Latin American is a sweeping term, a generalization that captures little of the cultural nuances of a region that includes countless countries and peoples, and spans from the southern tier of the United States through the Caribbean to the tip of Argentina. Though it is impossible to include the entirety of the exploding Latin American food scene in Marin and the Bay Area, here are a few ideas to get you thinking about the culinary origins of your next meal.
A 10th-generation Romani-Serbian and current resident of Novato, Mark Adams runs a food truck with his wife, Deanna, that includes Serbian, American and Mexican flavors. He has a family recipe called chile mole salsa that goes back generations: Tomatoes, peppers and jalapeños are slow-roasted, then blended with seasonings and oil for an addictive sauce that is layered on everything from a street dog to vegan tacos and a club melt on sourdough. “Most people say it’s like nothing they’ve ever tried,” Adams says, who admits he will turn anything into a taco. Look for the truck on Saturday and Sunday at Larkspur’s Marin Country Mart and at the seasonal markets in Novato on Tuesday nights and Wednesdays in Fairfax.
Stretching from the Yucatan Peninsula through Belize, El Salvador and Guatemala, the cuisine of the ancient Maya comes through in the hands of Mayra Ordoñez and Juan Cutz at their restaurant dedicated to the cuisine of Central America. The region’s famous dishes — pupusas, tacos chapines (Guatemalan style), hilachas (shredded beef stew), huevos revueltos and fried plantains — are just some of the daily offerings.
Owner Gabriela Vieyra credits the imagination and culinary skill of her chef, Guillermo Lara, who hails from Mexico’s Yucatan, for a culinary style that seems to encompass a world of flavor in a Latin American package. Rosemary lamb chops with ancho fig sauce or guava, lime and garlic shrimp with tostones express Lara’s passion for his work and his interest in other cultures. “He is unique, and he has magic in his hands,” Vieyra says. One taste of his chicken mole enchiladas and you, too, will want to spend an evening on La Vier’s sweet patio.
Although the restaurant is beloved for its gluten-free cheese bread, feijoada, available as a side dish, might be the most important dish in the Brazilian culinary canon. Addictive yucca sticks are perfect for dipping into the creamy black bean stew, thickly larded with chunks of baby back ribs, pork sausage, pork loin and bacon. Tropical salad with hearts of palm and beetroot or an eggplant sandwich (berinjela) with provolone suit those days when meat is not a must. It’s all served from a tiny, takeout-only storefront next to an auto parts store (yes, there is parking).
Regional Peruvian classics are the hallmarks of a restaurant with locations in Novato and Petaluma. Start with Peru’s signature cocktail, a pisco sour, made with little more than the country’s grape-distilled brandy – a.k.a. pisco – lime juice and salt. Try one of the country’s famous ceviches (the a la Huancaina with the catch of the day is popular) or the traditional pulpo served glazed with anticuchero sauce. Lomo saltado, or beef with tomato and French fries, is not served topped with a fried egg here but you can ask.
Peruvian Nikkei, a cuisine that arose from the influence of Japanese immigrants, is the sweet spot at the second location of Kaiyo (the first is in Cow Hollow). Start a meal with a classic pisco sour before jumping into small plates of pork bao buns or green lip mussels on the half shell or beef tataki. It’s all a warmup for the tiraditos, the Peruvian riff on ceviche, or a platter of sushi. The views from the 12th-floor roof deck of the San Francisco skyline are second to none.
The menu at Colibri’s new Presidio home is similar to it previous menu when it was located at Union Square with a focus on the dishes of central Mexico and Chef Edgar Castro’s hometown of Merida in the Yucatan. That means cochinita pibil (Yucatan), carnitas served ein the style of its hometown, Michoacan, and lamb shank (chamorro de cordero) roasted in banana leaf as it’s done in Jalisco.
Inspired by Executive Chef Lorenzo Caamal’s lineage, a Mexican restaurant in San Francisc’s SoMa neighborhood are rooted in Jaliscan and Yucatán culinary tradition. On July 21, chef is putting on a regional showcase with a five course menu. A slow-cooked artichoke with grilled peach and feta transitions to aguachile negro with charred chile de arbol, halibut and orange. If the duck taco swaddled in a blue corn tortilla and Wagyu bavette with mole negro haven’t filled you up, the plantain doughnut with dulce de leche is definitely worth waiting for.
It is the years of culinary influence on chef Mark Liberman by his Colombian mother that drove the chef to infuse the flavors of the motherland into his cooking at his latest restaurant. That might mean striped bass with aji amarillo or a new dish called an ‘humito,’ a Colombian tamale Liberman gussies up with charred poblano vinaigrette, feta and padron peppers. All dishes are designed with Latin American flair and California-sourced ingredients, composed using the French techniques Liberman learned as an up-and-comer at Daniel Boulud’s Brasserie and at MGM Grand’s L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Like the name of his restaurant, the combinations can taste like magic.
Plantains may be one of the definitive ingredients in Caribbean cooking and chef Nelson German cooks an ode to the starchy banana in a dish that plays up his Afro-Latino heritage while riffing on European techniques. Stuffed with soy chorizo and tomato, the plantain is roasted to highlight its caramel notes before layers of burrata, gouda, jalapeños, olives and avocado mousse are added. The disparate elements come together in a way that balances sweet and savory with a one-two slap of warm, then bright chile heat. It’s a dish that disappears when the local tomatoes do, so get over there before summer’s long days suddenly get short.
More from Marin:
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- Dining for Justice: A New Bay Area Food-Justice Program Ensuring No One Goes Hungry
- Where to Get the Best Seafood Sandwiches in Marin: 5 Top Restaurants
Christina Mueller is a long-time Bay Area food writer. She hails from the East Coast and has spent way too much time in South America and Europe. She discovered her talent as a wordsmith in college and her love of all things epicurean in grad school. She has written for Condé Nast Contract Publishing, Sunset, and the Marin Independent Journal, among others. She volunteers with California State Parks and at her child’s school, and supports the Marin Audubon Society, PEN America, and Planned Parenthood. When she is not drinking wine by a fire, she is known to spend time with her extended family.