RESTAURANTS Sooth of the Border

Ay, caramba! Stamp your culinary passport and sample the authentic tastes of El Salvador, Cuba, Guatemala, and Mexico.

AS TEMPERATURES RISE WE FEEL THE call of the tropics and the urge to turn our culinary horizons toward the southern latitudes, Though Dallas is brim-full of northern Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants that are stuffed like tacos with jalapeno and ancho peppers, cardboard chips, and community-use ranchero sauce, the culinary traveler in search of the authentic will also find an array of lively cantinas and a glowing constellation of lighter, brighter south-of-the-border spots.

Our favorite of these is Gloria’s, both the original, a proud Salvadoran outpost in Oak Cliff since 1986, and its new upscale offspring in Oak Lawn. The recent arrival is attractive in an easygoing, bare-bones sort of way with pale painted walls, a high black industrial ceiling, a cozy bar, burgundy and green cloth napkins, and not a whole lot more. Since its debut this past January, Gloria’s has grown like Topsy; on weekend nights, it bustles with Latinos, North Dallasites, and neighborhood denizens, often crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting for tables with dynamite margaritas and shots of tequila.

The main draw at Gloria’s is the Salvadoran food: fresh, simple, tropical fare, spiced sparingly in a light-hearted way. Don’t confuse this south of the border cuisine with Mexican or even Tex-Mex, though. “The difference between the food of Central America and that of Northern Mexico is determined as much as by what we eat as by what we do not,” explains Jose Fuentes, the tall, nattily dressed owner and manager of the restaurant. “We don’t eat jalapenos the way they do in Mexico. Our food is less spicy. We eat a lot of black beans, yuca, and fried plantains, which is very typical and which we adore, as do the Caribbeans who flock to our restaurant.”

After you have dipped into Gloria’s chips and sumptuous black bean sauce, we definitely recommend an order of yuca frita con chicharron, or fried yucca. The tropical root is not unlike yam or potato but fruitier, sautéed with garlic and drizzled with lime (see recipe below). Or start with platano frito, fried plantain, a large, luscious cousin of the banana, served here with sour cream and black beans, or pupusas, a thick handmade tortilla stuffed with white cheese and broken open at the table to be filled with curtido, a cabbage slaw marinated with oregeno and red pepper in fermented pineapple skin. Many people, including Fuentes, relish the corn tamale wrapped in a banana leaf, though we find it too densely stuffed with shredded chicken for our taste.

On to the entrees, many of which, predictably, feature seafood. Gloria’s tender, flaky filete de pescadeo al mojo de ajo, sautéed in an ethereal garlic sauce, is among the best catfish creations in town. Though a companion was pleased with camerones a la plancha-sparkling fresh jumbo grilled shrimp served on a bed of Spanish rice-the mustard glaze seemed to us gilding the lily. The soups, served in enormous bowls, are also in the entree category here. Of the many luscious choices, we return time and again to the sopa de apretadores, a shimmering bisque stocked with whole crab in its shell and a medley of herbs and vegetables, including yuca. The shrimp soup, comparably good and easier to eat, is loaded with whole succulent shrimp. On weekends, Gloria’s serves up popular native soups, and, though we have not yet tried sopa de res (beef soup) or sopa de mondongo (beef tripe soup), the rustic sopa de gallina, with chicken, yuca, and half an ear of corn, is rich, warm, and comforting. For a festive occasion, we suggest the parillada mixta, an extravagant mixed grill that will leave four or more happy and satisfied.

We have only been disappointed at Gloria’s on two occasions. Once, our carne adobada, or marinated flank steak, usually tender, grilled, and juicy, was dry. Another time, when we wandered from the Salvadoran specialties into the menu’s “Salvatex Combinations,” the chile reliera was large, soggy, and heavily fried.

Gloria’s offers several tropical beverages, of which we favor the pina, a light soda flavored with pieces of melon and apple. For dessert, try the flans. Cut into pie-shaped wedges, they come in two varieties, milk and chocolate; both are very good.

