You can't have dessert unless you eat all your enchiladas rojas de pollo con queso.
You can't have dessert unless you eat all your enchiladas rojas de pollo con queso.
Stephen P. Karlisch

Latin Homestyle

Felton is a tiny town in California's Santa Cruz Mountains, right in the thick of the redwoods. There's little there to attract visitors except for the scenery and perhaps a secret spot known as the Garden of Eden Nude Beach on the banks of the San Lorenzo River. But a decade or so ago there was a fantastic restaurant in Felton called Squeezie's. Squeezie's had a wine-service gimmick that was nothing short of a masterstroke. Each dinner course was invariably followed by a tiny parade of servers carrying tasting glasses and a collection of wines loosely paired to the dish. A splash of each wine was poured, and diners were asked to select the wine they liked best. If several people picked the same wine, a bottle was uncorked. This ritual continued with each course.

Squeezie's closed a couple of years after my first visit. Maybe it suffered from its location, where the only draws were redwoods and a nude beach with steep riverbanks and virulent poison oak. Or maybe the wine incessantly splashed into those little tasting glasses cumulatively forged a torrent of red ink. Hard to say.

But Squeezie's came to mind on my first visit to La Duni Latin Café. La Duni's wine list catalogs some 89 wines, all of them from Spain or South America and all of them available in more ways than you can order a diversion at a cathouse. They'll serve your wine by the half-glass, by the glass, by the half-bottle, by the bottle. Hell, they'd probably pour some in your radiator if you asked them.


La Duni Latin Caf

But as it happens when consumer choices exceed the brain's capacity for decision making, we found ourselves in a wine pickle with the choice hinging on a Catena melbec from Argentina and a Lorinon Rioja from Spain. Surprisingly, the servers didn't try to nudge us toward a decision. Instead, they brought the two bottles plus another Argentinean melbec and an additional Rioja not yet on the list. The wine bottles were followed by four tasting glasses, and a little wine was splashed into each of them.

Once we decided, our selections were brought to the table in decanters. Just enough was poured from the decanter to give the glass ample headroom for effective bouquet absorption. This is wine service that even a social-climbing Labatts Blue lover could understand: casual enough to keep the prigs sheered and graciously adept enough to nudge the wine bashful into vino bumptiousness.

In addition to reds, the list contains whites, sparklers and rosés with prices ranging from $14.50 to $80, although there is a Spanish Condado de Haza tampranillo that goes for $0, which either means La Duni will go the way of Squeezie's, or it will set up a nudist beach near Turtle Creek. Hard to say.

La Duni's cuisine for the most part keeps up with the wine list. The obligatory basket of complimentary chips is filled with housemade renditions in two colors: blond and Day-Glo orange. These crisp well-seasoned chips come with salsa, and La Duni does that one better and throws in a trio of spoonable mojos: a zesty cilantro-infested chimichurri from Argentina; a mojo verde slapped together with cilantro, olive oil, garlic and citrus juices; and a neon orange mojo rojo composed of roasted pimento and chili flakes with citrus. Each sauce is blindingly fresh and mild.

Appetizers maintained the same timbre, though the portions were sometimes stingy. Provoleta, an Argentinean dalliance consisting of a provolone wedge that's grilled and drizzled with olive oil and herbs, was delicious and chewy in the way that only fire-hardened cheese can be. But it seemed awfully skimpy chew for six bucks and a quarter.

A more gripping pre-entrée treat is the patacon de oriente, an exhibit from Colombia. The foundation of this bit of rustic wizardry is the green plantain, which is cooked and mashed. The resulting substance is then put into a tortilla press and flattened into discs that are dipped into a mixture of water, garlic and salt before they're fried. The resultant crude Frisbee is topped with black beans, shredded beef, cheese, tomato and pickled onions. The flavors are full and varied with tender moist beef shreds and firm tender black beans fighting with the plantains for dominance.

