Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A flavorful addition to an international dining scene

Shrimp ceviche.
Shrimp ceviche.
About the restaurant
33 Garrett Rd.
Upper Darby, PA 19082
(610) 352-8414
Rating:
Neighborhood: Upper Darby Parking: Free parking with validation after 5 p.m. in township lot at Garrett and Fairfield Roads.
Hours: 7 days (lunch and dinner) Sun-Sat (breakfast)
Prices: $$
Cuisine type: Central American; Latin American; Mexican
Style: This friendly restaurant brings a quadruple dose of Latin flavors - Ecuadoran, Colombian, Cuban and Mexican - to ethnically diverse Upper Darby. The menu is too broad for its own good, so stick with its strengths - Ecuadoran dishes and meat and shrimp entrees - for maximum .
Specialties: Ceviche de camaron; Ecuadoran tamal; shrimp soup; mote pillo; montuno; flan.
The sign at 33 Garrett Rd. is like a find at an archaeological dig, a rare aboveground artifact of one civilization layered atop another that reveals, at a glance, how Upper Darby has evolved.

It shows a laurel-crowned Greek tilting his head back to savor a bunch of grapes above the words "Elegance Without Extravagance." Across the middle, wrapped like a toga around what was once the name of a Greek diner, is a banner that reads: Sabor Latino.

Out with the souvlaki, in with the ceviche.

The township may have forbidden Angel Avila to replace the sign. (New signage that hangs over sidewalks has been outlawed.) But Latin flavor (Sabor Latino's English translation) is adding fuel to a dining scene already rich in immigrant foods. The once-strong Greek community seems to have faded, as has the town's long-stalwart French bistro, Le Petit Cafe, which recently closed. But Korean restaurants still abound, as do Indian groceries and eateries serving Vietnamese, Peruvian, Thai-French and Mexican cuisines.

Avila was counting on a burgeoning local South American population when he opened in February, and not without reason. At Amazonas, the Latin market across the street owned by his brother, Walter, the number of customers wiring money to Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico has grown from a few hundred into the thousands, especially since 9/11 dampened the job market in New York.

Those who moved to our region will find an encyclopedia of familiar flavors at Sabor Latino, a cheery open room with papaya-colored walls and modern, electric-blue paintings from Ecuador.

There are Colombian arepas- warm corn cakes dense with cheddar cheese and topped with a crisp link of cuminy chorizo sausage. Cuban moro rice arrives darkened with gravy from stewed black beans. There are Mexican fajitas and the mixed-grill kabobs, splashed with tangy chimichurri sauce, known as pinchos in Ecuador.

This multicultural menu will be familiar to fans of Tierra Colombiana, the Cuban-Colombian standard-bearer on North Fifth Street in Philadelphia, which remains my best local bet for traditional Latin dishes. There's no relationship between the restaurants, but the similar concepts aren't a total coincidence: The Ecuadoran-born Avila is a cousin of Tierra owner Jorge Mosquera. And Avila's Ecuadoran-born chef, Rene Calle, spent six years cooking at you-know-where.

I wish Sabor's ambitious menu succeeded as consistently as Tierra's. There are a few disappointments - chewy octopus salad, tamales that tasted more like sweet Southern cornbread than anything Cuban, and a pricey paella filled with heaps of overcooked seafood.

That said, if you happen to be passing through Upper Darby for, say, a concert at the Tower Theater, there are more than a few hits in Calle's broad repertoire well worth seeking out - especially if you like the kick of garlic that bolsters virtually every dish.

I was especially intrigued by Calle's Ecuadoran plates. The shrimp ceviche is similar to Peruvian-style ceviche but less assertively sour. Its butter-fried shrimp are tossed in a tomatoey citrus marinade laced with red onions and crunchy fried hominy. The banana leaf-wrapped Ecuadoran tamal, a tamale of moist masa dough stuffed with shredded meat, potatoes and peas, had a satisfying earthiness that the Cuban version lacked.

Thin slices of soy- and garlic-marinated pork, chicken, shrimp and beef skewered on the grilled pincho kabobs were glazed with an unusual, zesty mustard- and mayo-based chimichurri.

Best of all was the mote pillo, which paired a tender grilled pork loin - flavorful from a daylong vinegar bath spiked with oregano and garlic - with cool slices of avocado, salty cubes of queso blanco, and potatoey nuggets of posole corn (called mote in Ecuador) mixed with scrambled eggs.

With so many less common choices on this menu, and the charming Mexican restaurant Xochimilco just a few blocks away, I couldn't bring myself to try one of Sabor's fajitas.

I can vouch for much of the Cuban menu, however. The montuno was a platter of roast pork perfection, the tender meat soaked with garlicky juices after four hours in the oven. It came with a week's worth of starch, including black rice, sweet plantains, a tamale, and hunks of addictive fried cassava (a.k.a. yucca), whose crisp white ridges were tart with lemon-garlic mojo.

The ropa vieja may not have been the most tender I've tasted, but the flavor was as good as any, the stew's shredded beef infused with sweet pepper and deeply rounded, wine-steeped gusto.

Judging from those dishes, and from the Argentine churrasco skirt steak enlivened with tangy vinegar dipping sauce, meat entrees are Sabor's strongest suit.

But the shrimp dishes were a close second, tossed in garlicky wine and oil (camarones al ajillo) or bobbing in a cilantro-flecked seafood broth filled with rice (asopado de camaron).

We were headed for a classic Latin finish as we indulged in the restaurant's small assortment of well-made desserts, including rich caramel flan and cream-soaked tres leches cakes. Even the batidos (fruit shakes), especially the mango and guava, were on the mark.

But Sabor Latino will never completely woo the Cuban crowd until it learns to make a proper cafe con leche - intense and milky sweet. What you get instead resembles, well, a cup of Greek diner coffee. Consider it an homage to local history.


Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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