Sometimes change is good — especially when nobody loses out. Central Bistro & Bar wrapped up a five-year run at 1691 Central Street two months ago, but owner Isiah Salazar and chef Jesse Vega held on to the space, giving it a new name and menu rather than closing up shop altogether. The result is Candela Latin Kitchen, which will open to the public on Friday, August 4.
Candela's theme is the cuisine of Latin America, with a heavy emphasis on Puerto Rico, Peru, Mexico and Cuba, according to Vega, who grew up in Queens, New York, in a Puerto Rican household. "It's the most culturally diverse borough in all of New York," the chef explains. "Just the potlucks at church were crazy."
Vega balances that cultural diversity with his family's Puerto Rican cooking in a menu that's equal parts familiar and novel — without ever seeming intimidating. "We don't want to get confused with a Mexican restaurant," he notes, pointing out that Denver already has plenty of great options for that. But at the same time, tacos were a part of his life growing up, so Candela's menu sports a few taco options. Those options are laced with Caribbean influences, though, including a sweet-plantain taco and pork carnitas revved up with a Veracruz-style salsa macha.
Shrimp ceviche takes a Peruvian twist, with its coconut-milk "leche de tigre" marinade hit with an ample dose of habanero. Salazar says guests will be encouraged to shoot the leche left over at the bottom of the dish (there's a notch on the rim to make that an easy proposition) with a rum or tequila back.
Distinctly Puerto Rican dishes include empanadas with either mushroom or chicken filling that Vega learned how to make from his mother and grandmother, and a dish called pastelon that looks familiar, even if the ingredients don't. "I grew up eating this — it's basically Puerto Rican lasagna," Vega says. Strips of sweet plantain take the place of lasagna noodles; alternating layers of mozzarella and beef picadillo are doused in criolla sauce, and the whole thing is topped with a fried egg.
And a Puerto Rican menu wouldn't be complete without mofongo, the hearty dish made from fried mashed plantains, here offered with a choice of chicken, steak, shrimp or pork.
For the most part, the menu is shareable and reasonably priced, with only a platter of a dozen oysters topping $20. For best results, mixing and matching with plates of wings (in Peruvian marinade), tacos, sides of yuca fries or plantain chips and other nibbles seems to be the way to go, especially when paired with rum, tequila and cachaca cocktails from the bar.
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Those who visited Central Bistro will find the new Candela familiar, with much of the same decor, including the massive "Hot" sign above the kitchen. A few splashes of Caribbean colors have been added, and some Mexican Loteria art graces the walls above new wood floors.
Candela will be open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to midnight and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to midnight. Brunch was a popular offering at Central Bistro, and Salazar plans to continue that tradition. While the restaurant will initially open with brunch hours on the weekend, a full brunch menu — which will boast more Cuban flavors — won't be rolled out immediately. There will also be happy hour twice daily, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. to midnight.
This is the second pan-Latin American eatery to open in LoHi this summer; Señor Bear debuted two months ago at 3301 Tejon Street with a slightly more upscale, esoteric menu. It's a great mini-trend for a city that has long been awash in green chile.