Prices are reasonable ($1.25-$5.50 for the Salvadoran appetizers; under $10 for entrees). Service is swift, thoughtful, and usually attentive, though things can get backed up on busy weekends. 4140 Lemmon in Oak Lawn, 521-7575; and 600 West Davis at Llewellyn, 948-3672.



The Tour Continues

SHOULD YOU FORGET THAT FESTIVE, family-run restaurants in lovely old houses still exist, it may be time for a visit to La Calle Doce in Oak Cliff. Two reasons for the trip are the place’s intime atmosphere-small, wall-papered dining rooms, fireplaces, family photos, and an outdoor porch that blossoms in spring- and the fresh moriscos, or seafood, prepared in the manner of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf Coast.

To begin, we particularly recommend the frog legs, crisply fried on the outside, tasty and succulent within. Other good starters include the chile relleno mariscos, a poblano pepper stuffed with shrimp, octopus, and scallops in a light cream sauce, and, if you are a fancier, the plump gulf oysters in season. We also enjoyed an assortment of oysters, octopus, squid, and scallops, cooked to perfection in coctel de campechana, though we would have pre-ferreda lighter hand with the tomato marinade that robbed each morsel of its inherent flavor. Though we had high hopes for the sopa de mariscos, with clams, mussels, and oysters, the dull broth was lacking in aromatic vegetables, herbs, and salt. Another letdown was the mariscada Calle Dace, a sampling of botanas, or appetisers, almost all of which were fried and most of which were catfish. If you’re in the mood for meat, try La Calle Doce’s huge yet inviting phto especial, for two-fajita chicken, beef, ribs, sausage, and vegetables, cooked on portable grills on the table top. Among the desserts, we enjoyed most a hot, homey apple crisp of freshly sliced apples, cinnamon, and oatmeal. 415 West Twelfth Street.

Though we haven’t tried them all (yet), the authentic, homestyle Mexican ris-tarante we return to most often is Cuquita’s, a family eatery on North Henderson, overseen by the matriarchal Cuquita and open from 8:30 a.m to 3 a.m., seven days a week. Updated this winter with large colorful cutouts of Mexican dancers on the outside wall, window boxes with bold crepe flowers, and expanded dining quarters, the restaurant is cheerful and the best spot in town for watching doting fathers bounce little girls in frilly dresses and ruffled socks on their laps and deeply tanned, deeply lined outdoor workers with straw hats on their heads.

Cuquita’s chips and two salsas, one hotter than the other, are addictive. The handmade guacamole, chunks of avocado and tomato spiked with cilantro and lime, is outstanding, especially when spread on a charred homemade com or flour tortilla.

From the more Anglo-cized portion of the menu we recommend both the gorditas al gusto-thick, filling corn patties topped with beans and cheese with rice and beans-and the chicken flautas with pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, and, by special request, melted queso bianco. We were disappointed with tacos at carbon, which were gray and sautéed, not grilled. From the part of the menu featuring platil-los tipico, or dishes that are typical of various regions, we sampled the chicken mole, a juicy dish combining the divergent tastes of chiles and chocolate. We also found the lengue en salsa pleasing, but we were somewhat ambivalent about the texture of the tongue. Accompanying rice with potato squares was superb, as was the rich puree of black beans, Service is friendly and accommodating, although during summer brunches, it can be slow. 2.326 North Henderson.

