What you think about when you think about Latin Food

Story and photos by SHAUN AJAY

Latin American cuisine is sometimes seen as synonymous with your neighborhood taco or burrito stand. A restaurant in Virginia discusses in an article how most of our perceptions of Mexican food are inaccurate. Dishes we typically think about aren’t really Mexican, but a fusion between American and Mexican food. Not all Latin food is fried. Not all Latin food is tortillas with beans and rice. Yes, Mexico is on the list, but it isn’t the sole contributor to this rich and diverse culture of Latin food. In every South American country, there is a specific regional taste.

MEXICO

Taqueria Los Lee is a small family business at 700 E. 2646 South in Salt Lake City. The restaurant is a building in the corner of the street, beside a Sinclair gas station. The menu is drawn in primary colors on a blackboard. The daughter of the owner suggested a plate of tacos and gorditas with rice and beans (frijoles) and un medio litro de Cola (half liter). A fitting size meal for an ordinary customer.

The restaurant has little paper cutouts of cacti, sombreros and chilis colorfully hung up on the ceiling. The walls are covered with little lotería cards: a red sun, a scorpion, some palm trees. The whole thing feels like a summer’s breeze in mid-July in the chilly month of February.

A plate of gorditas with rice and frijoles.

The order arrives in 15 minutes, steaming and carrying a strong aroma of fried garlic and cilantro. Frijoles is a doughy sauce made from pinto beans boiled for six hours on low-fire. The gordita (meaning chubby in Spanish) drips some rich oil like liquid gold on a ceramic plate.

Oscar Lee, the patriarch of the restaurant, has his lunch break before his interview. He is from Victoria City in Tamaulipas, Mexico, a state historically known for its agricultural and livestock prosperity. He used to live by the border near Texas and immigrated to the United States. He has lived in Utah for nearly 17 years and has been running his restaurant since July 2018.

Lee wanted to cater to his area and provide what he believes is authentic Mexican food. The demographic of his customers is true to this fact, during lunch hour, the restaurant is occupied by Spanish speakers. But after an article written by the Salt Lake Tribune, he has had more gringos (an American who is not Latinx) visit his restaurant and even become regular customers.

He turns and faces the menu on the blackboard and, like a school teacher, starts to explain his menu. He said their las gorditas is their most popular dish, with either homemade asada (roasted pork or chicken) or potatoes stuffed inside. But he prefers to snack on something a little more sweet called esquites. This is a dish made with corn, freshly cut from the grain, that is mixed with margarine and fresh cheese in a cup.

Lee said that red enchiladas are his most special dish. He makes them with corn tortillas, fresh cheese, ground beef and a red chili sauce. He prefers to not make this too spicy. Another special dish is chicken mole. It mixes chicken breasts with some chocolate and peanuts. Genuine chicken mole takes days to make with additional ingredients. He said that ready-made mole is available, but he prefers making everything from scratch.

Shortly after the restaurant opened, Lee said he was approached by Sysco, a food distribution company, to provide him with menu ingredients. He refused to take the offer, as they were all ready-made and only involved putting them in the oven. “It takes the authenticity from cooking, and from the food,” he said. Lee believes in making his ingredients daily to preserve the authenticity of his cuisine that reminds him and many others of home.

EL SALVADOR

Juanita Restaurant is a small family-owned business at 271 W. 900 South in Salt Lake City. The restaurant specializes in classic Salvadorian food. Carolina Vides, the daughter of the owners, was born in Cabañas, Sensuntepeque. Her family moved to the U.S. in the 1990s and opened this restaurant only four years ago. The restaurant business has always been a part of the Vides family, having run another in Salvador, cooking and making the same pupusas that they love.

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A look inside Juanita’s restaurant

Juanita’s is designed with dark maroon and bright yellow wall paint. Diners can take a seat by the television screen in the corner that broadcasts the Premier League with Spanish commentary. Vides then sits down to talk about the menu — a wide selection of main dishes, appetizers and finger snacks to try.

Pupusas, you should go for the pupusas,” she said. They are a typical Salvadorian snack made from either rice or corn flour. Her favorite is the corn flour. Vides said the pupusas are a staple diet in El Salvador, having been passed down from generation to generation. The fillings are versatile and can be made with anything from chicharron (pork skin) to frijol con queso (beans with cheese). She offered an assorted plate of mini pupusas.

