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Low prices and Mexican lamb barbecue delight east Charlotte

Each year Charlotte gains dozens of Latino restaurants. Most of these are not the high-end, expensive upfits that draw a lot of press and well-heeled patronage. Many of these eateries are the mom and pop variety that offer comfort foods to Latino ex-pats yearning for a good, home-cooked meal. These spots do not feature talking Chihuahua ads, offer speed bump-sized California burritos or prepare guac tableside. But, clearly these are the consummate place for a taste of home for many new Charlotteans and for the gastro adventurous.

Happily these spots, also terrific finds for anyone on a budget, are developing organically. Today Charlotte has an in-depth array of Latino shops, bakeries, and restaurants.

One such eatery is Cocina Latina which opened two years ago in a space, once an Italian restaurant, on Albemarle Road near Independence Boulevard that has seen many challenges during the widening project. Cocina Latina is the first restaurant for restaurateur Fausta Salvitierra, a native of Pachuca, the capital city of Hidalgo, Mexico. She also owns a small take-out only Cocina Latina on Sharon Amity, which is open exclusively on weekends. You can't miss it: there's a neon sheep's head on the front plate glass.

Over at the main restaurant, the interior is spare, but has many charming aspects. Near the entrance is the section of the kitchen where you can watch tortillas being hand pressed and cooked on a griddle. Tables are minimally dressed, but soon sport baskets of crispy corn chips and freshly made salsa.

Cocina Latina offers Mexican dishes of auténtico sabor casero -- authentic homemade flavor, as the menu proudly announces. This extensive roster includes the usual Mexican suspects: cactus salad, quesadillas, chile relleno with a collage of spices, enchiladas, fajitas, sopes (common to the Mexico City area), tacos, and burritos. These dishes are heated with vibrant salsas, composed of tomatillos, seeds, and an assortment of chile peppers: arbol, chipotle, guallijo, jalapeño, and poblano. Depending on the day and the chilies used, the heat of a dish may vary. Servers, however, will inform the customers so the heat level can be tempered for tame-palated clientele.

To supplement the familiar territory, Cocina also offers such regional specialties as splendid huaraches: oval-shaped, house-made corn tortillas slathered with black beans, quesco fresco, and a selection of tangy bits of nopales and/or flavor-infused, house-made Mexican chorizo. Equally tasty are the Mexican subs, or tortas, made with bread delivered each morning by the locally owned Odalis Bakery. The kitchen piles these sandwiches high with cheese and meats: marinated pork, grilled chicken ham, breaded beef or sausages.

The prices on the menu are pleasantly surprising. Only a few of these dishes approach $10, most are less than $5, making Cocina Latina a delicious bargain.

Yet the treasure of Cocina Latina is their weekend special. On early Saturday Deliciosa barbacoa de Borrego, lamb barbecue, is sold for $15 per pound or $2 per taco.

This barbecue is made in the traditional Mexican way: a splayed whole sheep is cooked over a wood-burning fire and covered with maguey cactus leaves. In Mexico, barbecue pits are lined with the maguey cactus leaves. However, just as in North Carolina, grills have replaced pits, and, at times, gas replaces wood.

The leaves of the maguey plant are similar in size and shape to the Agave or a Spanish Sword and the slow release of the juices from the leaves keep the lamb tender while also seasoning the meat. The result is spectacular, similar to a Carolina whole pig barbecue. Cocina's barbecue is made by relatives in Salisbury and then brought to Charlotte each Saturday morning and has become so popular that it is often sold out in both the restaurant and the take-out shop by early Saturday afternoon.

A pound of barbecue comes with five corn, house-made tortillas; a mix of chopped cilantro and white onion; a dozen or so quarters of limes and two types of sauces: the verde and the roja. Both these sauces have chiles and the staff will tell you which one is hotter (although typically it's the green sauce). The trick here is to mound this heavenly scented lamb on a hot corn tortilla, garnish it with bits of cilantro and onion, spritz with lime and swipe it all with a high-octane sauce. You can easily devour five -- so order more tortillas. Or you can choose, unconventionally, to smother the entire sandwich with the lamb's ethereal broth, which is sold as well.

Authentic Mexican cuisine is one of the few ethnic foods that Charlotte has in abundance and this diamond in the rough delivers. Owner Salvitierra treats Mexican food like a cherished art and serves it proudly. Her son Antonio is usually on hand to translate if necessary, but the servers are proficient in menu English, and the menu is printed in both languages. For heat seekers, some dishes are sweat-inducing and require more than a hit of lime to cool the mouth. Other dishes are traditional rustic fare you can dress up on your own. Cocina Latina is not an ethnic restaurant afraid of flavor. Let them give you what they've got.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

Cocina Latina

5135 Albemarle Road, 704-531-5757; Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. and Sunday 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Visa, MC. Cocina Latina, 3709 N Sharon Amity Road, 704-535-3111 Take out only: limited hours. Cash preferred, but Visa and MC taken at adjacent grocery store.

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