When we started this adventure to eat Latin foods, you might remember that we wanted to find out why we drive by all of these interesting places without stopping. We wanted to finally go in and see what we were missing. (Read our intro article for more) This could not be more true for my family than with the restaurant called Cocina Latina on 38th and Nicollet. We pass by this establishment probably three or four times a week and know nothing about what is inside. This almost criminal neglect had to end and it is only fitting that on this occasion, I was to go with my family.
Yes, my partner in crime (eating criminal amounts of good food), Charles, was to miss his first Latin eating adventure due to a two week fast, which hopefully will turn into an article as he really enjoyed his experience. I also really enjoyed my experience: continuing to stuff my face with lovely Latin eats. I turned to my other partner in many of my eating adventures, my lovely wife Molly. She happily accepted and with baby and a last minute friend in tow, we set off to finally brave the unknown.
The most striking thing about stepping into a new place can often be the contrast between expectations and reality. On its exterior, Cocina Latina is modest and simple. Inside, it is cute, quaint and really welcoming...and its menu is anything but modest and simple. It turns out that this establishment is a very interesting amalgamation of Mexican, Colombian and Ecuadorian. Its basically a short geography lesson through food. What this means is that you have a menu with things like plantain, goat stew, salsa verde, hominy, lulo, yuca and tamales. Places like this have me using the word adventure a bit too much.
The menu is almost overwhelming with how many options there are. Steak lovers will find at least five options including NY, ribeye, t-bone, flank steak with a few options for sauces and bistec encebollado (pan fried steak with onions). There is also an extensive Mexican section with all of the normal favorites from tacos and burritos to enchiladas and huevos rancheros. Then, things get exotic, with the yuca frita (yucca fries), mote pillo (hominy and eggs), seco de chivo (goat stew) and guatita (Ecuadorian tripe stew with peanuts).
We stuck to the rules and ordered a couple tacos to try, a couple tamales and then based on recommendations from the server ordered all of the above "exotic" items and some enchiladas. Its nice to go with three people!
Let's start with the tacos. The lunch special was three tacos for $5 and so we ordered one of all three options: carnitas, asada and pollo. These were three of the most stacked tacos I have seen to date. There was so much meat as to be almost ridiculous and I loved it. The carnitas was very well done. It had a slight char from the grill and a perfect amount of fattiness, which was just beginning to caramelize. Yum. The asada was perhaps the most tender I have come across yet and very peppery and well seasoned. The chicken was sort of a stewed chicken with an excellent "gravy" that was savory and slightly spicy. These were good tacos and quite the value for how much food you receive.
The tamales were pork in a roja sauce and chicken in a verde sauce. I liked the chicken quite a bit as it had a creamy and cakey masa with a subtle but tasty verde sauce. The pork was well seasoned and tasty, but was one of those tamales that had too much meat for my tastes and was more difficult to eat.
Molly was working on the enchiladas, another lunch special, 2 for $7. These were filled with chicken and we ordered one with a tomatillo based salsa verde and the other with a chipotle based roja sauce. They were everything you want in good enchiladas. The tortillas were nice and thick, which I love. A little more tortilla to the tooth and I am a happy guy. Both sauces were memorable and the chicken could stand alone for its tastiness. Even the beans on the side were excellent. We can highly recommend these.
Moving on to the Ecuadorian and Colombian dishes, things get a bit more complicated. I was totally lost in so many flavors and new combinations. To start, I ordered a dish called the Bandera (pictured at top). It is sort of an Ecuadorian sampler with a taste of the goat stew, peanut based menudo (guatita), a shrimp ceviche, all topped off with some rice and a fried plantain. Everything was so different in its flavor profile, that I was a bit dizzy. First off, the guatita was like nothing I have ever eaten. It took me half the meal to realize that the sauce was peanut and potato based and then the rest of the meal was spent being slightly amazed at this. It was really very good and surprisingly light. The tripe was in no way overpowering as the peanuts kind of steal the show. The goat stew was also excellent. The meat was the type that comes right off the bones and melts in your mouth. The sauce was a nice and tangy tomato sauce that was, again, light and not overpowering. Finally, there was the ceviche. It too was unique in the fact that it was served with toasted hominy which was a great contrast, both in flavor and texture to the limey shrimp.
The last two dishes were the mote pillo and the yuca frita. Both were considered sides or appetizers, but were quite filling. The mote pillo was a huge plate of hominy and scrambled eggs colored the bright yellow of something seasoned with turmeric. This dish was deceptively simple but addicting. The more I tasted it, the more I fell in love with the simple, earthy and tropical sense of it. But this was no mere appetizer, it was extremely filling.
The yuca frita were your basic yucca fries, starchy and delicious. They are a nice accompaniment to meat and other proteins, but in need of sauce. Be sure to order something with salsa, ask for catsup or find something to dip them in. I personally love yuca frita with a good plate of huevos rancheros.
It was just about when we were starting to glaze over with extreme fullness when we heard a blender roaring away in the kitchen and saw, to our amazement, two milkshakes brought out to a nearby table. We quickly picked up our menu and could not believe our mistake. There, hiding on the back page of the menu, were milkshake options like passionfruit, lulo, mango, guanabana, blackberry and something called wine tree tomato or tamarillo. The also have juices with these same options and deserts like guava paste and cheese or figs and cheese. Since they have a wine list, I can imagine an evening with these deserts and a date with my lovely. I could also quickly see that I would be back with my six year old to try the exotic milkshakes and will definitely update everyone on what we find.
What else would I come back for? That is a tough question. If I was waiting for the bus or needed a quick lunch, the taco and burrito specials with some of that chicken, carnitas or asada would be an easy choice. I would also have a hard time passing up the goat stew with some plantains or yuca frita. A few untried things on the menu need to be had as well, such as the made fresh to order chile rellenos, the huevos rancheros or the huevos Mexicana. There is also the tempting vegetarian plate with beans, rice, red potato, yuca, plantain and avocado and I am definitely curious about the whole tilapia "cooked your way." All in all, I won't be driving by this place anymore just wondering. I will know what I'm missing and have to stop.
Here are the Details:
3764 Nicollet Ave S
Hours: Mon 11-7, Tues-Thurs 11-10, Fri and Sat 11-midnight
Lunch specials, tacos 3 for $5, enchiladas and burritos $7
Mote pillo $4.5
Yuca frita $3
Bandera plate $12
Steaks $12 or $13
Chile rellenos $11
A great kids menu features cheap and good options such as rice and eggs, plantains, soups, chicken fingers and quesadillas.
Surprise: the very expansive and interesting menu. Milkshakes and unique sodas.
Payment: cash or credit
Language: not a problem.
Lawrence Black is a writer and editor at Simple, Good and Tasty. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has lately been consuming large quantities of hot peppers, so it may be advisable to stay at least three feet away...unless you are cold.