A Lot to Like

Sink or swim: The dining room of Sabor Latino is pleasant -- when the Titanic theme isn't playing.
Mark Manger

The last time I was at Sabor Latino, I heard a recorded pan-flute rendition of the Titanic love theme so sappy that it silenced an entire dining room -- except for the laughter. An order of arepa fell just as flat: The white-corn pancake was so nasty, thick, heavy and funked up with some indefinably awful something that it made my entire mouth taste like I'd been sucking on a wet goat.

Actually, Laura tasted the arepa first, made a face like someone had just clocked her in the back of the head with a sock full of nickels, then said, "This is terrible. You try it."

And, like an idiot, I did. Then I tried it again, to make sure it was as bad as I thought it was (and it was). But rather than raise a stink over the dish -- rather than get all puffed-up, indignant and hissy about the ruination of ethnic cuisines, as I so often do -- I calmly spit the offending morsel into my napkin and shrugged. It was bad, sure. Really, truly foul. But the arepa's baseline badness didn't come close to overwhelming the very good vibe I get every time I sit down for dinner at Sabor Latino. I wasn't going to let it ruin our night or my appetite or the plate of Colombian bandeja paisa in front of us: massive piles of my favorite black beans, rice topped with a fried egg, fat rounds of honey-sweet fried plantain, tender shreds of beef and chicharrones that weren't chicharrones at all, but one entire pork rib chicharrón-ified into a dry, crackly, floury, greasy, porkerific wonder for which the cooks here (or the people of Colombia, who probably invented it) deserve some sort of medal.

I shouldn't like Sabor Latino as much as I do. But for some irrational reason, I'm able -- compelled, even -- to shrug off any wrong this restaurant does and go on to enjoy every meal here despite the occasional musical horror or goat-flavored pancake. Sabor Latino's feel-good ambience makes it easy. The dining room is comfortably rustic, with exposed brick walls, simple tables, battered menus and wooden chairs. Tiny alcoves are set with wine bottles and plastic grapes. The booths along the walls are cozy and deep, and the atmosphere hangs somewhere in that inviting, tender middle ground between aging white-tablecloth class and neighborhood eclecticism. I step in on a Monday night, a Wednesday afternoon, late on a Friday, and the staff always seems happy to see me. They must have the memory of fruit flies, though, because no matter how recently I've dined with them, they always ask me if this is my first time. And no matter whether I say yes or no, I'm invariably treated like a guest, not a customer. If I order too much, they'll tell me. They don't flight plates, but bring them out according to their own understanding of when I might want a new taste.

By the end of the night, there's never enough room left on the table for me to put my elbows down.

History could have something to do with why I feel so comfortable here. Colombian husband-and-wife team Raoul and Maria Mirandi opened the original Sabor Latino decades ago in a tiny space on 32nd Avenue in northwest Denver, in the kind of room that could maybe seat forty people if some of them didn't mind sitting on someone else's lap. Robert Luevano and Dan and Marie Jimenez (Robert and Marie are siblings) took it over in 1991 and moved Sabor Latino into its current storefront location several blocks away in 1998. This building once held Quinn's Pharmacy and, more recently, Luigi's Tavern, a barbershop and a secondhand store. It's still broken up into three spaces -- a bar/waiting area and two dining rooms.

From what I understand, Frank Quinn's pharmacy was a well-known and well-loved neighborhood institution, and maybe the good spirits of the place are still around. After all, if a location can be cursed by repeated restaurant failures -- the ghosts of poor concepts and empty tables living for years in the floorboards and hood ducts, long after the names of all the eatery tenants have been forgotten -- then memories of a good business should be able to charm a space just as easily, hanging over the tortillas, plantains and pots of black beans in the kitchen, warming the air with happy memories and making an unfortunate arepa seem like a very small thing in the grand scheme.

But maybe it's not the building. Maybe it's the history that Robert and Marie brought to the place. They come from a longtime north Denver restaurant family, their folks having owned and operated La Nueva Poblana for almost three decades before retiring to a farm somewhere. After growing up in the business, Robert swore he was never going to get into it himself. Of course, he did -- and he and Marie soon found that they'd inherited their parents' talents. The menu, which is about one half Mexican standards and one half greatest-hits collection of Central and South American cuisines, has come together over time -- some of it inherited from the original Sabor Latino, the rest picked up piecemeal over the years. And most of it is very, very good.  