For adventurous eaters weary of fancy dives, we suggest Las Americas, a warmhearted family affair that lures homesick Cubans by the dozens. For those unfamiliar with the menu’s offerings, the friendly owner is only too happy to pull up a chair and help with your selections, among which should be the splendid Cuban tamal. Featuring fluffy cornmeal and ground meat, it was the lightest, most flavorful tamal we have had to date and only set us back $2. Here, once again, we enjoyed our tropical favorites: fried plain-tain and yuca, the latter topped with chopped garlic. The churizo omelet, a house specialty, is huge-7 inches in diam-eter, a full inch high and stuffed with potatoes and sausage. Sautéed beef fillet with peppers and onions reminded us of the stir-fries of many nations, and the empanada, a pocket of dough filled with ground meat, was unexciting. Rice is good; black beans taste heavily of cumin. On both our visits, Las Americas was out of flan and rice pudding, although we loved the cream cheese and guava shells. If you’re looking for take-home, a small Cuban market is attached. 1146 Peavy Road.

Another authentic spot for south-of-the- border fare is El Gallo de Oro, a hum-hie, yet welcoming Guatemalan restaurant on Maple Avenue that’s just made for anyone who likes funky holes-in-the-wall. Though the restaurant is far from pretty, El Gallo provides an authentic Central American home away from home. It’s not just that most dishes range from $3.25 to $5.95, or that the menu, which belongs in the Foodie Hall of Fame, consists of photographic close-ups of retried beans, enchiladas, and Guatemalan tamales, but the owners throw in chips, salsa, pico de gallo, chile con queso, and a navy bean soup-gratis-making the restaurant all the more lovable indeed.

Our favorite dishes here are the beef ceviche, prepared with onion, cilantro, tomato, jalapenos, lime, and oil; a lightly fried chile rel-leno, and a spicy shrimp and chicken cooked Guatemalan-style. Most of the true Guatemalan dishes are reserved for the dinner menu, hut, if you ask, you can try them at lunch. Service is usually attentive, overseen by the husband-and-wife owners, who are always on hand. Unfortunately, at night the street and parking lot are dark and the restaurant is frequently all but deserted. 4114 Maple Avenue.

Okay, we admit that one of the freshest, most appealing south-of-rhe-horder eateries that leapt to mind as a must on our tour was Zuzu, the creative, reasonably priced, startlingly clean series that features “handmade” food and is to chains what cilantro is to spices. Although there are reportedly 12 Zuzus in Dallas and Piano (and three others elsewhere in Texas), each offers memorable, satisfying, hassle-free meals- all of them available for takeout-for little more than pocket change.

From the limited menu, we suggest the corn quesadillas with cheese; the grilled chicken salad; the peach mango iced tea; and the lush, custardy flan. A plus to dieters: chips and salsa cost extra, so you’ll have to pay for the extra calories. 5940 Royal Lane and other locations.

RECIPE

Gloria’s Fried Yucca

PERHAPS THE SIMPLEST AND BEST DISH we sampled on our south-of-the-bor-der tour was Gloria’s fried yuca (pronounced yoo-ka and spelled yucca in English). The tropical root, which resembles a giant yam with a hard, waxy skin, is available frozen and pre-peeled at the Latino markets Carnival and Fiesta Mart and in the produce sections of these stores and several of the city’s other large supermarkets. Should you opt to peel the yuca yourself, be sure to use a very sharp knife. Serves four

Add 2 pounds peeled yuca, 1 table.

spoon garlic powder, 1 tablespoon canola oil, and a half teaspoon salt to a pot of boiling water.

● Cover pot tightly with aluminum foil or tight lid, checking on yuca from time to time so as not to overcoo

● When the yuca is slightly firm, not mushy, and can be pierced with a folk, remove from heat and slice vertically. Remove long, fibrous center cor

● Cut in fourth

● Cut to 1-inch horizontal pieces. From this point, cook to order:

● Deep fry yuca, or in a skillet tilled halfway with canola oil, fry over moderate heat (335 degrees) until the yuca begins to rise and turns golden and crisp.

● In a skillet, heat 3 tablespoons margarine until bubbly. Add yuca and 2 tablespoons of garlic powder. Sauté over high flame, turning yuca so as not to burn but allowing to sit for a minute so as to allow the garlic flavor to seep in.

Serve yuca on a plate with lime or lemon.

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