If you’re in the mood for honest, unpretentious food with Ecuadorian and Colombian roots, you could certainly do worse than Cocina Latina. This relatively new arrival (which replaces the defunct Tacos Blass at 38th Street and Nicollet Ave.) offers a menu that runs from the exceedingly familiar (steaks and fajitas) to the slightly more exotic, including goat stew, tripe, and some regional beverages that may be unknown to many visitors.
Moreover: Never before has this reviewer had the pleasure of watching so many Handycam-shot Ecuadorian music videos featuring body-painted dancing hoochie mamas and/or oddly serious documentary footage of what appears to be actual military training exercises. The overall effect was transportive, if a bit distracting. Eat some plantain and rice? Or watch a monkey licking a woman dressed like a flame demon from Hell’s sixth circle? These are the kind of choices that are good to have.
A Parrillada Latina (four kinds of meat and two kinds of plantains, for good measure, $13) was a veritable steamroller of protein, offering tender, appropriately charred grilled beef, pork, sausage, pork cracklings, plus fried green and sweet plantains. This was not a flashy dish — the preparation was competent and understated, the portion size appropriately macho.
We ordered chicken fajitas ($10) — beloved by gringos for decades — to see what the far, far south of the border incarnation would look like. It turns out to be considerably lighter than the guac / sour cream / refried beans sizzling heart attack that we’ve come to know and love. The Cocina Latina version is surprisingly light on its feet, offering sides of lettuce, rice and diced tomatoes, tender chicken and small steamed tortillas.
A Mojarra a la Diabla (spicy fried tilapia, $13) had a tender texture and agreeably spicy exterior in terms of both heat and spice balance but a distinctly fishy flavor that was a bit of a downer.
Appetizers and desserts varied from a simple but nicely spicy Colombian sausage with arepa ($5) to a guava paste and cheese dessert ($4) that was long on waxiness but short on flavor. A morocho caliente (hot spice corn milk) made for a pleasantly novel non-alcoholic nightcap, evocative of horchata but a bit creamier and milder.
If you’re striking out for south-of-the-border adventures, La Vina in South Minneapolis and Chimborazo in Northeast both yield better bang for the buck, but there’s no denying the comfort factor inherent in Cocina Latina’s straightforward menu and laid-back ambiance.
BEST BET: Grilled beef, in all its glory. There are many options on the menu, and most come with sides (rice, plantains, other kinds of meat.)
South American food in South Minneapolis
3764 Nicollet Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55409
BAR: Beer and Wine
ENTREE RANGE: $10-13