African soul in Latin cuisine at Regent Square's Kitchen
The soul of Latin American cuisine is very African, says Jamie Wallace, the owner of Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen in Regent Square.
The slave ships that transported Africans to South America and the Caribbean also brought African foods, such as rice, plantains, yams and lima beans, which became staple ingredients in the dishes and meals we think of as Latino.
Wallace began to recognize the connection when he opened his first restaurant, Abay Ethiopian Cuisine in East Liberty. "It was interesting to me that a number of diners who would say, 'I know this dish.' But they might know it under another name," Wallace says.
With Alma, Wallace hopes to pay homage to those cultural and culinary connections through an ever-changing menu of creative dishes that emphasize the bi-continental connection such as a vegetarian plate ($12) that employs both the Peruvian grain quinoa and hominy or the Cuban dish vaca frita con arroz y gandules ($16) that offers roasted beef brisket with hearty rice and pigeon peas.
To further his intention, Wallace hired Martin Lamarche as executive chef.
The son of a Dominican father and a Guatemalan mother, Lamarche's fondness for and knowledge of Latin cuisine was honed while visiting relatives in the Dominican Republic, living for a time in Guatemala and travelling throughout Latin American. He developed his culinary skills at the renowned The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and at Restaurant Terra in Napa Valley, Calif., as well as restaurants in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Hamptons, and served as the executive chef for Andora restaurants in Franklin Park and Mt. Lebanon.
Wallace, who lives nearby in Point Breeze, wants Alma to be a relaxed neighborhood place where customers drop by with their kids for a sandwich and a side of yucca fries. He also intends to draw adventurous diners from around the region who will be attracted by an ever-changing menu of interesting, authentic choices.
A small, brightly painted dining room seats 48 with room for another 24 at tables outdoors. Small, colorful paintings and woven basketry adorn the walls and contribute to a sense of place.
Early reports of high-decibel noise appear to have been dealt with. We had no problem carrying on a conversation without overlap or interference from nearby tables.
In the next few weeks, an additional 22 seats will be available when the cantina opens with a separate menu of small plates and a bar that offers wines and beers from South America as well as an assortment of cocktails such as Cuban-style mojitos, Brazilian-inspired caipirinhas and possibly a drink featuring Peruvian Pisco.
For a restaurant that opened in June, service is refreshingly swift, seamless and attentive. The informed and enthusiastic waitstaff knows the menu and its ingredients and can make authoritative suggestions. When told that we were planning to share a salad and an appetizer, our waitress happily offered to split them into individual servings.
Fresh, distinctive and flavorful are keywords here.
Our first course was Chicarrones de Pollo con Limon ($7), an appetizer from the Dominican Republic that offered nuggets of crisply deep-fried chicken served on a bed of crispy vegetables with a pretty pink dipping sauce that had a bit of a kick.
Though we were splitting a single order Ensalada de Pepino com Tomate, Aceitunas y Pan ($6), the two bowls of salad that arrived were huge. The croutons were too solid for easy forking. But the lemony, lightly dressed greens with bits of cucumber and ripe tomato and cubes of soft queso fresco cheese tasted like summer.
We could have stopped right there and been satisfied.
But that would have caused us to miss out on two very nice entrees.
Pescado del Dia ($22), a house special of the day, offered a nice piece of yellowfin tuna, cooked just the way we like it, topped with an ample pile of julienned ripe mango, a perfect choice for a steamy night.
More hearty was the Argentinian Bife Steak Chimichurri Gallo Pinto ($22), a nicely grilled piece of properly chewy skirt steak seasoned with pleasantly fiery chimichurri sauce and served with black beans and rice.
For dessert, we opted for the Honduran version of Pastel de Tres Leche con Fresas en Dulce ($6), a moist, verging-on-wet square of cake that was outclassed by the ripe, juicy strawberry slices and whipped cream that accompanied it. Sorbete de fruta fresca ($5) -- sorbet made from fresh blackberries -- was refreshingly icy, despite its lack of flavor.
On this visit, our desires outstripped our appetites.
We can't wait for the cantina to open so we can return to raise a wine glass of Argentinian Malbec while exploring the Chilean Empanadas del Dia ($7),
Peruvian Ceviche ($9) made with shrimp and sweet potatoes, a pulled chicken sandwich with avocdo from El Salvador ($10) and the restaurant's own recipe for warm chocolate cake topped with cinnamon ice cream ($6).Additional Information:
Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen
Cuisine: African-influenced Latin American
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Entree price range: $10-$22
Notes: Reservations for groups of eight or more. Temporarily BYOB, with a $2.50 corkage fee. Accepts most major credit cards. High chairs available. Future plans include Monday-night wine dinners and meet the chef events as well as a catering service.
Location: 7600 and 7606 Forbes Ave., Regent Square. Cantina entrance will be on Forbes. Entrance to restaurant is on Braddock Avenue.
Details: 412-727-6320 or www.almapgh.com