Carlos Castillio was decades ahead of his time when he opened Castillio’s, his excellent authentic Mexican restaurant at the corner of Exchange Alley and Conti Street in 1964. Considered wildly exotic, Latin food was rarely eaten in New Orleans, and the ’69 opening of Liborio Cuban restaurant on nearby Magazine Street had little impact on bringing ethnic food into the mainstream in a city devoted to its native French Creole dishes and fried seafood. But both restaurants quietly persevered.
When Adolfo Garcia left Rio Mar, his high-end Spanish-style seafood eatery last year, chef Miles Prescott kept the New World ceviches already on the menu while pushing more Venezuelan, Colombian, Ecuadorean and Peruvian dishes onto the table. A recent chef’s tasting served as an extensive culinary romp through Central America with Al Fuego (shrimp), Rocoto (scallops and octopus) and Flor (drum) ceviches; Pariheula de Mariscos (Peruvian seafood stew); mussels with Morcilla and red wine; grilled Escolar with coconut milk and lime; grilled Black Drum with shrimp, Maduro relleno and chayote and coconut relish; and a silken flan with dulce de leche.
Chefs Hans Limburg, Gary Darling and Greg Reggio (The Taste Buds) recently opened Mizado Cocina, a chic eatery with a focus on contemporary Mexican and Latin American dishes. The kitchen takes a playful approach that makes no attempt to masquerade as traditional with selections of ceviche in a variety of styles: Tiraditos (inspired by Japan’s Nikkei chefs), Peruvian and Baja; guacamole prepared tableside and soft corn tacos with decidedly non-Latin fillings such as alligator, smoked pork belly and duck confit.
Opened in 2010, Panchita’s on Carrollton Avenue offers authentic renditions of dishes from the state of Veracruz, along Mexico’s Gulf coast. Seafood is the star at this humble and homey spot, but a recent breakfast of Huevos con Jamon (scrambled eggs with ham and fresh Cojita cheese) was so utterly delicious and inexpensive ($6.25 for a heaping plate with a pile of just-made tortillas) as to have rendered the meal unforgettable.
Also on the humble side but lacking Panchita’s homey charm, Los Panchos is located in a generic strip mall in Terrytown. If you require a stimulating dining environment you’ll not find it here unless watching Spanish television is your thing. But if it’s fresh, authentic Mexican food on the cheap you seek, this is your place. An $11 appetizer platter is crammed with chimichangas, quesadillas, tostadas, tacos, taquitos and guacamole and it’s enough to feed two people and still leave room for an order of cinnamon-kissed churros for dessert. Fresh fruit margaritas the size of your head make it easy to forget the ever-present television.
At the other end of the spectrum Casa Borrega is as stimulating and colorful as a Technicolor stoner movie. To create their fun and funky dream world Hugo Montero, an artist and musician born in Mexico City, and environmentalist Linda Stone executed a meticulous, historical, green restoration of a 1891 Greek Revival home in Central City. The vibrant walls in the dining room and outdoor area are lavished with paintings and folk figurines, stained glass windows, Montero’s extensive collection of guitars and music memorabilia and mirrors. It is the perfect backdrop for chefs Matilde Gayossa’s and Richard Gonzalez’s spot on celebration of the complex cuisine of Mexico City. The menu changes daily but always includes a fresh ceviche made with local seafood, sopes (griddled cornmeal cakes) with black beans, queso fresco and shaved radish, and Chilaquiles del Dia, strips of corn tortilla lightly fried and sauced with salsa roja or verde and topped with Mexican crema and queso fresco. There is usually live music at night, an extensive selection of tequilas and mescals and a popular Saturday brunch.
Casa Borrega, 1719 Oretha C. Haley Blvd., 427-0654, CasaBorrega.com
Liborio, 321 Magazine St., 581-9680, LiborioCuban.com
Los Panchos, 445 Terry Parkway, Terrytown, 368-0828
Mizado Cucina, 5080 Pontchartrain Blvd., 885-5555, MizadoCocina.com
Panchita’s, 1434 S. Carrollton Ave., 281-4127
Rio Mar ,800 S Peters St., 525-3474, RioMarSeafood.com
The vegan invasion into New Orleans has a solid bunker in the recently opened Seed, “garden based, NOLA taste,” all organic foods that are often raw, soy-free and/or gluten-free. And while the Seed gumbo will never replace your grandmother’s version and the raw vegan enchiladas might never be Super Bowl fare, it’s delicious nonetheless and sure to be a big hit here in Hollywood South.
Seed, 1330 Prytania St., 302-2599