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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Restaurant of the Weekend: La Tortilla Feliz

Posted By on Thu, Apr 24, 2008 at 1:14 PM

After more than a decade of catering to a small-but-loyal following of Central-American food fans, Tremont’s recently reopened La Tortilla Feliz is hoping to broaden its draw, with an updated menu, expanded bar scene, and a more energetic vibe. “We’re tweaking the food, and trying to make the space more trendy and contemporary, to fit in with the neighborhood scene,” says executive chef and Honduran native Rene Lopez, who grew up surrounded by what he calls “traditional foods, made with love.” And if a recent weeknight visit is any measure, he and manager Christina Smith are well on their way to doing just that – making the spot a perfect destination for a weekend’s dining adventure. ... The most obvious change is the one that hits you the minute you walk in the door. Gone are the front room’s dining tables, replaced by couches, overstuffed chairs, and coffee tables, transforming the space into a warm, golden-hued cocoon of casual hiptitude. Tucked into the rear corner, the L-shaped bar may be tiny, but it is notably well-stocked, with an excellent selection of south-of-the-border libations, including macho mojitos, a classic capirinha, a South-American wine list, a handful of seldom-seen beers (including Tona, a golden lager from Nicaragua), an assortment of sippin’ tequilas, and what many fans claim is the best sangria in town. (For non-imbibers, the sweet horchata, a cinnamon-flavored rice “milk,” makes a refreshing change of pace.) As for the dinner menu, it’s a big one, filled with everything from a kicky version of cream of chicken soup (Tinga de Polla) to a firm, rich flan, with nutty overtones of dark caramelization. Still, it’s worth remembering that Central American kitchens 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, Cuba, and Honduras does not deliver Mexican-style spiciness. Instead, the simple flavors focus on corn, beans, cassava, rice, fruits, squash, milk, and fish; and mellow accents come from the addition of garlic, onions, and fresh herbs, not from fiery chiles. So to avoid what can sometimes seem like a redundant blandness, wise tabletop adventurers will avoid ordering too many dishes that focus on cornmeal (masa). On the other hand, we’re still dreaming about the arepas de reina pepiada – a pair of Venezuelan “sliders,” the crisp corn-tortilla “buns” stuffed with rich chicken-and-avocado salad. Yes, we felt the need to ask for a side of salsa; but the crisp-and-creamy texture was riveting. Also rave worthy, the ropa vieja – tender pulled flank steak, served over a bed of sliced and fried spuds, and topped with a chilled salad of garbanzos and diced tomato, tweaked with lemon juice, cilantro, and thyme. And next time, we’ll try the fetching-sounding seared tuna, served with cassava cakes, avocado butter, and spicy mango salsa. Equally fetching, the moderate prices, with starters and small bites checking in at around $3 to $6; sandwiches (including a classic Cubano) set at $8 to $9.50; and entrees mostly pegged at $16 or less. For now, hours are limited to 4:30 to 11 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. Look for lunch service and expanded dinner service to launch later this summer. For our 2003 review of La Tortilla Feliz, click here. – Elaine T. Cicora Read Elaine Cicora's restaurant reviews, food news, and comprehensive dining guide on the restaurant page at clevescene.com.
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