The flamenco dance student, all of perhaps 10 years old, held a dramatic pose as the local Latin guitar duo Julio y Cesar thundered through an intense Spanish guitar riff. As the tension broke, the young girl theatrically swished her polka-dotted red skirt in a finale as the crowd shouted 'olé" with delight. The dancer beamed proudly and rejoined her parents and her plate of fried green plantains in the corner of the dining room at Don Victor's Fine Latin American Restaurant.
We were not expecting this grade-school recital of Spain's passionate national dance during dinner, but somehow it seemed just part of the cross-cultural fun after a few visits to this Kenner restaurant featuring the cuisine of half a dozen Central and South American countries.
Don Victor's is among the most ambitious and welcoming of the wave of Latin American restaurants that have opened in the New Orleans area in the last few years. Julio y Cesar perform Wednesday evenings, when they get diners to work off some of their meal on the ersatz dance floor between the tables. But on any night, the generous portions, modest prices and convincingly authentic renditions of dishes from Colombia, Argentina, Guatemala, Peru and elsewhere strike the right notes with the diverse crowd here.
Right from the start, the free chips and salsa brought out to the table set expectations high. Clearly made in-house, the thick, dark chips disappear quickly with the aid of a tart, creamy, green salsa.
An order of tostones seems like super strong nachos. The moist but firm disks of pounded, fried plantain are smeared with black beans and melted bits of farmer's cheese. Gargantuan salads are topped with egg or tortilla strips and a spicy chipotle.
The ceviches appear to be the highlights of the appetizer list, but none of the three versions are particularly thrilling. The best of the lot is the Peruvian style, but even this needed more citrus to sharpen the flavor. The worst was made with small, boiled shrimp bathing in a cocktail sauce that tasted mostly of ketchup.
A much better choice for starters is the Colombian empanada with a creamy filling of potatoes and cheese blended so smoothly that there is no discernable distinction between them. The Argentine empanada is stuffed with ground beef picadillo with chopped olives and the Chilean is a blend of cheeses within a crisp, fried pastry shell.
The most tempting appetizers are the soups, especially the ambrosial tortilla soup. The huge, meal-sized bowl is layered with leaves of those sturdy tortilla chips that keep their form as you work through the rusty-red, rejuvenating broth, thickened with streaks of cream and firm white cheese.
Take a look at either of the two large combination platter entrees here, though, and you may decide to skip any first course altogether. The house specialty is the parrillada, or mixed grill, which can be ordered in various sizes depending on how many people are in for the adventure. This festival of meat includes a cut of carne asada pounded thin, left just slightly pink at the center, charred at the edges and adorned with a red chimichurri; a lean chicken cutlet; fat, short sausage with chunks of pork shoulder; and a few tostones topped with large grilled shrimp.
The Colombian platter, called bandeja paisa, combines dark, spicy morcilla blood sausage, hard fried chicharrón (the Latin cracklin') and carne de polvo, or beef ground so finely it's practically a powder and is more absorbed in the mouth than chewed. A fried egg is draped over the top of the whole collection of meat, and soft, ripe plantain and chewy arepa bread round out the starches.
For my money, the star of the menu is the Guatemalan shrimp, which resembles shrimp Creole but with a more robust tomato sauce called chirmol. This beguiling stew is built around roasted tomatoes that release a warm, mellow sweetness, bolstered by garlic and celery and sprinkled liberally with oregano. Another seafood option is the fish caliente, a substantial, grilled redfish fillet rubbed with a habenero sauce that is not as spicy as it sounds but still adds a sheen of heat and flavor and pairs well with a cool mango sauce.
A chicken breast is coated in breading made from plantain chips. It ends up tasting similar to panéed chicken, but instead of the marinara sauce that usually tops such dishes at Italian restaurants, the chicken is joined by a creamy mojito dip, a traditional accompaniment to fried plantains that looks and tastes like a variation on tartar sauce with lime, sweet onion and mint.
Following the kitchen's lead, the bar prepares a pan-Latin menu of cocktails. The specialty is the Brazilian caipirinha, or the smoother, less sweet 'caipiroska," a Portuguese pun denoting a Russian caipirinha made with vodka rather than the traditional cachaa sugarcane liquor. From Peru comes the Pisco sour, a brandy cocktail with a red dot of bitters staring up from a whipped froth of egg whites. In the beer department, the light lagers Quilmes from Argentina and Toña from Nicaragua add some refreshing alternatives to the domestic beer choices.
Don Victor's itself adds a refreshing chapter to the ongoing Latin education of the New Orleans palate, one centered much more on the plantain than the tortilla.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Victor Quionez serves a variety of Latin American dishes at his Kennner restaurant.