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Beyond Taco Tuesday

Explore a world of Latin American flavors without leaving the Triangle

The Bandeja Salvadoreña at El Cuscatleco in Durham is just one example of the array of Latin American flavors now found in the Triangle
The Bandeja Salvadoreña at El Cuscatleco in Durham is just one example of the array of Latin American flavors now found in the Triangle (Anna Routh Barzin)

By Matthew Lardie

Tacos. Burritos. Enchiladas and quesadillas: Mexican dishes are as an entrenched part of American cuisine today as meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Schools across the nation observe Taco Tuesdays, and it wouldn’t be Super Bowl Sunday without a big plate of nachos or bowl of chips and salsa.

But when it comes to the wider world of Latin American cuisine, there is a whole universe of flavors south of the Mexican border, and those flavors increasingly can be found here in the Triangle. From Peruvian-style roasted chicken to hearty Honduran soups, there are a bevy of specialities in family-run restaurants to explore, and each offers an opportunity to try some of the best-known dishes from their countries of origin.

Diners well-versed in Mexican-American fare will certainly notice commonalities in the flavors coming from Mexico’s Central American neighbors: fiery salsas, fresh fish dishes, an array of refried beans. The cuisines draw as much on their history as they do on their geography. Venezuela’s food nods towards an Afro-Caribbean influence, while in Peru the use of seasonings such as soy sauce reflect a long history of Asian immigration to the country.

While by no means a comprehensive list (there are dozens of Latinx restaurants in the Triangle area), these five restaurants are a great place to start for those looking to expand their culinary horizons.

Mi Perú Peruvian Cuisine

Plenty of Peruvian chicken chains (both local and national) have popped up in recent years, but Mi Perú goes far beyond rotisserie chicken with a menu that reads like a greatest hits list of classic Peruvian dishes. Think lomo saltado (Peruvian style beef stir-fry mixed with onions, tomatoes, cilantro, soy sauce, and served on fries and jasmine rice), aji de gallina (pulled chicken breast cooked with a creamy ají amarillo sauce and served with potatoes, boiled eggs, olives, and white rice), and cau cau, a tripe dish with Afro-Caribbean roots.

Ceviche de pescado, seco des res, and aji de gallina (top to bottom) at Mi Peru in Durham
Ceviche de pescado, seco des res, and aji de gallina (top to bottom) at Mi Peru in Durham (Anna Routh Barzin)

Soups and ceviches also take a star turn on the menu, like the leche de tigre, a spicy, creamy ceviche of tilapia, shrimp, onions, and Peruvian corn. Shellfish fans should take a look at the choros a la chalaca, a dish of mussels served with diced tomatoes, red onion, Peruvian corn, and seasoned with ají amarillo and lime juice.

And, lovers of that now-famous Peruvian chicken fear not, for the grilled birds are available to order at Mi Perú in whole, half, or quarter sizes alongside numerous side dishes.

La Cacerola Cafe & Restaurant

This cozy Durham spot offers top-notch Honduran home cooking for both lunch and dinner. Try a baleada, a classic Honduran street food consisting of a flour tortilla traditionally stuffed with mashed red beans, Honduran crema, and crumbled cheese.

The Baleada Cacerola is the restaurant’s take on the traditional recipe and adds eggs, avocado, and a choice of chorizo, chicken, or beef to the standard beans, crema, and cheese. Main courses include pollo entomatado—chicken that is fried then simmered in a tomato sauce—and tajadas con carne molina, a dish with fried plantains topped with ground beef, tomato sauce, cabbage, and cheese.

The side dishes change often but can include everything from casamiento (rice with beans and coconut milk), fried yuca, and chismol, Central America’s version of salsa (also spelled variously as chimol or chirmol, depending on the country). Honduran chismol has the same base of tomatoes and onions, but it’s made with mild green bell pepper instead of the spicier peppers found in Mexico. Diners visiting on the weekend have the added bonus of choosing between La Cacerola’s weekend-only soups — sopa de res con vegetables (beef soup with vegetables) or sopa de mondongo, a very traditional tripe soup.

El Cuscatleco

El Cuscatleco brings the flavors of El Salvador to Durham
El Cuscatleco brings the flavors of El Salvador to Durham (Anna Routh Barzin)

Both the Durham and Cary locations of El Cuscatleco cook up a combination of Mexican and Salvadoran classics seven days a week. Familiar items like burritos, chimichangas, and fajitas can be found, but head to the Salvadoran specialty side of the menu for a true taste of El Salvador.

The Bandeja Salvadoreña at El Cuscatleco offers a tour of the cuisine of El Salvador
The Bandeja Salvadoreña at El Cuscatleco offers a tour of the cuisine of El Salvador (Ann Routh Barzin)

The Bandeja Salvadoreña (Salvadoran tray) is a good introduction to the cuisine and comes with a pupusa (a stuffed, griddled flatbread, the national dish of El Salvador), beef steak, cheese, eggs, and pork rinds. The camarones Acajutla are grilled shrimp with onions and tomato in a chipotle sauce, while the combinacion Guanaca comes with carne asada beef, sunny-side-up eggs, cheese, beans, avocado, and a side salad.

For dessert try the Salvadoran take on flan or opt for the Nuegados de Yuca, a friend, donut-like treat commonly served around the Easter holidays.

Pana’s Flavors

Some of the Triangle’s best Latin American cuisine can still be found on four wheels rather than in a brick and mortar restaurant, like the Pana’s Flavors food truck. Usually posted up on Wake Forest Road in North Raleigh, Pana’s serves classic Venezuelan fare, including what the proprietors claim to be the biggest empanada in the Triangle—and they’re probably right, since it’s nearly 10 inches in length.

The cheesy tequeño is a popular Venezuelan snack or street food, and Pana’s offers it up with a homemade garlic dipping sauce. They also have grill plates (parillas) of steak or chicken, and Venezuelan sub sandwiches like the pepito mixto (chicken and steak) or the choripan (chorizo with a homemade chimichurri sauce). With both vegan and vegetarian options, Pana’s delivers big Venezuelan flavor from a single small food truck.

Guasaca Arepa & Salsa Grill

With five locations throughout the Triangle, Guasaca has been serving classic South American cuisine for nearly a decade now. The signature dish is the arepa, a griddled unleavened bread made from ground maize and stuffed with any number of fillings. Guasaca’s arepa offering includes pork, mechadas (shredded beef), avocado chicken, braised tilapia, and more, and they’re stuffed with things like plantains, pico de gallo, caramelized onions, plantains, and a variety of other accompaniments.

The mechada (shredded beef) arepa at Guasaca
The mechada (shredded beef) arepa at Guasaca (Anna Routh Barzin)

Bowls are also available, with many of the same toppings as the arepa stuffings, and don’t forget to order natilla for dessert. It’s a lemony, vanilla-flecked creamy custard common to many countries throughout Latin America.

Triangle

About the Author

Matthew Lardie

Matt Lardie is a food, beverage, and lifestyle writer. Born and raised in New England, he has been exploring and eating his way through the Carolinas since 2008. He has been published in Our State Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Apartment Therapy, Eater Carolinas, The Kitchn, Durham Magazine, and more. His first book, Unique Eats and Eateries: North Carolina, is due to be published in the fall of 2022. He lives in Durham, NC.