Do you hear that Latin beat? Cha, cha, cha? Mamba? Samba? Tango? Bossa nova? Do you hear Desi Arnaz' distant nasal, "aiiyee ay ya-ya"?
Can you whiff the velvety aroma of fried platanos or the trailing fires of chiles wafting in the air? Have you noticed the mushrooming of restaurants coming up with Latin themes? The growing number of Latin markets?
The reasons? For one, a dramatic rise in the Latin population in Greater Los Angeles, which now equals the Latin population growth of New York City. Los Angeles boasts a 17% increase in its immigrant population from throughout Latin America since 1980, making a total population of 816,076 in Los Angeles and about 5.3 million in California.
Only this year, emissaries from Brazil, a country that takes up half the land area of South America, came to California to promote Bahia, a Brazilian port that has a colorful culture and Afro-Creole-European cuisine now in demand. Festivals throughout California using Bahian cooks featured such dishes as Casquinha, crab shells filled with crab meat and coconut cooked in coconut milk; egg puffs of shrimp and chicken called frigideira, and black beans and shrimp patties fried in palm oil called akaraje. In the recipe given here (Ensopado de Lagosta), lobster is cooked in coconut milk and cilantro.
At a Bahian party given at the Meridien Hotel in Newport Beach, potent fruit juice drinks spiked with cachaca, a sugar-cane liqueur (available in markets here), were passed. Meanwhile, a band reproduced the Afro-Brazilian music and dances brought to Brazil by the first West African slaves in the New World, shortly after the Portuguese discovered Brazil in 1550.
According to Mario Massinelli of BrazUSA, a Brazilian travel-promotion agency in Los Angeles, an increasing political and cultural consciousness toward Latin America is developing in North America, particularly on the West Coast where the Latin American population is growing dramatically. In Los Angeles, he says, sales of Brazilian and Costa Rican beers have doubled in the last year, and today, more than ever, interest in Brazilian restaurants has suddenly skyrocketed.
"We get dozens of queries daily," he said.
In Los Angeles, Barbara Lazaroff of Spago, Chinois on Main and now Zapotec, a Latin restaurant being built in Indian Wells near Palm Springs, conceived of a Latin cuisine with loosely interpreted food from regions throughout Latin America.
"We're going to do with Zapotec what we did with Chinois--a mirror of the Latin cuisine rather than an authentic representation. There will be some authentic and many loosely translated dishes from Peru, Guatemala, Mexico and other countries in Latin America. I don't think Latin American cuisine has yet reached the consciousness of the rest of the nation, but I think it has here," she said. She thinks the rich cuisines of Mexico and other Latin American countries have been sorely underestimated by their North American neighbors.
Mario Tamayo and chef Toribio Prado (he was formerly with the Ivy restaurant), who now operate Cha Cha Cha, a new Caribbean-California nouvelle restaurant, make use of the basic Central and South American ingredients, among them black beans and rice, plantains (platanos), yucca (yuca), small round red potatoes from the mountains of Colombia (papas choriadas) and small green bananas called tostones , which become crunchy when fried.
The touch is light with a definite California stamp.
"I had begun to miss Caribbean cooking I used to enjoy when living in New York and decided it was time to do a restaurant in Los Angeles," said Tamayo, who is a native of Colombia.
Chef Prado prepares chicken marinated in lime juice, cilantro, garlic and cumin served with julienne vegetables sauteed in olive oil. There is a chicken mole in which the chicken is grilled then dipped in mole sauce, and a grilled steak served with a topping of julienned sauteed vegetables. Plantains are deep-fried in corn oil instead of lard, and olive oil is used in place of other fats for sauteing foods.
Many restaurants, such as Trumps and some relatively new restaurants, such as City restaurant, Rebecca's, Columbia Bar and Grill and American Sampler, are translating Latin ideas in many dishes served. Chef Michael Roberts of Trumps created a Cuban sandwich to assuage nostalgia for the vendor food of the East Coast. At Columbia Bar and Grill, chef Tim McGrath prepares pasilla chiles stuffed with shrimp, corn and cilantro. At American Sampler, chef Tim Cushman uses black beans instead of pinto beans for the standard house beans, and at Rebecca's, a loosely interpreted Mexican-California restaurant, owner Bruce Marder offers Peruvian-style ceviche.