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Salvadoran restaurant expands from its grocery store beginnings with delicious results

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Sopa De Tortilla at Mercadito Latino

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Sopa De Tortilla at Mercadito Latino Photo Store

It started life with four tables in a windowless cubby hole, tucked in behind a not-much-bigger grocery store on Henderson Highway. Today it's in a more spacious (if still not huge) and airier place with windows overlooking Sargent, and the roles have been reversed. Mercadito Latino plans to open another outlet on St. Mary's Road that will focus on Latino groceries, but, although there are still a few shelves of those groceries tucked into one corner of this venue, it is primarily a restaurant.

The decor doesn't seem to have changed much since this address was home to La Rica Vicky -- the Peruvian posters are gone (and also, alas, the delicious Peruvian specialties) -- or before that Desperado, which left behind its tiki bar (but no beer), and a bullfight poster.

Don't expect forceful spicing -- this is Salvadoran food, not Mexican -- and although it was good in its original location, it's even better in this new one. Everything tastes fresh and delicious and, what's more, there are more choices on the menu, and 80 per cent of them are gluten-free.

Obviously, I dine out very often and often very well, but every now and then I find a dish so vividly good I want to come back for more... immediately. That's how I felt about the fabulous tortilla soup, a glory of textures and flavours, floating strips of moist, tender chicken, globs of melted cheese, chunks of avocado, streaks of sour cream, and a sprinkling of scallions, in a bowl lined with crisp strips of corn tortillas. It goes for $8.50, but it's a meal in itself, and I still regret sharing it with my friends. Next time I won't.

The pupusas are wonderful, too. Neither heavy nor greasy, these soft, thickish corn-masa pancakes are fried on a griddle, stuffed with the usual options of cheese, beans or pork, or all the above, to be topped by a lightly marinated coleslaw and a mildly spicy salsa (three for $9.95, or one for $3.95). There is also the much rarer pupusa de queso con loroco, stuffed with lots of cheese and loroco flowers (three for $10.50). One is a snack, three a rib-sticking meal.

The enchiladas, which resemble Mexican tostadas -- crisp corn-flour tortilla shells heaped with avocado, beans or ground beef, lime-scented cabbage salad, salsa and cheese -- are terrific (three for $9.95, $3.95 for one). So are the quesadillas, 10-inch flour tortillas with either shrimp, beef, chicken with bell peppers and cheese, or loroca flowers with cheese ($11.95 each). There's also a deluxe version with extra cheese and slices of zucchini ($12.95). The tacos are made with soft corn tortillas, and they too are excellent, filled with shredded beef, chicken or shrimp and green peppers, topped by diced tomatoes, onion, cilantro and liberally moistened with lime juice ($10.95 to $11.95).

I'm sometimes wary of corn-dough tamales, which can be bland, and of pre-cooked chicken fillings, which can be dry and flavourless. At Mercadito Latino, the tamale dough was wonderful, and the chicken tasted remarkably fresh, moist and flavourful, as it did in every other dish it was part of. I didn't try the tamale de elote, which is made with fresh corn -- apparently similar to corn bread -- and cooked in a corn husk ($3.25).

There are a few dishes I haven't found on most other local menus -- the rigua, for instance, a flat pancake made of ground corn with a hint of sweetness served with a dip of refried beans and sour cream ($4.95). I've had yuca frita con chicharrones before, but it's rarely been this good -- deep-fried cassava strips, topped by a lime-scented cabbage salad, salsa and a heap of crunchy shredded fried pork. Another version is made with boiled instead of fried cassava ($10.95 each).

There are three kinds of burritos, and they're good, if not as great as some of the above dishes. The 10-inch flour tortillas are filled to bursting with either ground beef, chicken or refried beans, rice and cheese ($9.95 each). I preferred the ground beef with refried beans and cheese to the chicken and rice filling, which was dryer and less flavourful. They come with little containers of salsa and sour cream, and sometimes, with luck, a house-made cream that tastes more like cr®me fraÆche than sour cream.

The Salvadoran ceviche is a little bowlful of pre-cooked shrimp in a sauce that is thicker than most, and sweeter (ketchup possibly?). It's pleasant enough, but less impressive than some of the other dishes or, for that matter, other ceviches ($11.95).

The salsas were tasty, but pretty mild (Salvadoran style), although a green salsa did have a bit of bite. You won't find them listed on the menu, but if you ask you can have small side orders of the top-notch, slightly chunky guacamole, or the freshly refried beans.

Service by the Salvadoran family is friendly, attentive and couldn't be nicer.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.

Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2013 C5

History

Updated on Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 8:08 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline, adds map

12:27 PM: Corrects typo.

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