When chef-owner Chad Gauss was planning the menu for La Food Marketa at Quarry Lake, he was guided by one idea: What would he and his staff from The Food Market in Hampden eat if they were dropped into Central America?
His strategy resulted in a menu of accessible Latin food with definite North American influences.
"We wanted people to enjoy comfort food like they do at The Food Market," Gauss said.
He and La Food Marketa executive chef John "Johntay" Bedingfield, a former executive sous chef at Gauss' Baltimore restaurant, devised a list of dishes that included adaptations on the familiar, like a "Caesarish" salad with black-bean dressing and a duck breast with yucca spaetzle.
For diners puzzled by the ingredients, a helpful glossary on the menu defines them. For example, yucca is described as a "root vegetable kind of like a potato."
Some words are invented. "Poutino," referring to one of the small plates on the menu, is defined as "a word we made up, means loaded fries."
It's all fun — and very delicious — in an expansive white room with large windows that look out to a patio, a bar, an open kitchen and dining areas that exude the excitement of festive market days. Colorful folk art details a wall.
It's the kind of place where you want to immerse yourself into the culture with a caipirinha, a heady drink with the Brazilian distilled spirit cachaca and blood-orange liqueur.
Another cocktail, the Lazy Leo, had bourbon and muddled mint, chilled with ice cubes the size of table-tennis balls. Our excellent waitress said the drink was one of the most popular.
There are also traditional margaritas, wines, sangria and assorted beers on tap and in cans, from Modelo Especial to Union Craft Brewing Duckpin. Mexican Coke or a housemade soda will quench your nonalcoholic thirst.
You can nibble on small plates or tackle larger entrees. We did both.
The masa ball soup alerted us that this would be no ordinary dinner. The deeply flavorful, dried-pepper broth gave us a kick of heat and warmed our souls. Corn-flour dumplings and pulled chicken floated in the mahogany elixir.
The esquites wedge salad had all the earmarks of a classic iceberg salad but was enhanced by avocado, buttermilk dressing and an avalanche of fresh corn. Another starter, Brazilian shrimp, glistened with seafood bathed in a ginger, honey and coconut coating, and got a pleasing crunch from bits of rice cake.
The Mesa barbecue empanadas were burnished folds of dough containing mezcal-braised pulled chicken. We appreciated each bite, but even more with a dab of the accompanying salsa verde with tomatillos and jalapenos.
The entrees were just as stylish and impressive as the appetizers. The oven-roasted lamb shank wasn't just a pretty presentation with a meat-encased bone that will appeal to caveman sensibilities. The tender lamb got a great boost from a chili broth that looked like a Rorschach test with its splats of silky cheddar cream.
The crispy-skin rockfish stood up to a tongue-in-cheek-named arroz-a-roni (rice) and corn salsa with a nest of cilantro.
We were delighted with the beef-tenderloin tostado. Hunks of beef were placed atop a thin tortilla partnered with refried potatoes, charred vegetables, cilantro butter and steak sauce.
We weren't surprised to see tacos on the menu. And we especially liked how they were presented. There are three to a plate; you can pick soft flour or soft corn tortillas and choose from a list of fillers. We selected grilled mahi mahi, pulled chicken and foraged mushrooms for our rounds. You can opt to get the tacos "undressed," meaning you add adornments like guacamole or salsa yourself, or you can go for the Marketa style, where the toppings are included.
We decided to leave the work to the kitchen and have them build our tacos with extras like corn salad, avocado cream and a Cheez Whiz-like sauce. They were wonderful bites.
Desserts are overload, but don't miss out. The chocolate tres leches cake with chocolate icing and cocoa whipped cream will attract fans, but the chocolate lovers at our table thought it was too much of a good thing.
We really liked the cinnamon nachos, dunked into a smooth cheesecake dip layered with raspberry sauce and fresh berries. The pina colada bread pudding was also excellent, with everything but the booze from the tropical drink in the creamy square.
Gauss said one of the reasons he opened La Food Marketa was to offer opportunities for his cooking staff.
"I want to get into their concepts," he said.
Does that mean there will be more Gauss restaurants? He's not saying. But we're hoping La Food Marketa is the first of many offshoots of The Food Market.