I want diversity, you want it, we all want it: That's a modern culinary conjugation. Problem is, while we say we want the taste of other cuisines, often it's a case of us managing our own expectations over another person's taste.
For instance, northerners often expect hot from the equator.
Don't be shy, turn up the heat is a common enough encouragement to newcomer cooks in Canada. Yet it disappointed me to hear people say how disappointed they were with Café Aroma Latino because it wasn't spicy enough.
Thing is, chef Claudia Pinto, owner of Café Aroma Latino, isn't hiding anything under a bushel. She cooks authentic Guatemalan food without any compromise to northern palates.
Overall, the food is corn-based, down-home cooking. If you don't like cornmeal, you won't like this cafe. It's low on meat, it fills you up and it's about finding pleasure in simple tastes.
I spoke to the owner after I'd eaten there twice. Pinto has lived on the east coast for over 20 years. She loved cooking, so she quit banking and studied at the NSCC, becoming a junior chef.
"I want to cook few things, but good. As you go up in volume, you lose the essence of it," she told me. She's savvy, methodical and has a plan to slowly grow her small menu.
I brought a friend on my second visit---a guy who spent a dozen years in Mexico and Central America as a tour guide. He's eaten widely and is as enthusiastic about the place as I am. Guatemalan food is not by nature spicy, he tells me. Heat comes on the side, as a sauce. So hotheads can ask for Pinto's piquant (not hot) sauce on the side.
The empanadas are not like the Chilean pasties I know. These are deep-fried, bright corn yellow with a corn paste of cheese and pimientos inside ($1.75) and come with a side of good chimichurri (a garlic-pasley dip). Dobladas ($1.75) have a crispier crust than the empanadas, with onion, cabbage and potato inside.
Guatemala tacos ($1.75) look like egg rolls. The small folded deep-fried corn wraps contain ground chicken. It's good, but the Mexican taco is lighter ($3.50), with scallions, chicken and smoky chipolte wrapped in a tortilla. The quesadilla ($4.25) is familiar tex-mex, with sour cream, cheddar, fried peppers and onions in a flour tortilla.
Guatemalan specialty chuchitos ($3.00) wrapped in corn husks and tamales ($4.25) wrapped in banana leaves are excellent. Light on meat, the tamale is moist with capers and red peppers, tasting of banana leaf, while the coarser cuchito has tomato sauce.
Slices of honied cornbread and flour-based cheesebread ($2.50 each) are fine, as is the fair trade coffee, but not a challenge to nearby Java Blend. I'd recommend the viscous tamarindo ($2.50) or the summery rosa de jamaica (hibiscus) iced tea ($2.00).
Staff are friendly and attentive and service is quick. The cafe has a likable atmosphere, and as it stands, eating here is a tapas-like experience. Order mutiple small plates. Pinto says she is planning soups and stews, which is a good idea.
Aroma Latino gives an attentive version of Central American food and I love it for that. Suggesting an option to upsize a dish with a side of rice and beans or salad would be good for business, I think, but might compromise Pinto's unardorned slow food tastes.
Claudia Pinto's recipe for rosa de jamaica follows this review online at thecoast.ca/food.
Recipe: Rosa de Jamaica
This is a recipe for the sweet, tangy hibiscus flower iced tea inspired by the drink Claudia Pinto serves at Cafe Aroma Latino. I've tested it myself a couple times, so the measurements are a mix of mine and the advice Pinto gave to me. (AM)
Take 1/2 litre of water, put it in a pot and bring to a boil. When it hits a full boil, add a handful of dried hibiscus flowers (Aroma Latino sells them for $2.75 a bag), a rough 1/4 cup, and take it off the heat. Add 4 tablespoons of sugar, or to taste (less if you want it tangy, more if you want it to taste like kool-aid). Mix well so the sugar dissolves, cover and let steep. Give it about 20 minutes before you strain. This is the concentrate. Add another half litre of cold water to dilute it. Serve it on ice. (PS: personally, I think a little vodka or gin and fresh herbs would work well in there, too).