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Cafe Latino

November 09, 2008

By OMNI VORE

At Café Latino, just off the Miracle Mile at 50 N. McCain Drive in Frederick, Md., we were greeted warmly, even though the restaurant would close in 15 minutes. We were immediately served hot tortilla chips and fresh salsa. We were hungry and tired; and we were welcomed and fed. This is the height of hospitality to me.

Café Latino serves food from South America and claims to be the best Latin American restaurant in Frederick. The day we were there, the top two specialties were two traditional dishes: Venezuelan pabellon criollo -- shredded beef with rice, beans, plantains and arepa (a type of corn bread) -- and Colombian bandeja paisa -- shredded beef, white rice topped with a fried egg, black beans, cheese, fried pork, plantain, avocado and fried yucca.

I chose the Colombian dish. My friend chose the arepitas mixtas -- a selection of four small arepas (stuffed cornmeal patties) stuffed with a variety of fillings. Arepas are Venezuela's most popular food; they are deep-fried at this restaurant, baked in other places.

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While we waited, I was enchanted by the art work. An entire wall was a three-dimensional reproduction of a miniature South American village. Central to the diorama was the church entrance in which stood a bride and groom. There was a school, a funeral chapel, a store, a pharmacy, houses with tile roofs. Small electric lights lit the windows. On another wall were hangings which depicted homes with roofs and windows in reds, browns and orange.

The restaurant seated about 55 people at square tables with yellow table cloths, white butcher paper and blond wooden chairs. At one end was a bar, at the other end a dance floor and place for a band. Hispanic music played in the background. This could be a lively place, I thought, if it were not closing time on a Monday night.

The arepas came, looking like golden moon pies, four inches in diameter. Their crust was crisply fried while their inside was a creamy, soft, cooked corn batter. Very hot to the touch but surprisingly mild to the palate.

The fillings were generous. The first one my friend tried was a chicken-and-avocado salad. "Strange," he said. The shredded beef was plain, yet tasty. The caramelized beef with onions. "Good," he pronounced. And finally he ate the sliced pork loin. "This pork is my favorite," he said. "The meat is sweet and good. Very satisfying. Five stars."

Red beans and white rice were served separately on the platter in small containers. There was no mess, no runny beans. "Both good," he declared. Finally, he ate the fried plantain, a side dish which was dry, not greasy. "And it's naturally sweet," said my friend. "You won't need dessert," he said.

"They have flan and tres leches cake. I need dessert," I said. But first I had to address the gargantuan platter before me.

Bandeja paisa is the national dish of Colombia. The plate of food set before me looked like enough food to feed a small town. My dish was high in calories, carbohydrates and cholesterol. It was also high in taste and interest. Colombian food is big on meat. Café Latino's bandeja paisa had beef and pork next to a mound of white rice topped with a fried egg and surrounded by slices of avocado and cheese. The black beans were in a separate bowl, and the fried plantain and fried yucca sat to the side of the platter. I was very hungry; but I could eat only half. And besides, there was still dessert.

Despite the huge, protein-rich meal, I ordered the classic dessert, flan. This rich, caramelized egg custard tasted, as it should, like burnt sugar, sweet cream and rich eggs, With a firm, smooth texture, the flan was satisfying, filling and nutritious, as well as delicious. In the end, I ate far too much, but I was a very satisfied customer.

By the end of our meal, the restaurant had been long closed. The staff gathered around the bar, sharing a drink and telling stories. It seemed they would be there for quite a while.

My friend returned a week later to taste more of the arepas. He bought a shredded beef-and-cheese arepa and said it was a rich choice. When ordered separately, the arepas were larger and very filling.

When my friend returned for more arepas, he ordered the tres leches cake to go. He brought this sweet, moist cake to me. I found the cake, made with three milks -- typically evaporated milk, condensed milk and either whole milk or cream -- even better than the flan.

But then, most likely, the dessert in hand tastes the sweetest.

Restaurant review

4 1/2 stars

Food: 5 stars

Service: 5 stars

Ambiance: 4 stars

Value: 4 stars

Address: 50 N. McCain Drive, Frederick, Md.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Café Latino is closed on Mondays.

Style: Latin American

Phone: 301-620-0121, 301-620-0400

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