Going South: Latin American Cuisine

Authentic flavours from the South by way of Edmonton.

Street Sense

Transcend‘s reputation as a coffee house is second to none in Edmonton. But, as the mini-chain grew, so did owner Poul Mark’s desire to introduce a distinct selection of finger foods.

He turned to executive chef Chad Moss, who travelled to the coffee-producing countries from which Transcend buys its beans. Instead of just featuring scones and muffins, Transcend carries food inspired by the street vendors of South and Central America.

The coxinha ($6) is a cone-shaped breaded dumpling filled with spiced, shredded chicken. When dipped in the mildly spicy pimento (cherry pepper) sauce, the large dumpling with a crusty shell is a snack made in heaven. (Actually, Brazil.)

If you’d had a pupusa at Heritage Festival, you might be surprised by the version cooked up by Moss. His pupusa ($5.50), with either meat or vegetarian filling, is served with a smoky rojo (red chilli) sauce, and a side of pickled red cabbage that you pile on top of the tortilla. It’s like a tangy, sweet relish, and the acid pairs well with the meat.

Remember, these are meant for snacking, so order more than one if you want a meal. And, all dishes are made centrally and then sent out to its three locations, so if you come late, the shop may be out of certain plates. Early bird gets the coxinhas. (9869 62 Ave., 780-430-9198; 8708 109 St., 780-756-8882; and 10349 Jasper Ave., 780-421-7734, transcendcoffee.com)

Hot and Heavy

Acajutla, a family-owned Mexican and Salvadoran restaurant, emanates authenticity from its lime green walls, colourful gingham-print tablecloths and Latin music. The cuisine is no less culturally intact.

Judging by the number of orders delivered to other tables, the pupusas are Acajutla’s mainstay. Each thick, handmade Salvadoran corn tortilla is stuffed with any of three fillings ($3.25 each for beans, pork and cheese, $3.75 for cheese only), and served with pickled cabbage and a jalapeno and tomato sauce. Another starter, the tortilla soup ($6.99), is a spicy, slightly salty chicken broth with avocado, feta cheese, cilantro and shredded corn tortilla – which creates a race to eat it while it’s still crispy.

I recommend the entree chile con carne ($14.99). It’s spicy (or not, on your request) beef sirloin strips simmered in tomato, onion and jalapeno peppers, served with a side of rice. The restaurant’s signature dish, the Acajutla plate ($14.99) is a protein platter with sirloin steak, two homemade pork-and-beef-mix sausages and refried beans, with rice and chimol, a simple Salvadoran salsa with some kick from jalapenos. Both dishes go well with a bottle of Negra Modelo ($5.50 for 355 millilitres), a Mexican dark amber lager with a smooth and slightly sweet flavour.

The only thing here that spares the culture and family recipes is the dessert menu, which, disappointingly, only includes flan, sundaes or cheesecake. But a cool dessert might be what you need to tame the spice. (11302 107 Ave., 780-426-1308, acajutlarestaurant.ca)

Brotherly Love

One of the most anticipated new restaurants of last year wasn’t a French bistro or hotel restaurant with stars in the window. It was a taqueria, a place specializing in Mexican street food. Tres Carnales Taqueria‘s cool, social attitude made it popular months before its first customer found out that the terrific flavours and fast, friendly service backed up the hype.

And a cool interior design helps, too, what with the spray-painted mural of a masked wrestler greeting you to front-counter service.

Tres Carnales keeps the chalkboard menu simple, breaking down the entrees by meat and style – either tacos, $10, quesadillas, $11.50, and tortas (on a bun), $12.50. The fillings include chorizo and firm, marinated flank steak cut from abdominal muscles. The vegetarian option, rajas con crema, is poblano peppers, onions and sweet corn stewed with cream. It’s a family recipe from co-owner Edgar Gutierrez, one of the “three homeboys” in the name.

The cream, marinades, guacamole and various salsas are house-made. Each entre comes with a specific salsa to bolster the taste.

The daily soup ($8) is also worth ordering, especially if it’s the pozole, a substantial bowl of braised pork, cabbage, radish and giant hominy corn kernels that taste like chickpeas. It’s one of the few ingredients from a can, not fresh from central Alberta farmers, but that’s no slight to a good bowl of soup.

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