Latin Grill is just 20 minutes from downtown Raleigh, but finding it requires a little faith in your GPS. The restaurant is hidden behind a Starbucks, tucked into the end of a nondescript strip mall thats set back off of U.S. 70 on a meandering service road.
Once youve arrived, getting your cultural and culinary bearings is even more of an adventure and a more enjoyable one. The compact dining room is decidedly more inviting than the buildings exterior would lead you to expect, for starters, with iron scrollwork and framed vintage sepia-toned photographs on walls of faux peeling-stucco-and-stone setting a rustically romantic mood.
Ask about those photos cityscapes of neoclassical buildings, a steam locomotive against a mountain backdrop, a 1920s vintage car and youll be informed that theyre scenes from Ecuador, where the restaurants owners, brothers Eddy and Galo Andrade, were born.
But if you think that means Latin Grill is an Ecuadorean restaurant, youre only partly right. The menu is, in fact, a patchwork of cuisines, stitched by the Andrade brothers and the restaurants kitchen staff.
Some dishes do indeed have their roots in Ecuador, where chef Edison Ortiz was also born and worked for 15 years in hotel restaurants. On Sundays, a special menu showcases traditional dishes such as Ecuadorean-style churrasco and cheese-stuffed potato pancakes called llapingachos.
On the regular menu, though, much of the offering is inspired by the Portuguese charcoal grills the Andrade brothers developed a fondness for while growing up in New Jersey. In some cases, the line between the two cuisines is so blurred that even the owners sister, Nataly (who waits tables and manages the dining room), isnt sure which is which.
Throw in a couple of contributions from sous chef Gustavo Villegas native Argentina a grilled T-bone with chimichurri and a pork steak variation on the theme and the culinary patchwork becomes a veritable crazy quilt. Its nonetheless a pleasing composition, with plenty to tempt among an offering that packs so much variety into a mere nine entrees.
Plantains and chicken
Theres no appetizer list, though a side order of exemplary tostones, twice-fried green plantains served with a garlicky mayo dip, will get your meal off to a fine start. So will crisp, golden batons of fried yuca.
Latin Grills flames are gas-fired, but the kitchen does a more than respectable job with the Portuguese charcoal-grill classic, barbecued whole chicken. The breast can be dry on occasion, but the dark meat is reliably moist under a translucent coppery glaze thats just spicy enough to add a little zest without upstaging the bird.
Barbecued pork ribs are, as you might suspect given the cooking source, not particularly smoky. But they make up for it with chewy-tender flesh thats well-seasoned but not slathered in distracting sauce.
If youre torn between the chicken and the ribs, theres always the combo, which serves up half a chicken and a half slab of ribs for a bargain $16. That includes the garlic toast, generous pile of shoestring fries, and small mountain range of yellow rice that accompany most entrees.
Shrimp in garlic sauce is another solid option, serving up an ample portion of properly cooked shellfish in a piquant tomato-based sauce.
Better still is picadillo, another Portuguese specialty pairing shrimp sautéed in a citrusy marinade with succulent cubes of seared pork. Id even go so far as to say that picadillo is my favorite of all the dishes I sampled at Latin Grill, along with the tostones.
Oh, and maduros. If you dont get an order of these caramel-sweet fried ripe plantains as a starter or a side, by all means consider them for dessert. Theyre every bit as satisfying a way to conclude a meal here as the flan (which is pretty good, too).
And who cares if tostones are not traditionally served as dessert? Clearly, Latin Grill is a place where food rules are flexible.
876 Gulley Drive, Clayton
Cuisine: Portuguese, Ecuadorean, Argentinean
Rating: * * *
Atmosphere: rustically romantic
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: welcoming (if a little reserved), efficient
Recommended: picadillo, tostones, maduros
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Other: beer and wine license pending; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection
The N&Os critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: * * * * * Extraordinary * * * * Excellent. * * * Above average. * * Average. * Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.