By Elana Schor - 05/14/09 04:47 PM EDT
What can save fusion dining from its clichéd self? Latin America, it seems. The sprawling new Logan Circle outpost of Café Salsa blends Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican flavors into a cheeky greatest-hits mix that’s dubbed “Nuevo Latino.” It’s not always logical, but it’s an undeniably crowd-pleasing success.
The D.C. Café Salsa is a bit more sedate than its smaller sibling, but its mojitos are no less tasty, replacing most of the drink’s added sugar with copious amounts of fresh mint leaves. Margaritas, sangria and caipirinhas, made with Peruvian cachaca liquor, are equally potent and fresh, and the small wine list offers surprising variety at manageable prices.
As many travelers to the Caribbean have learned the hard way, the regional food is tantalizing but often reliant on enough grease to ensure a night of stomachaches. Avoiding the temptation to overdose on Café Salsa’s doughy delights, then, requires a vacation-style mindset. Don’t be afraid to split appetizers instead of going for the jumbo-sized entrees, and go for fish whenever possible.
The classic ceviche is a perfect place to start. Its snowy curlicues of calamari and tender crabmeat lovingly sop up the citrus notes of a ginger-lime dressing, with roasted corn kernels and red onions providing crunch and color. Enough fresh greens and tomatoes linger at the bottom of the plate to call the dish a salad.
And if you’re skeptical of raw seafood, look out for the Pinchos de Mar on the specials menu. Though smaller than most menu items, these shrimp and scallop skewers marinated in sweet sherry are the kitchen’s delicate star.
Another fish appetizer with a surprisingly light touch is the Alcapurrias Marineras, a shellfish version of the traditional Puerto Rican stuffed plantain. Instead of creating oily dough out of mashed green bananas, Café Salsa hollows the unripe fruit into a thin shell, filling the void with fresh crab and shrimp.
The guacamole is another winner that arrives with a welcome salad-in-disguise beneath it. The simple decision to substitute plank-shaped plantain chips for the usual white corn tortillas solidifies the menu’s fusion concept, allowing you to dunk a bite of Martinique into a dollop of Monterrey.
For those who aim to embrace the deep-fried ethos of the islands, however, the handmade arepitas and empanadas should not be missed. The former is made from corn masa shaped into pancakes and topped with shredded pork in a lip-smacking marinade, while the latter is a pleasingly sour version of the glorified Hot Pockets that often show up on local fast-food menus.
Nothing embodies Café Salsa’s “Nuevo Latino” spirit more than its staff, a friendly cast that breaks from the custom that servers should be seen and not heard. On one of my visits, the waiter asked with a wink if I could fact-check the order on his pad; another server insisted on giving several generous tastes of wine options rather than the typical quick sip.
With such an embarrassment of riches in the first course, it’s natural to want to test the kitchen’s fusion credentials by choosing one of its more postmodern entrées. Sadly, the concept seems to run aground in dishes such as the “nueva” Ropa Vieja — an exact replica of the recipe served by every Cuban abuela, right down to the watery black beans and overcooked beef.
The Red Snapper “Cha-Cha-Cha” fares slightly better, thanks to a high-quality and expertly seared cut of fish. But the sauce, billed as a Chilean white wine-shrimp blend, was oddly mild. “This is just missing one thing,” my companion whispered as she nibbled on the accompanying asparagus. “Flavor.”
All is not lost for the main course, however. The Mofongo Marinero is fusion done right, pairing an Old World tower of mashed plantains with a new-school array of fresh seafood and grilled vegetables. The Cuban sandwich forgoes fusion for a bracingly piquant dose of smoked ham and briny pickles that will transport you to Miami and leave you filled for an entire night.
Café Salsa’s standout dish, a fixture on its specials menu, is pork tenderloin stuffed with goat cheese and bacon. Daunting as it sounds, the creamy-salty combination inside each slim rollup of meat provides a lovely counterbalance to the sweet canned-pineapple garnish and blackberry sauce.
Wait — canned pineapple can improve a high-class fusion meal? Amazingly, the answer is yes. After tucking into the stuffed pork, I ordered the flan and was amazed to see a loop of the tropical fruit beneath the airy custard.
The sticky pineapple made for a dizzying textural match with the toasted shards of coconut that topped the dessert. Before I knew it, I was absently twirling my fork in the strawberry sauce and tapping my feet to the music. Fusion had officially stepped back into this diner’s good graces.