The restaurant does a brisk trade in baked empanadas filled with pino (a Chilean mix of chopped meat, fried onions, raisins and deep, earthy spices), in workaday fajitas, in Mexican moles and great chips served with a thin, dark salsa that tastes like tomato water and black-bean purée. The tamales are big and subtly sweet, filled with seasoned pork and steamed, wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks. The kitchen makes a caldillo de novia Chilena -- Chilean bride's soup -- that comes in a huge bowl filled with fish and shrimp and baby clams, because that's just what a new bride wants on her wedding night: clam breath. But it's a great soup, regardless, and a meal on its own.

There's Peruvian lomo saltado with french fries on the board, as well as bistec a lo pobre -- poor man's steak -- that's a diner benchmark across the Americas sur de la frontera, draping an eight-ounce rib-eye over rice and french fries, topping it with grilled onions, then topping that with a fried egg. Sabor Latino's chefs know that when someone's truly hungry, nothing takes the edge off faster than beans and rice glopped up with an egg or two. Throw a steak on top, and I am one happy boy.

The Caribbean plate isn't as authentic as what you'd find at actual Caribbean restaurants, but what it lacks in that certain punch of harsh, raw spices, it makes up for in generosity: stir-fried sirloin, bell peppers, onions, bacon, black beans, rice and plantains overflowing the edges of the plate, with a side of tortillas that turn everything into fat Caribbean burritos. More geographically confused are the crepas de pollo -- crepes filled with stewed chicken and corn, a concept apparently brought to the New World by a Frenchman with one seriously flawed sense of direction. While the basic idea sounds all right, the crepes were terrible -- swimming in a viscous, thick and crushingly heavy cheese sauce speckled with limp carrots and a couple of broccoli florets that had been steamed to death and beyond, served hot as a plateful of white lava. Taken all together, it came off like a bad chicken-and-vegetable porridge smothered in gooey cheese product. I had a few bites, pushed the plate to the side and went on to the next dish.

Sabor Latino's ceviche is among the best I've tasted since coming out west and eating Americanized ceviche anywhere it's offered. I've had it done well and I've had it done poorly; I've had it off a bar menu in a place where I was the only guy eating anything besides potato skins and jalapeño poppers. (God only knows how long that fish had been kicking around the bottom of some ill-lit lowboy cooler; I had the ambulance service on speed dial all night.) But even that ceviche didn't kill me; it simply set the low end of the spectrum of which Sabor Latino's ceviche is now at the top. This version contains no shrimp, no scallops, no octopus tentacles -- just fish, which is what ceviche is supposed to be made of. It's acid-cooked in lime juice, along with a few tomatoes and wisp-thin shavings of red onion, spiked with a little chile, some cilantro, and that's it. The kitchen wisely stops short of adding cayenne or lemongrass or adobo or anything else that would fuck up the elemental simplicity of this perfect dish. That would be like putting bell peppers in meatloaf or wrapping a confit in cotton candy -- just wrong, wrong, wrong.

And unlike most places, Sabor Latino doesn't serve its ceviche ice-cold, a practice that may make people feel better about eating kinda-raw fish, but kills the delicate flavors and makes it taste like you're consuming fish ice cubes dipped in Lemon Pledge. Here it's served cool but not frigid -- an intentional move by the kitchen, which understands that minimalism and restraint can make for a wonderful mess of fish bits and onions.

I shouldn't like Sabor Latino as much as I do, but I do. Despite every stumble and misstep, I keep coming back and just liking it more. I brought my parents here when they were in town, and we got goofy on white-rum caipherinas and deadly, sugary mojitos that kicked like a mint-flavored mule. I recommend it to friends, and they always thank me. And I'll continue to ignore the occasional pan-flute torch song and culinary train wreck, because so much here is so much better than I ever expect. No matter how often I come into Sabor Latino, the staff always treats me like a lost cousin returned after a long absence. The kitchen always surprises me. Dinner always makes me happy.  

And while I'm never under any illusion that I'm going to get a perfect meal here, on its best nights, Sabor Latino isn't far off.

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