(out of 4)
4340 W. 35th Ave., 303-455-8664, www.saborlatinorestaurant.com
Must-Try New Dishes: Pisco sour, camaron veracruzano
Old Favorites: Chicken fajitas, bandeja paisa
When 5280 restaurant critics Rachael Graves and Matthew Leary headed to Sabor Latino in 2002, after almost 10 years of absence, they remembered a beloved, if divey, hole-in-the-wall serving South American fare. But since their last meal, Sabor Latino had moved and its original owners had sold out to a Mexican-American trio who added fajitas and burritos to the menu. While Graves and Leary enjoyed the new dining room and the menu's Mexican pizzazz, they acknowledged that the South American dishes "sometimes [fell] short of capturing unique flavors." Sabor Latino has carried forth and enjoyed steady business while the surrounding Highland and Berkeley neighborhoods have grown with fresh shops, restaurants, and new housing developments. We returned to see if the eatery could compete in the vibrant neighborhood.
At 6:30 on a Friday evening, my friend and I snag one of the last tables in Sabor Latino's inner dining room. As we drop our coats over the backs of our chairs, I look out over the diners filling the restaurant and applaud our decision to eat early. Tonight there will be no rush to enjoy Sabor Latino's jovial atmosphere, brick walls, and cozy booths.
My forays into the Berkeley and Highland neighborhoods don't often bring me by this corner of 35th and Tennyson. Usually, I'm headed to Duo for a leisurely Sunday brunch, Parisi for a cannoli, or Sunflower Farmers Market for a collection of cheeses. These new eateries and shops—all of which have opened since 2003—have caught my attention with their energizing atmospheres and expertly crafted food. Sabor Latino, though, has only recently made it on my list, despite its 15-year stint on the same street corner. And tonight, a tart-and-sharp pisco sour ($6.50) in hand, I'm delighted to see the restaurant maintains the warmth of other neighborhood eateries.
We order a camaron veracruzano (shrimp Veracruz) appetizer ($15) and chicken fajitas ($13). The shrimp arrive layered on crispy corn tortillas, laced with spicy house-made hot sauce, and dolloped with guacamole. The fajitas follow, and soft flour tortillas wrap seasoned chicken with sautéed onions and peppers. Luck would have it that we've ordered the best of the menu—Mexican food. Despite showcasing itself as a mainly South American spot, Sabor Latino's most flavorful dishes are those that its owners—Mexican-Americans Robert Luevano and Marie and Dan Jimenez—and Mexican chef Gabriel Tapia know intimately.
Yet the feel of the restaurant is undeniably South American. Neither the soft decor nor its melodious Latin American pop music give it the spicy edge of a Mexican eatery. Similarly, the menu offers dishes such as beef-filled Chilean empanadas ($3), banana leaf-wrapped Colombian tamales ($13), and Peruvian beef stir-fry lomo saltado ($13). Unfortunately, though, Sabor Latino's delivery of South American food is less nuanced: The empanada begs for the subtleties of cumin, raisins, and hard-boiled egg that usually accent the beef filling. And its Peruvian lomo saltado, swathed in sweet tomato sauce, needs the dark, salty flavors of soy sauce. There are a few South American dishes that succeed at Sabor Latino, and they've been on the menu since its inception. For 17 years, the Colombian staple bandeja paisa ($12) has combined tasty stewed beef with thick corn arepa pancakes, sweet fried plantains, tender black beans, rice, and a fried egg. The generous dish is humble, flavorful, filling, and affordable.
As we ready ourselves to leave, I give Sabor Latino the nod of approval, knowing I'll return. Between its successful Mexican and select South American dishes, as well as its warm ambience, the restaurant has carved a niche as a cozy eatery in northwest Denver. But with so many other flavorful locales on my Berkeley and Highland list, it might be a while before my next visit. Sabor Latino will have to develop consistent quality to make me a regular—and when that occurs, it will truly compete with the other neighborhood eateries.