Latin Cuisine: Beyond the Taco
You don’t need a passport to explore Latin cuisine—just an appetite and a sense of adventure
Latin food is a robust and flavorful cuisine that extends far beyond the taco and burrito: cachapas from Venezuela, empanadas from Argentina, pupusas from El Salvador, Mexican tortas—it’s comfort food with a hint (and sometimes more than a hint) of spice. You don’t have to wait for a festival or a special invitation, and don’t be discouraged if you don’t speak Spanish: most of the menus in Charlotte restaurants include English, and there’s almost always a server ready to help explain unfamiliar food. When you’re ready to fork into some authentic Latin American fare, start with these must-try dishes, whose provenance spans from Argentina to Ecuador, Honduras to Venezuela—and are increasingly becoming part of Southern culture. ¡Buen provecho!
A Piece of Havana | Cuba
11126 S. Tryon St., Ste. A-C, 704-588-7883
For an authentic taste of a forbidden country, head south to A Piece of Havana in Steele Creek and order the ropa vieja, a popular Cuban braised beef stew. A generous portion of the tender, shredded beef arrives in a flavorful tomato-based sauce, along with two sides—opt for the arroz blanco to help soak up the sauce and the restaurant’s crunchy, slightly spicy Cuban-style green beans. Then wash it all down with Ironbeer, a Cuban soft drink that tastes like a mix between gingery root beer and cream soda.
A Piece of Havana
A Steele Creek restaurant offers a glimpse into the food—and soul—of Cuba
Belkis Plasencia grew up in Cuba and came to the United States as an adult, first to Florida, and finally to Charlotte, where she wanted to open a family business. “But not something boring, like a dry cleaner’s,” she says.
Plasencia settled on a restaurant that would celebrate her heritage, and got to work making it the kind of place where she thought people would want to relax, eat, and take in a little slice of Cuba in the South. She called it A Piece of Havana and filled it with Cuban mementos: framed cigar leaves and beautiful images of her home country, plus a large mural on one wall painted by an artist from Havana. She chose everything carefully, from the bar, which was built by one of her partners, to the leather Cuban-style chairs stamped with the name of the restaurant. “I love this place from one end to the other,” she says.
The food is another labor of love: the menu includes all of Plasencia’s favorites from her native Cuba, such as churrasco Cubano, a Cuban skirt steak with chimichurri sauce, and rabo encendido, stewed oxtail. But her favorite dish, and the one she could eat every day, is camarones al ajillo, sautéed shrimp in garlic sauce—always with a side of plantains.
To give the restaurant a lighthearted, festive atmosphere, Plasencia also incorporates a few other Cuban favorites into A Piece of Havana. There’s always live music on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and every November, to celebrate the restaurant’s anniversary, the restaurant hosts a Cuban festival, complete with performances by Tropicana-style dancers and a pig roast.
“You have to love what you’re doing,” she says. —A. A.
Café Fiesta | Colombia
1520 South Blvd., 704-372-2868; 3700 Avenue of the Carolinas, Fort Mill (inside Plaza Fiesta), 704-779-4847
A Colombian take on the fruit cocktail, salpicon is made with a watermelon-juice-and-water base and is mixed with a mishmash of fruit including pineapple, strawberries, and mango. Served that way, it’s already as much of a dessert as it is a drink—but you can take it to a whole new level by adding a scoop of strawberry ice cream to the bottom and a drizzle of condensed milk on top. It’s decadent, yes, but also refreshing.
Che Gaucho | Argentina
4724 Old Pineville Rd., 704-522-0607
This small Argentine/Uruguayan restaurant boasts an impressive offering of authentic selections—including a large variety of meats. Opt for the asado de tira y chorizo Argentinos, which includes Argentine-style beef short ribs topped with chimichurri sauce, and a mild, dense chorizo sausage that’s a blend of beef and pork. Unlike typical short ribs, the Argentine version is similar to a thin, seared flank steak. The dish comes with two light sides: a salad of lettuce, tomato, onion, and a light oil dressing, plus ensalada rusa, a classic Latin American potato salad made with potatoes, carrots, peas, celery, onion, and mayonnaise.
¡Fiesta!: Next month, two annual Charlotte events showcase the diversity of Latin American cuisine.
Taste of the World (October 4) puts visitors on buses to explore restaurants—Latin and others—along Central Avenue and elsewhere in Charlotte’s notably multicultural east side.
Festival Latino Americano takes over the elegant Symphony Park at SouthPark Mall (October 14) with a daylong program of music, crafts, and food that attracts more than 20,000 visitors.
Cocina Latina | Mexico
5135 Albemarle Rd., 704-531-5757
The torta, a popular Mexican sub sandwich, is held together by a gooey concoction of mozzarella cheese, mayonnaise, and black bean purée. At Cocina Latina, it’s stuffed between crusty slices of bread along with a generous portion of tender marinated steak (or chicken, pork, or chorizo), lettuce, tomato, avocado, and pickled carrots, plus jalapeño peppers and onions for a slight spicy kick.
Copán Restaurant | Honduras
3607 N. Sharon Amity Rd., 704-603-3193
Ancient Mayans built the city of Copán more than 1,500 years ago in what is now Honduras—it’s a grand name for this modest Honduran restaurant in east Charlotte. Try the baleada, a fluffy, warm griddled tortilla wrapped around beans. Or even better, dig into the Honduran enchilada, which is not at all like Mexican enchiladas, but rather a crispy, flat tostada topped with ground meat, lettuce, cheese, half of a hard-boiled egg and a savory—not spicy—sauce.