Vides said most people confuse this with Mexican gorditas. Most of her customers are either Mexican or Guatemalan. She places the pupusas on the table beside a tub of curtido, or coleslaw, and a bottle of spicy tomato sauce that complements the meaty pupusas.

For the main dish, she presented a plate of mojarra frita (fried fish) with green salad, rice, and tortillas. The fish is a fresh-water tilapia, cooked till a dark brown like charred wood, but the inside remained a creamy white texture. The restaurant also sells bottles of Kola Champagne by Cuzcatlan, a classic soft drink with a sweet mix of orange syrup and carbonated soda. It leaves a refreshing taste in the mouth.

While patrons feast on the tenderness of their tilapia or pupusas, Vides is usually tending to other customers, flipping tortillas on a hot pan, or taking orders on the phone. One can leave the restaurant feeling very satisfied.

PERU

Giulia Soto is a second-year program coordinator and advisor at the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs (CESA) at the University of Utah. She comes from an indigenous family from Huancayo, in the central highlands of Peru. Soto immigrated to West Valley City at age 5, during the sendero luminoso era, a Communist party during the 1990s that wanted to overrun the government. Her father was able to come to the U.S. and was given a work visa to live in the mountains as a shepherd.

“Since my family is indigenous, it affects . . . how I was brought up, and the foods that I eat,” Soto said. Her diet is completely Peruvian. That was all she knew of during her younger years. The most common dishes for her are arroz chaufa, lomo saltado, and pollo a la brasa.

Arroz chaufa (Chinese rice) and lomo saltado are a mixed style of Chinese fried rice and vegetables with typical meats like pork, chicken or beef. Soto said that most of their dishes use white rice, potatoes and chicken. “We laugh about this sometimes, because a lot of people connect this to the Asian community,” she said. Her favorite dish to make is aji de gallina (chicken stew) that combines rice, potatoes and aji de gallina (yellow capsicum). Soto said this dish is usually considered to be Peruvian comfort food. 

Soto in front of her Huancayo displays

A common ingredient across the board is pimiento y comino (black pepper). Another is aji panca, a hot red capsicum that’s not too spicy, and is used as a paste when making food like tallarin rojo (Peruvian red spaghetti). All of these spices are indigenous to Peru and are the trademark for its dishes.

La Pequeñita International market at 2740 State St. is owned by a Peruvian in Salt Lake City. It provides imported ingredients from Latin America to the locals in Utah. Soto said she sometimes sees people driving down from Idaho and buying these ingredients in bulk. “You have to be savvy at cooking, cuz it’s just aisles and aisles of herbs and spices, and you should know what to use it for,” she said.

Pachamanca peruana is a popular dish from the mountainous regions of Peru. Pacha means earth and manka means pot in Quechua, the indigenous language of Soto’s family, spoken in the highlands. The dish is made for special occasions like family gatherings or fundraisers, as it requires extreme preparation.

Soto said that the pachamanca is usually comprised of marinated sheep meat, camote (sweet potato) and humitas (fresh corn with dough). She also noted that humitas is usually mistaken for tamal, a Mesoamerican dish, that tastes savory and usually has stuffings like chicken inside. The pachamanca begins with heating stones over a fire, and then placing everything into a natural oven dug from the ground, cooking the meat for about two hours.

Soto said that the pachamanca is not something you would see at a restaurant in Lima, let alone in a Peruvian restaurant in Salt Lake City. The pachamanca is only maintained as a tradition through teaching the next generation how it’s done. However, one way to grab a taste, without buying your next ticket to Peru is to attend fundraisers.

In Utah, Peruvian families come together and do fundraisers for the community where they make and sell food and sometimes host soccer tournaments. “It’s a way for us to help each other out, someone who’s had a car accident or immigration issues,” Soto said. There are at least 15-20 fundraisers in the summer between the months of June and August that she attends. 

The Peruvian community in Utah typically hosts its fundraisers at what it calls “parque canipaco,” or Parkway Park, in West Valley City. These fundraisers not only help the community at large for Peruvians, but also is a way of keeping their tradition alive through food and celebration. For more information about these fundraisers, contact Soto at giulia.soto@utah.edu.