Rick's Reviews: South of the Border Part 1

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Almacen de Empanadas (literally the empanada warehouse) opened quietly before Stonewall Pride, adding some much-needed variety to the dining options along Wilton Drive. With nearly two dozen varieties from which to choose, you’re certain to find something to your taste. Among the savory options are, pastries stuffed with mac and cheese, cheese, onion and cheese, barbecue chicken, broccoli, blue cheese, spinach with eggs or feta, eggplant, mushrooms, ham and cheese and chorizo, among others. 

Sweet selections include Nutella, apple and caramel. Currently, the restaurant only serves empanadas, soft drinks, wine and beer. Some side dishes and salads would be a nice addition. The pastries are priced $3.50 each and three makes for a satisfying, if light meal. The dining area is comfortable enough, if not particularly conducive to a leisurely meal. In fact, it appears as if the intention is to encourage pick-up and take-home dining. Service is friendly, if unpolished. 

Almost every Latin American country features some version of the empanada. If your idea of Latin American food is limited to Taco Bell, you may not be aware of the subtle differences in technique, style, produce and staples.Each Latin American country has its own separate culture — and as a result, its own unique cuisine. 

While there are some similarities, the dishes vary from country to country and even region by region within the country, just as they do in the U.S. Most countries serve rice and beans, but the beans used vary for each country and differ in preparation. For example, once you get south of Mexico, you’ll seldom find refried beans and once you leave Mexico and Guatemala, the spices get milder the farther south you head. Indeed, each region within each country has its own distinct culinary specialties – just as the countries of Europe do. So “Latin American cuisine” really is a collection of different cuisines, rather than its own entity.

In this week’s column we’ll look at regional Mexican cuisine. For next week’s column we’ll expand our focus to Central and South America. We’ll leave the Caribbean countries, many with Latin roots, for another time.

Mexican cuisine is more nuanced than many realize. When discussing Mexican cuisine, one needs to be aware that there are seven distinct regions, each with its own staples and techniques. The one constant you’ll find is the tortilla. Whether flour or corn, there are more than 40 variations of this essential of Mexican cuisine. 

Starting in Northern Mexico, which includes Baja, Sonora and Chihuahua, among other regions, you’ll find great diversity as you travel from the Baja California coast to the Gulf of Mexico. This area is home to many ranches, so you’ll find beef and cheese dishes. Baja California is also home to Mexico’s oldest continuously producing wine district and as a peninsula, features a wide variety of seafood dishes.

The North Pacific coast, home to Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima, stretches along Mexico’s long Pacific shoreline and supplies much of the country’s principle grains and produce, especially its chilies. Some classic North Pacific Coast dishes include pozole, and menudo. Guadalajara is the area’s gastronomic center and the areas around Jalisco are known for tequila production.

Bajio is the area most similar to the land of the colonizing Spaniards and the food there retains its European influence. It is known for rice and pork dishes, as well as desserts such as chongos (a syrupy cheese dish) and cajeta, a goat’s milk-based caramel.
The South Pacific coast is an area of deep valleys surrounded by mountainous peaks and is home to the most indigenously based dishes. The Oaxacan region is known for several varieties of mole, the deep, rich Mexican sauce based on slow cooked chilies, cocoa and nuts. Black beans are a favorite addition to dishes.

In the South you’ll find that the areas including Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo on the Yucatán peninsula are distinct from the rest of the country. Many dishes can be traced back to Mayan food. There are also influences from the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and Middle Eastern cultures. Corn is the basic staple and is used in food and pureed for drinks. Another prominent feature of Yucatán cooking is the use of tropical fruits.

It’s no surprise that many of the most popular dishes of the Gulf region, which includes Tabasco and Veracruz, features seafood. It is another area that combines the influences of the indigenous Mayan culture with that of European settlers as well as that of Afro-Cuban influences from the Caribbean islands. One of the most popular dishes is red snapper prepared with a light tomato sauce seasoned with bay leaves, onions, capers, olives and sweet yellow peppers. Tabasco is the home state for the famous hot sauce that bears its name. 

Just as the U.S. dishes vary from region to region, so too does Mexican cuisine. Centrally located Mexico City provides a nice variety of regional cooking as well as global influences. Mexico City is also famed for its street food vendors providing a quick lunch to the millions of inhabitants of Mexico’s capital city. The street trucks and carts serve barbacoa (a favorite in the central highlands), carnitas (originally from Michoacán), moles (from Puebla and central Mexico), tacos with many different fillings and large sub-like sandwiches called tortas. There are also eateries that specialize in pre-Hispanic food, including dishes with insects. 

Next week we’ll take a look at the dishes of Mexico’s neighbors to the south, and while there are some similarities in the cuisines of the southern part of this hemisphere, there are distinct differences as well.

Almacen de Empanadas

2041 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors

954-314-7764


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