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Archive for Thursday, June 28, 2001

The Mag: Hot off the grill

June 28, 2001

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La Parrilla presents Latin America cuisine with local flavor

Late nights and long hours. La Parrilla has them, so I put them in. It took a lot of research for me to really get a good feel for La Parrilla. The first 15 times I'd been there weren't enough for me to accurately report on this Latin American restaurant. Nor were my two "official" visits. While looking over my notes I panicked, realizing I'd neglected to try the bajan shrimp cocktail or the chocolate kahlua flan. Clearly, I had to go back.

La Parrilla ("The Grill") holds a special place in my heart: When I first visited at 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday in late September of 1999, I was an hour off a three-day road trip and hungry for anything that didn't come on a bun. La Parrilla beckoned with its flattering lighting and quick, simple approach (I was too tired for full table service), and fully delivered with excellent, wholesome food. And it hasn't flagged since.

At once homegrown and imported,

La Parrilla combines the comfort of a local restaurant with the exotic flavors of Latin American cuisine. It is simultaneously lighter and more robust than straight Mexican food, and it is a tribute to the cuisine of this region and its execution here that it is satisfying without being predictable, frequently straightforward but never dull. I took a visiting vegetarian friend -- a pregnant vegetarian, no less -- who actually had to narrow down her choices; after lunch one day, she requested going back the next.

Point of order

Your first visit to La Parrilla will require a few minutes to read the menu and gnash your teeth over what to order. From simple parrillas "grills" -- flour tortillas with beef or chicken and a topping) to a Mayan shrimp salad, each thing sounds better than the one before.

We started with an appetizer of chips, spicy house salsa and an order of guacamole, which opts for a thinner consistency than some but is wonderfully tasty, with a translucency buoyed by chunks of tomato and onion. The arepas, Colombian corn pancakes, are silver-dollar-sized circles of coarsely-ground corn decorated with a ribbon of melted cheese and sour cream. The slightly sweet taste of the corn blends well with La Parrilla's ubiquitous, but always welcome, green chile sauce.

The soup of the day -- asparagus -- was a simple concoction; the taste of asparagus was understated but entirely evident, an uncomplicated warm-up for the more robust food to come. I found it paired well with the Bajan shrimp cocktail. Little poached shrimp were suspended in a Mexican cocktail sauce which, to make a loose comparison, is what might result if regular cocktail sauce collided with pico de gallo: active but mannered. The insistent taste of cilantro was battened down somewhat by a clean stream of lime juice and slices of avocado. I loved it.

of olive. Pleasing in both form and substance, I enjoyed cutting them open to reveal the finely-chopped filling and then feasting on their mild but complete flavor.

One of the simplest entrees, the rice bowls, remains one of my favorites. Zesty seasoning on the gaucho-style beef is tempered with the fresh taste of green peppers and filling black beans and rice. And the tofu and grilled vegetable versions of this dish are equally good. Deep-fried fish filets packed with a Salvadoran cole slaw and salsa into corn tortillas make up the fish tacos. They tasted great, and they also delivered a tactile satisfaction with the solidity of the whole fish pieces, the thin crunch of the cole slaw and the coarseness of the tortillas.

A flaky flour tortilla, deep-fried to a golden brown, is wrapped around cheese and chicken (or beef or vegetables) in the delectable chimichanga. The green chile sauce hits your taste buds first, in a little wake-up call, and is quickly joined by the flaky tortilla. Together they prepare your mouth for the main attraction: the moist filling of chicken and cheese. Another La Parrilla specialty is the chile relleno: a whole poblano pepper stuffed with onions and cheese. Two of La Parrilla's favorite spices -- cilantro and oregano -- are expertly used to make this dish. I found it too rich to be eaten alone, but a generous side of rice and refried beans solved that problem beautifully.

Finish your dinner with an order of chocolate kahlua flan, basically a lightly alcoholic chocolate pudding, or sopapillas. These were tasty fried tortilla fingers; the biggest thing wrong with them was there were too few, and they were dwarfed by the heap of vanilla ice cream.

With its ethnic menu and limited space, La Parrilla could be considered a "niche" restaurant. But its true niche is more fundamental and more elusive: great food. If you haven't tried it, do. The proof is in the parillas.

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