We here at Scene have always had a soft spot for out-of-the-way ethnic eats, those affordable mom-and-pop spots that open our eyes, minds and hearts to new cuisines. Lately, we've been pleasantly awash in the flavors of Latin America, from El Salvadoran pupusas to Guatemalan garnachas. Here are some of our new (and not-so-new) favorites.
We first became hip to the addictive qualities of pupusas about eight years back thanks to Pupuseria La Bendicion (3685 West 105th St., 216-688-0338), a no-frills establishment that still crafts some of the best – and most affordable – pupusas around. We lost this establishment's west-side twin, La Casa Tazumal, a few years back, but we've since made back the ground. For the uninitiated, these dreamy street eats are thick griddle-fried corn pancakes filled with cheese and other ingredients. A hot, crisp exterior gives way to a molten-cheese interior. Pupusas are always served with a bright and crunchy cabbage slaw, an ideal accompaniment to the warm, doughy corn cakes, and a thin, mild tomato sauce. In addition to the pupusas, Bendicion also prepares wonderful Salvadoran tamales, corn dough stuffed with shredded chicken and steamed in a banana leaf for a lush, pudding-like texture.
Pupuseria Katarina began life three years ago as a spare Salvadoran eatery in Old Brooklyn built largely around a roster of great pupusas. After relocating to a larger, more comfortable spot (1409 Brookpark Rd., 216-331-6624, pupuseriakatarina.com), they unveiled an expanded menu featuring those same great pupusas, of course, but also hearty main dishes like shrimp in tomato sauce, grilled steak and onions, whole fried fish and one of the best breakfast-all-day platters around. This one combines housemade chorizo scrambled eggs, rice, refried beans, a fresh farmer's cheese and a pair of warm, thick tortillas.
El Arepazo y Pupuseria (22799 Lorain Rd., 440-716-1961) in Fairview Park offers guests the best of both worlds when it comes to Latin American specialties. In addition to exceptional Salvadoran pupusas, the menu here extends to cover Colombian dishes like arepas, empanadas and the classic Bandeja Paisa, an appetite slaying platter loaded down with rice, beans, plantains, meaty pork skin, sausage, steak, avocado, arepa and an egg. El Arepazo's arepas are crisp, corny and overstuffed with fillings like chorizo, onions, green peppers and cheese. They are served with fries and a trio of sauces. In addition to tamales, the restaurant prepares crispy fried empanadas filled with cheese, pork or beef.
A newcomer on the near-westside, La Morenita (3156 West 25th St., 216-350-6633) is a cheery little eatery that dishes up home-style Dominican fare for breakfast, lunch and early dinner. A heated display is filled with quick-serve foods like golden brown empandillas filled with ground beef, chicken or cheese, and tostones, crunchy, creamy fried plantains. Los Tres Golpes, a Dominican breakfast platter, contains fried eggs, fried cheese, fried salami and mangu, which is boiled and mashed plantains. Entrees, which come with rice and beans, are built around roasted pork, beef stew, roasted chicken, and whole fried fish. Available on Saturdays, mondongo is a rich tripe stew with tomato, carrots and potatoes. Sancocho, available on Sundays, is a celebratory dish filled with various meats and root vegetables.
The fast-casual craze has co-opted nearly every other cuisine, so it might as well have appropriated Puerto Rican food as well. Mofongo Latin Grill (11621 Lorain Ave., 216-415-5323, clevelandmofongo.com), which opened last spring, offers a stripped-down menu of Latin favorites in typical fast-casual fashion. The namesake mofongo – fried, mashed and seasoned plantains – is mounded high and topped with a choice of meats, seafood or veggies. Delicious roasted pork shoulder is shredded and paired with fragrant yellow rice studded with pigeon peas and runny beans. The chicharron served here as an entree with rice and beans is more meat (and fat) than skin, and the golden-brown empanadillas are hot, flaky and perfectly spiced.
Caribe Bake Shop (2906 Fulton Rd., 216-281-8194) isn't new, but Cleveland's "Home of the best Cubano" recently moved into a new building on the same property and demolished the old one. Step into Caribe today and you're greeted by a bright, open and modern space outfitted with 20 feet of hot and cold food stations. There's heavenly roast pork, a stew of meltingly tender chicken, carrots and potatoes, pitch-black morcilla (blood sausage), and some of the city's crispiest fried chicken. A small heated display case is filled with crispy empanadillas and plenty of new seating welcomes hungry guests.
For the past couple years, eastside Mexican food fans have tolerated cramped quarters, a confusing process and strict cash-only policy at Las Americas (25626 Aurora Rd., Bedford, 440-439-9378) in return for delicious and affordable tacos, burritos and quesadillas. This summer, the business relocated to a new space in the same plaza that features a greatly expanded Latin foods market and attached restaurant. Fans will recognize the same menu and pricing as before, but with options for take-out or full-service dining. Burritos are stuffed to the breaking point, quesadillas are cooked on a flattop until hot and melted, and those authentic street tacos are as good as they get.
We got a quick, delicious taste of El Rinconcito Chapin at its previous location in Old Brooklyn before it shut down in preparation for a major relocation (3330 Broadview Rd., 216-795-5776). When it opens this month or next, diners will get a taste of Guatemalan-style tamales called chuchitos, crispy rolled taquitos guatemaltecos, and dobladas, Guatemalan turnovers that are closely related to pupusas. But it's the garnachas that we can't get out of our heads. Imagine a plate of nachos that swaps the thin and crispy chips for silver dollar-size corn tortillas. Each sturdy base is topped with seasoned ground beef, a dollop of bright salsa, raw red onion and a sprinkling of salty cheese.