South American tastes vie for place on Tate St.’s palate
Guillermo Riascos, a self-possessed restaurant manager born in Venezuela to Colombian and American parents, emerges from the kitchen dressed in a black T-shirt and blue jeans. He holds a plate of fried ripe plantain, its succulent heft split down the middle and slathered with gooey white cheese.
Setting it on the small table, he tells the writer: ‘“I’m going to leave you to enjoy this.’”
It’s the dog days of summer, two months into the student drought when the undergrads have vacated the Gate City for part-time jobs in Salisbury, internships in DC, vacations on the Outer Banks, or wherever they flee to when classes let out. A young couple occupies one of the tables at Bacano Latin & Caribbean Cuisine and another is held by a lone student who’s decided for some reason to stick around.
The August heat has returned after a dreary weekend of rain, and the cool confines within the modest brick Tate Street storefront take on a funky but sophisticated rural Latin feel thanks to the burlap curtains that frame the restaurant’s windows and the Colombian paintings that hang from walls painted in loud and contrasting hues of blue, yellow and orange.
The entrÃ©e arrives, a modestly elegant plate of Colombian meatballs draped with a mayonnaise and curry sauce, and Andean potatoes, small medallions covered in a tangy tomato and cilantro criollo sauce, along with a mound of fluffy white rice garnished with parsley. This lunchtime special can be had for all of five dollars.
Other dishes, such as the Spanish paella ‘— a concoction of rice, shrimp, mussels and other seafood all cooked together in butter and wine sauce ‘— run above ten dollars, as does the hearty tipical Colombian platter of beans and rice, ground beef, Colombian sausage, fried sweet plantain, fried egg and corncakes.
The summer has been slow and the restaurant has struggled to develop a clientele since it opened in April, owner Marta Serrano says, but she is banking on an up-tick in business when the students return in mid August. On the recommendation of a friend at UNCG she started Bacano’s to build on the culinary interest in Latin America that has accompanied the rapid Mexican immigration to the Triad.
A Colombian immigrant who abandoned a college study of communications when she found that she had a knack for business, Serrano acquired the Latin grocery store Sabor Latino on High Point Road. She and her husband fled a political and economic crisis in Colombia in 1991, and landed in Greensboro mainly because her husband had a brother in Burlington. Running the grocery store entailed engaging almost entirely with other Spanish speakers and her English speaking skills stalled, she says. Now that she has sold the store and opened a restaurant catering to a mixed clientele, she expects that to change. The Latin grocery has afforded her one distinct advantage, however: she knows the supply chain for ingredients from practically every country from El Salvador to the Dominican Republic.
Broadening on North Carolinians’ love of Mexican food, she decided to combine the cuisine of South and Central America with that of the Caribbean ‘— a culinary marriage found often in places like Miami and New York but rarely in provincial North Carolina.
Switching between English and Spanish, she explains that Latin food, what she calls comida criolla, is simpler to prepare, a basic fare of rice and beans. Caribbean food, in contrast, is more cosmopolitan and makes more liberal use of spices.
‘“People from the Caribbean like plantains, fruits, yucca,’” she says. ‘“The Caribbean is full of ports and they get food from off the boats. It’s a grand opportunity to get food from all over the world, from India, Asia and Europe.’”
Despite the geographic proximity of Central and South America to the Caribbean, the marriage of the two cuisines is not the most natural of pairings. The former produces cooking with a little more heft befitting highland peoples while the latter springs from island peoples who are acculturated to the exotic tastes of the sea.
Serrano says she’s relied on guidance from two people to pull it off.
‘“I’m working with a chef from Venezuela, someone with good experience,’” she says. ‘“My husband cooks very good and he loves good cooking.’”
Her kitchen at home serves as Bacano’s research and development lab.
‘“I do some dishes at home,’” Serrano says. ‘“My husband is a good researcher. We make corrections and improvements at home, and then I teach people in the [restaurant] kitchen how to do it.’”
The menu continues to be subject to revision. Despite her desire to keep the menu focused on the foods of Latin America and the Caribbean, Serrano recognizes that she’ll have to make some concessions to local tastes. Eggplant parmesan ‘— a dish associated more with Italy than Latin America ‘— is out, Riascos says. But a planned buffet line later this month will offer a fusion of Indian, Jamaican and even Hawaiian tastes.
‘“We’re going to have meatballs with a curry sauce, potatoes with something that is very criollo and chicken wings with jerk spice,’” she says. ‘“My clientele are very accustomed to chicken wings, but we are going to adjust it to our flavor.’”
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