; Puerto Rican-style flatiron chicken; Cuban ropa vieja (a slow-cooked shredded beef); Argentine empanadas filled with beef and egg. The owners, whose families hail from Puerto Rico (Serrano was born on the island; Class’s family moved to the United States shortly before he was born), ran a successful Mediterranean-style restaurant in Seattle for two decades. For this venture, the couple studied up on the history and origins of Latin American cuisine. Chef Charlie 

Harrison aims for modern interpretations—not strict reproductions—of some of Latin America’s best-loved dishes. “We’re not trying to be overzealously correct,” explains Class. “We’re trying to be as authentic as possible but in a way that’s in touch with the American palate.” 9085 Elk Grove Blvd., Elk Grove; (916) 685-5652;

Next Big Thing

Peruvian cuisine is finally winning over diners in the United States as high-profile restaurants in cities such as San Francisco and New York receive critical acclaim. Locally, LA HUACA, a stylish restaurant that opened in 2012, turns out captivating dishes that show off Peru’s culinary prowess. This hot food trend has strong Spanish and Japanese influences, as evidenced by La Huaca’s ceviches: artfully arranged plates of raw fish bathed in lime juice and various chili sauces, including a temperate aji amarillo (yellow pepper) sauce. Equally memorable: the causas, which are squat towers of cool, creamy pureed potatoes stacked with vegetables, chicken or seafood in various dressings. (Order the sampler plate if you can’t decide on just one.) Other hits include calamari and shrimp in a flavorful pepper sauce, and lamb shank braised in cilantro sauce. Winewise, the list leans toward South American bottles. 9213 Sierra College Blvd., Roseville; (916) 771-2558;

Soul of the Island 

One of the few spots where Sacramentans can sample bona fide Cuban cuisine is SOL CUBANO, a modest but cheerful restaurant in a North Sacramento strip mall where the scent of fried plantains is like an olfactory siren song. Co-owner Margarita Chang says Sol Cubano’s most popular dish is lechón asado, pork marinated in garlic sauce and slow-cooked for up to six hours. Other favorites include oxtail stew made with a rich tomato base, and papas rellenas, deep-fried balls of mashed potatoes filled with seasoned ground beef. Chang, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States in 1995, assures newcomers that Cuban cuisine “is not spicy, but it’s well seasoned.” The recipes, she adds, “came from our ancestors, so the food is very authentic.” 5734 Watt Ave., North Highlands; (916) 332-2883

Cool and Contemporary

When Ernesto Delgado opened TEQUILA MUSEO MAYAHUEL in 2011, he was intent that it not be what he calls “a pico de gallo restaurant” with the same tired dishes found in any number of Mexican eateries. Delgado, who was born in Michoacán and moved to the United States at the age of 5, has a passion for Mexican culture, and he wanted his menu to reflect that fact. “When people ask me what kind of Mexican food I serve, I always say ‘true,’” he explains. Dishes like Mayahuel’s chicken mole poblano deliver on this promise, as does the rich crema de chile poblano soup and a chile relleno stuffed with crab and shrimp and blanketed with epazote cream sauce. The restaurateur inherited his sense of hospitality from his mother. “Whenever anyone came over, she was ready to feed them,” he says. “She always tried to comfort me with food.” Delgado, who cites cookbook author Diana Kennedy and celebrity chef Rick Bayless as inspirations, has made it his personal mission to expand diners’ notions of what Mexico and Mexican food can be. “There’s so much more to Mexico than just cactuses and sombreros,” he says. 1200 K St.; (916) 441-7200;

Sizzling in the Suburbs

It’s little wonder that Brazilian-style steak houses, or churrascarias, are taking the country by storm. The all-you-can-eat format appeals to American diners who tend to appreciate quantity as much as quality. FLAME & FIRE, situated in a small shopping center down the road from Roseville Galleria, won’t exactly transport you to São Paolo—the interior is pleasant enough but nondescript—but it’s worth a visit nevertheless. No need to brush up on your Portuguese to order here: There is no menu to scrutinize. (All meals are prix fixe; drinks and dessert are a la carte.) Simply belly up to the salad bar, which boasts a nice assortment of hot and cold dishes, then wait at your table for one of Flame & Fire’s skewer-wielding “gauchos” to ply you with sizzling hunks of pork tenderloin, leg of lamb, bacon-wrapped filet mignon and other grilled provisions. Be warned: the popoverlike pão de queijo (cheese bread) can be addictive, so proceed with caution. Sure, the gaucho duds are hokey, but the quality of the food and service make for an appealing introduction to Brazilian fare. 963 Pleasant Grove Blvd., Roseville; (916) 790-5750;

