"What's that word you used to describe this stuff?" scoffed a slightly sullen companion, picking at a thick, corn-flour tortilla. "'Subtle'? I guess that's critic-speak for bland."
Well . . . yes and no. After one lunch-hour trip, two dinner visits, and a fairly exhaustive sampling of the Central and South American menu at Tremont's La Tortilla Feliz, I won't maintain that every dish at this charming little eatery is a culinary achievement. In fact, unless mush is your idea of sparkling fare, those plump little tortillas or the moist, steamed, plantain-wrapped tamale may taste downright dull. But just when a discouraged diner might be inclined to push away from the table with a yawn, along comes a dish like the juicy pollo en salsa de anana, boneless chicken breast bits in a sweet, translucent pineapple sauce; or what is probably the city's best ceviche, with satiny dice of raw tilapia, "cooked" in a tongue-tingling salsa of tomato, onion, cilantro, and lime. Bland? Not by a long shot.
Besides, worldly diners already know that places like La Tortilla Feliz (literally, "the happy tortilla") are the wrong spots to seek out fiery fixes. While it's risky to make broad generalizations about such diverse cuisines, it's safe to say that much of the fare from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Argentina is not designed to deliver Caribbean or Mexican-style spiciness. Rather, the simple flavors of corn, beans, cassava, rice, fruits, squash, milk, and fish are the staples, and mellow accents come from the addition of basil, garlic, lime, and onion rather than high Scoville-scoring hotties like cayenne, serrano, and habañero peppers. The result, therefore, is a unique collection of dishes that are understated and -- unfortunately -- often underrated.
The upside, though, is that this is a great jumping-off point for novice tabletop adventurers, who can sally forth with the assurance they will find nothing too shocking for delicate palates. Meantime, hard-core chilephiles can always choose to spice up such dishes as the popular Salvadorean pupusas (bean-and-cheese-filled soft corn tortillas, served with crunchy cole-slaw-like curtido and a meek tomato salsa) with a side of finely diced, jalapeño-spiked salsa picante or a little bowl of pickled hot peppers, carrots, and garlic. It might not be traditional, but the zesty (but not too hot) picante sauce was just what an order of flaky, cheese-and-basil-stuffed, crescent-moon empanadas needed to rev them up; and the pickled peppers did wonders for the pabellon, a substantial dish of shredded flank steak in a mild sauce of tomato and sweet peppers, served with rice, black beans, and golden fried plantains.
La Tortilla Feliz's principals, Alan Myer, Nicholas Dykema, and general manager/executive chef Claudia Veleizañ, first opened the little corner eatery in 1996, and Dykema admits that the original decor was drab and dreary. However, an eight-month remodeling project, completed in June, changed all that. Among the improvements was a significant expansion of floor space, which found the former single dining room replaced by four distinct eating areas, including a tiny L-shaped bar and a whimsical "garden room" surrounded by a series of graceful arches. Rough stucco walls, painted a summery terra cotta, serve as a backdrop for rustic wall sconces, folksy woven textiles, and primitive basketry. Dark stone floors bring to mind an outdoor plaza, and a vast wall mural by local artist Hector Castellano depicts scenes of daily rural life, south-of-the-border style (look closely, and you may spot the likeness of Che Guevara, Frida Kahlo, and others). Thursdays are "romance nights," with sultry, live Latin jazz, lots of fresh seafood, and a carpet of rose petals, and on Saturday nights, part of the nonsmoking dining area is cleared to make way for live Latino music and dancing.
Both lunch and dinner visits get off to a welcoming start with a complimentary serving of tamalitos, a dish of mildly seasoned, light-textured vegetarian refried beans served with dense grilled cheese-and-cornmeal "fingers" for dipping. From there, a diner could scarcely do better than to order the fragrant almendras y cebolla (almond and onion soup), made with nut-and-cream-thickened vegetable stock and topped with lightly toasted, cheese-brushed croutons that give the dish an almost-Mediterranean richness and heft.
A small salad of slivered leaf lettuces accompanies all dinner entrées; either the mild jalapeño dressing or the pesto-like basil dressing makes a perky topper. Besides the lush chicken in pineapple sauce (sided by a duo of hauntingly earthy cauliflower "tortillas," pan-fried in olive oil), a Saturday-night special of pristine, popping-fresh shrimp in thick, satiny toasted-almond sauce was delicious; two nutmeg-and-Parmesan-scented mashed potato "tortillas" and a mound of buttery sautéed veggies rounded out this winning plate.
When dessert time rolls around, skip the greasy chocolate mousse and the commercially made banana pie, and head for the kitchen's condensed-milk flan -- unusually firm, but decidedly silken, with a gentle sigh of caramel. Other don't-miss options are the homemade milk-soaked cakes: the dainty Tres Leches, melting into an indulgent bath of whole, condensed, and evaporated milks; and the punchier milk-and-rum-soaked version, topped with thick whipped cream and as satisfying as the best Italian baba au rhum.
Speaking of spirits, La Tortilla Feliz has a bar menu that begs for exploration, complete with tropical mixed drinks such as the Amazon ($6), an easy-sipping blend of melon and banana liqueurs; homemade sangria ($15/pitcher); and the classic Brazilian caipirinha ($6), a macho slap of cachaça, fresh lime, and sugar. There's also a Spanish and New World wine list, with selections available by both the bottle and the glass, and an enticing collection of South and Central American suds, including the sweet, smooth Xingu ($3.25), an aromatic black beer from Brazil that looks like a stout, but goes down like a Dortmunder.
On each of our three visits, we were warmly welcomed and seated promptly. And on an early Saturday-night stopover, service was attentive, the pace was brisk, and the food was flawless. However, during a weekday lunch, when the dining room was nearly empty, we waited almost 40 minutes for a disappointingly overdone grilled-beef churasco to arrive. And on a Friday night, when the place was packed and the kitchen seemed hopelessly in the weeds, our dinner turned into a three-hour ordeal, complete with cold coffee, a visibly stressed-out server, and carelessly composed entrées -- like brutally overcooked halibut, say, and a $14 tofu-and-veggie dish that contained a length of fibrous, impenetrable carrot, some diced potatoes, a few green beans, and one lonely chunk of fried tofu.
Of course, all adventures, culinary or otherwise, have their ups and downs, and La Tortilla Feliz is no different. But most times, when everything goes well, the colorful surroundings, warm ambiance, and menu of rarely found foods from exotic locales can make a diner here the happiest tortilla-head in town. And there's nothing dull about that.