La Duni's salads waver a bit. Ensalada de tomate con aguacate, sort of an Argentinean insalata ala caprese sans the mozzarella plus some aromatic perversions, consists of sliced tomato, grilled purple onion and mashed avocado splashed with a warm balsamic vinaigrette. The tomato slices were beautiful to leer at and juicy, too, but they were nearly void of flavor.

Ensalada de pollo asado a la menta-limon, a Mexican flourish, was much better. Strips of moist grilled chicken blasting with smoky flavor were tangled in a bed of mixed lettuces sewn with thin tortilla strips and buttoned with diced roasted tomato, avocado and onions all doused with a balsamic citrus mint vinaigrette. The salad was abundant, crisp and nattily dressed.

La Duni is, too. Couched in the former Anzu space on McKinney Avenue, La Duni represents owner Espartaco Borga's quest to craft a Latin brasserie with homey vittles from Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico and Cuba. "I wish I had invented any of this stuff, but I did not," Borga says. "All of these dishes are food that you would find at home in South America." Borga, the co-founder of the ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food chain, named his restaurant after his wife, Dunia, the restaurant's pastry chef. He says the custom in South America is to name significant homesteads after the lady of the house, a practice that must make divorce lawyering a sport requiring protective headgear and bulletproof groin cups.

Borga's objective aesthetically was to transform Anzu's cutting-edge demeanor into a warm, easy ambiance. To that end, the walls were ragged in yellow, candles quiver everywhere, and the space is sliced with a wine rack and a showcase table stuffed with cakes and pastries. (La Duni serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.) The bar area contains a decidedly high-tech homey touch: three television screens imbedded in the wall to display digital pictures of customers and vendors culled from the La Duni Web site, sort of a La Duni family album.

Entrées sustained La Duni's high-caliber execution with one minor dip. Frijol con puerco, a bowl filled with rice and pampero black beans (a style of beans eaten on the Argentinean pampas), was topped with pieces of roasted pork tenderloin dressed with radish-lime picadillo. The pork pieces in this Yucatan dish were tasty with a good smoky flavor, but the slightly dry pork portion was skimpy, especially for nearly 10 bucks.

The Brazilian asado brasilero was much better. Grilled marinated picanha steak is sliced and served on a garlic rice mattress with chimichurri, roasted pimientos and sour orange pickled onions. Its graceful balance of rustic flavors was compelling. Sure the picanha was chewy and tough as this cut tends to be, but it was rich and juicy, and it melded beautifully with the range of flavors.

Representing a sort of refined Tex-Mex binge, La Duni's quesadilla and enchilada impersonations are astounding. Quesadillas de robalo, from Acapulco, are a striking twist on the typical quesadilla. Three crisp fire-red grilled corn tortillas, resembling taco shells, are filled with sea bass, picadillo and Latin cheese served with salsas and avocado. Though the flavor was striking, it was hard to pull any bass hints out of this savory fog. It almost seemed like a waste.

Enchiladas rojas de pollo con queso, a dish drenched in Mexico City stylistic touches, contained the most airy, tender corn tortillas I've come across--oftentimes corn tortillas are rubbery and clumsy. But these were deft and rolled with chunks of moist chicken breast and Latin cheese (unaged) topped with salsa applied modestly, so the enchiladas didn't drown in it.

Sandwiches score high, as well. The Argentinean slow-roasted pernil sandwich with moist gray folds of citrus-marinated pork shoulder slathered with chimichurri was deliciously moist and indulgent in its popover encasement.

Desserts climb high, too. The pecan roll, a decadent composition made with a double-butter brioche, was moist and chewy with a deft richness. A Colombian white cake coated in a meringue made from a quad of different milks, was dense and moist, like perfectly baked pound cake.

La Duni is an exceptional restaurant, especially when you consider its unexceptional goals. It's just a couple of weeks out of the chute, and if it does this well at the start, it should be around for a long time, without the need to shed a stitch.


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