From the Sea

What LAS ISLITAS lacks in terms of location (it’s overshadowed by enormous Florin Road Bingo) it more than makes up for with scrumptious food and warm, attentive service. This family-run Mexican restaurant specializes in the seafood-centric cuisine of the coastal state of Nayarit, the birthplace of owners Ernesto and Alma Rodriguez. In place of standard chips and salsa, meals here begin with a complimentary bowl of ceviche: finely chopped, brightly flavored and accompanied by tostada shells, crackers and lime wedges. Add a dash of Salsa Huichol (Nayarit’s answer to Tabasco) and you’ll be mistaken for a regular. Las Islitas is heaven for shrimp lovers: Think towering shrimp cocktails served cold or estilo Nayarit (bathed in hot shrimp broth); shrimp tostadas; shrimp empanadas; and seven varieties of shrimp plates, each showing off a different sauce. Oysters, octopus and tilapia (filleted or whole) are other mainstays. For fans of Mexican food who crave something more imaginative than ho-hum enchiladas and burritos (there’s nary a one on this menu), Las Islitas is a most welcome diversion. 7240 24th St.; (916) 421-6271

Split Personality

As one might guess from the name, WAFFLE KING-MACHU PICCHU is a restaurant with multiple personality disorder. It serves straight-up American fare—hearty breakfasts, burgers and the like—all day, while lunch and dinner diners can opt for traditional Peruvian cuisine. Longtime manager Jaime Martin described it aptly: “It’s like Denny’s, but with Peruvian food.” A curious arrangement, yes, but somehow it works. Machu Picchu’s most requested dish, lomo saltado, consists of stir-fried beef with onions and tomatoes served over thick-cut fries with a side of white rice. (Peruvians do love their starches.) On the lighter side, ceviche, a Peruvian staple, is a good bet: chunks of fresh fish marinated in lime juice, tossed with red onion and served with sweet potato and hominy. Go with the rocoto sauce if spicy is your thing. 5825 Winding Way, Carmichael; (916) 488-3555

An Eclectic Adventure

The food at TUCOS is impossible to pigeonhole. The eclectic menu at this intimate restaurant crisscrosses culinary borders while paying homage to the cuisines of Latin America. Owner-chef Pru Mendez, who traveled throughout South America a decade ago, continues to be inspired by what he saw and tasted there. A recent tapas menu read like a trek across the continent, from Argentine empanadas to Venezuelan arepas (flatbreads) and cachapas (griddle cakes) to Brazilian pão de queijo (cheese bread). Feijoada, a classic Brazilian stew, appears occasionally on the seasonally shifting menu. Mendez also riffs on Mexican favorites, turning out imaginative plates like sweet potato nachos, wild boar tamales and braised duck tacos. The cooking here is serious, but there’s nothing uptight about the vibe in the dining room, which is as laid-back as a warm summer night in Rio. 130 G St., Davis; (530) 757-6600;

Fresh and Unexpected

CAFE CAPRICHO is a colorful neighborhood joint with a menu that showcases creative, health-conscious interpretations of popular Mexican fare, including many enticing choices for vegetarians. Take the burritos, for example. In addition to typical offerings like beef and pork, Cafe Capricho also serves a version stuffed with red potatoes and Swiss chard, and another filled with roasted butternut squash with poblano-almond sauce. The chile, its inside studded with currants and pine nuts, is a welcome twist on what can be a soggy, greasy mess in a less attentive kitchen. It’s what Nuevo Latino cuisine should be: familiar yet unpredictable, current but not gimmicky.3269 Folsom Blvd.; (916) 457-3916;

From the Ashes

When a fire ravaged CIELITO LINDO MEXICAN GASTRONOMY in 2014 just months after it opened, the future looked grim for one of Sacramento’s most promising dining destinations. But like a phoenix, this charming purveyor of regional Mexican cuisine is rising from the ashes. Owner-chef Ramiro Alarcon expects to reopen this spring with a fresh new menu celebrating both the classic and contemporary dishes of his native land. Alarcon, who was born in Mexico City, traveled extensively throughout Mexico to taste and learn in preparation for opening the upscale restaurant he envisioned. “I wanted to show Sacramento that Mexican gastronomy is diverse,” he says. I prepare the Mexican food that I love and that I eat. You can see the flavor and color from all of Mexico in my cooking. The culinary traditions of at least 10 different regions of Mexico are reflected Cielito Lindo’s menu. Dishes like pipiáverde de Oaxaca, a green mole made from pumpkin seed, tomatillo and epazote, evince the integrity of indigenous Mexican ingredients and hint at the passion within the kitchen. A lot of people ask what ingredient is principal in my cooking. I tell them it’s my heart, because my heart gives all the flavor, says Alarcon. When you cook for yourself it’s a necessity, but when you cook for the people it’s an act of love.3672 J St.; (916) 397-0242;