Latin Quarters is a restaurant that’s also a night club, with entertainment ranging from salsa lessons on Wednesdays to a Latin orchestra on alternating Saturdays.
Or it’s a night club that’s also a restaurant. The vibe depends on the hour, of course – and on where you happen to be in the restaurant, which opened last summer in North Raleigh’s Celebration at Six Forks shopping center.
On one side of a low partition wall is a conventional dining room decorated with posters of Latin cultural icons from soccer star Lionel Messi to Machu Picchu. On the other side, larger-than-life photos of famous Latin American entertainers are the backdrop for a larger room with a central dance floor. A few tables scattered around the perimeter of this room seem to be here as much for taking in the action as for eating and drinking.
It’s a colorful setting (Did I mention the tabletops painted with flags of Central and South American countries? Or the bar furnished with old books to resemble a library?) but – let’s face it – not one that suggests this is a culinary mecca.
Nor is the menu reassuring at first blush – at least not to anyone who has been disappointed too many times by kitchens that bite off more than they can chew. In this case, the bite encompasses pretty much all of Latin America in the form of some four dozen dishes, from Cuban ropa vieja to Brazilian feijoada. The list includes both Peruvian and Ecuadorian ceviches, empanadas à la Colombia and Argentina, arepas in the style of Venezuela and Colombia, and, well, you get the idea.
What a pleasant surprise it is, then, to discover that the kitchen is in fact up to the task – especially if you bear in mind that the person in charge of that kitchen is the restaurant’s owner, Richard Camos. Best known locally as the owner of Camos Brothers Pizza in the same shopping center, Camos became a fan of Latin American cuisines as a boy growing up in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens, N.Y.
“Most of my neighbors were Latin American,” he says. “When I visited my friend whose family came from Peru, we’d eat his mom’s cooking, and when I visited my Colombian friend’s place we ate his mom’s cooking. That’s what I try to cook now – not what a chef would make, just good home cooking.”
The appetizer list is so extensive and varied, and the portions so generous, that you find yourself wishing there was a sampler platter. One that allowed you to compare the crisp, blistery wheat crust and olive-studded picadillo filling of empanadas Argentinas with the cornmeal crust and shredded beef or chicken filling of their Colombian counterpart. Maybe include just one Peruvian-style beef skewer with spicy aji pepper dipping sauce, and a link of house-made Colombian chorizo. Round out the platter with some fried yuca.
Just be sure the chorizo is still hot when it gets to the table (ours was lukewarm). And don’t forget the mojo that’s supposed to come with the yuca (our waiter did).
A ceviche sampler wouldn’t be amiss, either: Peruvian (shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari in a citrus marinade punctuated with diced red onion, bell pepper, cilantro and toasted kernels of toasted Peruvian corn called choclo); Ecuadorean (a simpler, spicier combination featuring shrimp and serrano chiles); and a vegan “ceviche” of cremini, enoki, button and oyster mushrooms.
I can’t recommend the churrasco steak as an entree, based on the chewiness of the sirloin I was served. The garlic fries that accompanied the steak were first-rate, though, and happily they’re available à la carte.
Ropa vieja is a more rewarding beef-eater option, serving up tender, juicy shreds of slow-cooked beef with black beans, white rice and fried sweet plantains. So is Peruvian lomo saltado, a sautéed medley of beef tenderloin, onions, peppers and tomatoes in a soy-tinged sauce served over those addictive garlicky fries, and flanked by the traditional accompaniment of white rice.
Mofongo de camarones, a rib-sticking melange of garlicky mashed plantains and pork topped with adobo-marinated shrimp, comes close to the mark. It’s a classic Puerto Rican dish, and you can rest assured that if the combination sounds odd, it’ll grow on you. You’ll even be inclined to forgive the lack of promised crispness in the pork (traditionally cracklings).
Neither of the desserts we ordered – flan and mango mousse – was available the first time I visited Latin Quarters. Turns out we didn’t miss much, judging by the overcooked, eggy sliver of flan we were served on a subsequent visit.
For that matter, multiple items were, as they say in restaurant parlance, eighty-sixed on both occasions. That includes a Saturday night, when the paella for two (“available only Friday and Saturday”) was not to be had. Nor was the red snapper en escabeche (this was before 7 p.m., mind you), or the feijoada that we’d unsuccessfully tried to order on the previous visit.
Even our waiter couldn’t help but smile at that point, when we joked that perhaps the only thing left to choose from was the Colombian-style cheeseburger. And yes, there is a Colombian cheeseburger on the menu, topped with crushed pineapple, potato chips and salsa. Just like Richard Camos’ friend’s mom made it, no doubt.