The favorite cuisine in the world, according to pretty much every survey, website and magazine, is Italian.
It's comforting to know that, no matter which Italian restaurant you visit, you're likely to be familiar with the ingredients and recipes. Italian food has rightfully earned its place in the No. 1 spot.
But sometimes, you just want something different. Sometimes your palate needs to be jazzed up a bit and taken by surprise. With that thought in mind, there are some newcomers to the local restaurant scene that can fill the desire for diversity. Latin cuisine, with its fresh and spicy flavors, is bursting onto the scene in Fairfield County.
Bodega, located in Heritage Square in Fairfield, kicked off the trend when it opened two years ago. The beachy Mexican atmosphere was a first for the area. The positive reception showed that people were ready for something different.
Now, less than two weeks ago, Richard Reyes opened BarÓ in the Brick Walk shopping complex in Fairfield. Upon entering, you immediately face a large mural of a Puerto Rican city. "This gets you in the right mood," said Reyes. The decor is urban, with lots of steel and wood. There are two community-style tables in the bar area (a hot trend right now), as well as a more traditional dining room. Two bars open to the kitchen: one, a ceviche bar, serves raw fish which has been "cooked" in citrus and chili pepper. At the other, you can order anticuchos, wood-fired skewers .
In the back, a private dining room seats between 30 and 40 people.
"Latin cultures have a tremendous food community," said Reyes. "Yet you don't see much outside of Mexican. Around here, no one's touching South American, Central American or Caribbean cuisine."
The menu at BarÓ is similar to Spanish tapas, in that you can order several small plates. "What's iconic about Latin food is the flavor," said Reyes. "We can never be 100 percent authentic in that what's growing there isn't necessarily growing here, but we take those Latin American street flavors and test and try them."
The "Snacks" on the menu include the familiar (guacamole, $8, and empanadas, $6), and the more exotic, such as Chicaronnes (Dominican pork cracklings with pickled red onions and house-made hot sauce, $11) and Yuca Frita (crisp fritters, aji amarillo goat cheese, salsa verde, $7). Ceviche includes creative combinations such as diver scallop, pickled watermelon, chili and cilantro ($12) and octopus escabeche, mole verde, palmitos and sweet peppers ($11). Anticuchos range from pork belly with masa polenta, habanero-mango bbq ($9) to jerk chicken with pineapple salsa and scotch bonnet ketchup ($8).
At BarÓ, they pride themselves on freshness. The tortillas are made in-house, by hand. At the bar, specialty drinks are made with fresh-squeezed juices and Latin spirits like rum, tequila and cachaça.
In Westport, Bartaco at the National Hall compex is making a splash with its fun, funky and delicious menu. "There are plenty of local Latin restaurants that have been around for years," said Adam Halberg, culinary director. "But they were the type of places you'd go to when you knew how to read the menu." Over time, he said, Latin ingredients have become more ingrained in the popular culture.
"Right now, there's a real move toward street food," said Halberg. "One of the benefits of street food is that it's often smaller, lighter, healthier and fresher." He pointed out that, in the past, if you went to a Mexican restaurant, the whole menu would consist of the same tortillas, salsa, cheese and refried beans. "It didn't matter if you called it a flauta or a taco or a burrito. It was all the same thing. The menu of a modern Latin restaurant should not look like Taco Bell," he said.
At Bartaco, the menu is small, but diverse. Tacos include red snapper, pork belly, fried oyster and sesame rib-eye. (Tacos range from $2.50 to $3.50 each.) There are also salads, tamales, rice bowls and rotisserie chicken on the menu.
"The recession put a wooden stake through the white- tablecloth, big-wine-glass restaurant," said Halberg. "Now people are more relaxed. The Grand Old Restaurant has been replaced by the living room, beach, picnic atmosphere with relaxed, casual eating."
BarÓ: 1229 Post Road, Fairfield; 203-292- 9560 / www.baroct.com
Bartaco: 20 Wilton Road, Westport; 203-222-TACO / www.bartaco.com
Bodega: 1700 Post Road, Fairfield; 203-292-9590 / www.bodegatacobar.com