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Cascade of Comfort 

2001-06-09
The single word "Chicken" screams out from the brick and glass facade of a tiny space within a South Boulevard strip mall. But you would have to drive or walk by La Cascada -- Chicken To Go to read the actual name of the restaurant which is painted on the store front glass. Cascada means waterfall in Spanish. When Bolivian native and owner Ana Calleja took over this space a year ago from Chicken Bingo, she left half of that restaurant's name on the store front. Although Calleja still serves rotisserie chicken, she also offers some of the only South American cuisine in Charlotte. This small restaurant seats 45 in large, uncushioned booths. The walls bear a series of murals left by the previous tenant. On one a cleaver wielding chef chases a chicken. In another the chef is holding bingo cards and if you are unfamiliar with the history of the location, this may seem somewhat strange. Calleja has covered some of the murals with world maps and memorabilia from Ecuador, where her husband and co-owner Hugo Hernandez was born. Spanish is the primary language heard here. However, most employees are at least quasi-bilingual and some speak both languages with ease and precision. The menu is written both in Spanish and English (with a number of English words spelled phonetically). And if you are fluent in Spanish, don't be put off by reading "Bistec a lo caballo." I was told that this wasn't actually horse steak, but rather the cut of meat. La Cascada concentrates on the foods of Peru, Columbia, and Ecuador with a few specialty dishes on occasion from Calleja's native Bolivia. All of these countries, located in the upper northwest corner of South America, border the Pacific Ocean, except landlocked Bolivia. Until recently, not many Americans, particularly those living in the southeast, had ties to this part of South America. Even fewer traveled extensively throughout South America, and were thus less experienced in the cuisines of these countries. But this is changing. In the mid 1990s, chef and cookbook author Douglas Rodriquez blew into New York with his innovative take on South American food when he opened the popular Patria. Almost at the same time, restaurant trade publications began touting South American food as the cuisine of the new century. Then Rodozios, the popular Brazilian-Argentinean, all-you-can-eat, skewered meats restaurants, started becoming popular throughout the US. Mexican cuisine, which has already achieved success, represents only a fragment of the culinary diversity of our southern neighbors. Not everything in South American cuisine is salsa and margaritas. South American cuisine closely mirrors the history of the continent. The potato, which flourished in Peru's high altitudes, has been a staple crop there since prehistoric times. More than 100 varieties are grown in Peru. We seldom see these, even the Hispanic markets. Corn was grown before the potato in Peru. Other indigenous crops common in South American dishes are sweet potatoes, avocados, tomatoes, yucca, chilies, a variety of squashes, and beans. Seventeenth century Europeans, in turn, introduced South Americans to chickens and pigs, garlic and onions, bananas and plantains, lentils, garbanzo beans, and rice. The combination of these ingredients with spices and herbs create South American cuisine. However, each region has developed unique dishes. Rice is the universal dish in coastal Columbia, and arepas, griddled corn cakes made from precooked corn flour, are found on every socio-economic table. Corn and potatoes are staples of the Peruvian diet and while the dishes are not as spicy as Mexico's, aji amarillo, a yellow chile, is commonly used. In Ecuador seafood is plentiful and ceviches are typically marinated in the juice of bitter Seville oranges. The dishes presented at La Cascada are not innovative. They are Colombian, Peruvian, and Ecuadorian comfort dishes served in abundant portions. Begin with the flavorful rotisserie chicken. Calleja uses a spicy garlic cumin rub to create this succulent dish. Sweet plantains, or maduros, are gently fried and served on the side. Other side orders include green plantains, fried yucca, lentils, French fries, rice, red beans, a small side salad, or rice. Lunch is served between 11am until 3pm, with smaller portions of the same dishes that are offered the rest of the day. At lunch, these dishes cost $4.99 but a larger dinner portion is $8.50. Among the regular items are Chuleta de cerdo (breaded pork) or Carne Empanizada (sauteed beef) with side of rice, salad and red beans. However, page two of the menu is infinitely more appealing. Here you'll find Bandeja Paisa ($11), a special Colombian dish only served on Saturday. The dish arrives in a colossal portion. On a large platter with an under bedding of finely chopped iceberg lettuce, rice, and red beans, is a 10-inch thinly sliced piece of beef, which is both chewy and dry. On the beef are two sunny-side-up fried eggs. Surrounding the dish is a large link of imported chorizo, three extremely chewy fried pork bits, and one small arepa. You would have to be working a long day at high altitudes to endeavor to finish this dish alone. An even better dish is the lomita saltado, a Peruvian pot roast with long slices of potatoes, Italian onions, quarters of tomatoes, and salty strips of beef served beside a mound of formed white rice. Again the meat proved a little tough while the vegetables were excellent. Lacks Peruvian pungency? Rev it up with the table side hot chilies. As is common in Latino countries, dessert proved very sweet. The creamy rice pudding is piled high with whipped cream and the creamy flan is made by Hernandez's mother from an old family recipe. While beer is offered, most of those around me were enjoying an "Inka Gold" cola. Also available are Colombian soft drinks in apple and tropical fruit flavors, although our server said that the latter tastes more like bubble gum. La Cascada makes their own Oartmeal, a deliciously refreshing sweet mix of pineapple juice and brown sugar. With Charlotte's burgeoning Hispanic community and ever changing restaurants, get ready for more sprightly outposts of diverse Latino cuisine. But for now be content with exploring the freefall of South American comfort food at La Cascada.

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