Central and South America Arrive

Ceviche may very well be the new sushi

Buenos Aires Cafe
Buenos Aires Cafe (Photo by John Anderson)

This year The Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll saw the addition of a new category: Central/South American. Although Argentina, El Salvador, Cuba, Brazil, and Honduras are much closer to Texas than China and India, it has taken decades longer for Texans to experience and appreciate their cuisines. Long viewed as uninteresting peasant fare, Latin American food was sorely underestimated until quite recently by the U.S. mainstream, who with typical xenophobia saw no need to go farther south, culinarily, than Mexico.

In the last few years, however, the burgeoning interest in South American culture and the gradual influx of South and Central American eateries has made this segment of the restaurant market one of the fastest-growing in town. From the popular upscale Brazilian steak houses like Estâncía Churrascaría (4894 Hwy. 290 W., 892-1225) and Fogo de Chão Churrascaria (309 E. Third, 472-0220) to the beat-up Honduran trailers Sabor a Honduras (Pleasant Valley & Elmont) and Glorieta Florangel (East Oltorf & Greenfield), we now have a marvelous range of Latin American food to sample and enjoy.

The staples of these cuisines include luscious fried plantains, crisp empanadas, yucca root, earthy black beans, exotic salsas, banana-leaf-wrapped tamales, and addictive stuffed-masa pupusas topped with crunchy marinated cabbage. Charcoal-seared meats and seafood are balanced by ice-cold ceviche and frosty caipirinhas, an exquisite cocktail made with sugarcane brandy.

Because most of the purveyors of these sublime dishes are serving up the everyday food of their respective homelands, the authenticity factor is high, and the spirit of joy can be palpable. In many cases, the Brazilian, Honduran, and Salvadoran immigrants who own and cook in these establishments spent many years cooking Mexican and "standard" American food in Austin restaurants, unable to share their own cultural legacy. The pleasure of finally getting to share their best dishes with the rest of Austin is often deeply felt and brings a festive note to the entire dining experience.

Two of the most beloved establishments, Habana (2728 S. Congress, 443-4253; 709 E. Sixth, 443-4252), which specializes in Cuban and Caribbean food, and Buenos Aires Cafe (2414 S. First, 441-9000; 1201 E. Sixth, 382-1189), which first brought Austin the flavors of Argentina, have both opened second locations to accommodate their increasing popularity. Others among the vanguard include the Salvadoran El Zunzal (642 Calles, 474-7749), Casa Colombia (1614 E. Seventh, 495-9425), and the Brazilian São Paolo's (2809 San Jacinto, 473-9988), all of which played pivotal roles in Austin's growing enthusiasm for Latin American flavors. The unpretentious Costa del Sol (7901 Cameron, 832-5331) and Elsi's Restaurant (6601 Burnet Rd., 454-0747), both of which serve Salvadoran cuisine to North Austin, have succeeded at slowly winning over the skeptical after nearly a decade apiece.

Most recently, El Arbol (3411 Glenview, 323-5177) has brought Argentinean cuisine to the 35th Street area, Gloria's (3309 Esperan­za Crossing, 833-6400) has brought Salvadoran food and salsa dancing to the Domain, and Rio's Brazilian (408 N. Pleasant Valley, 828-6617) has settled, after a few years of sharing locations and manning tables at farmers' markets, into its very own location.

This trend isn't limited to Austin; it's happening across the country. Ceviche may very well be the new sushi!

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