Don't call Fernando Barrero a chef. He’s been in the restaurant industry for two decades in positions ranging from dishwasher to manager, and he jumped into a couple of cooking classes at Brookhaven College but quickly refuses the title. He prefers to keep the cooking at home, he says. Barrera says he's turned down partnerships or analyses of his numbers in favor of a simpler feeling.
“You know why so many restaurants fail? They open it to make money," he says. "They don’t open restaurants because they like it. If you open a restaurant because you like it, if you have heart, the money comes after.”
His recipes leap from Peru to Mexico City. Barrero is from the latter and moved to Dallas 22 years ago. A major chunk of his time was devoted to managing La Duni, and in the six years since opening his own spot, Latin Deli, he’s built a menu of consistent, delicious, surprisingly underrated sandwich gems on Abrams and Northwest Highway.
“I knew that someday I wanted to do my own business,” Barrera says. He saved up $60,000 after working his way up through La Duni, he says. The idea for his deli popped up after stopping into sandwich joints that seemed to be from everywhere except Latin America.
Barrera’s little cafe that could is poised to open location No. 3 three (the second is downtown), and it’s one of Dallas’ beacons in the fog. It’s a little sandwich joint that cuts through the trends and takes you all the way home.
Fire leaps up from the pan. Fresh-cut fries make rainstorm sounds as they cage-dive into roils of oil. Aside from the kitchen, the source of the pan-smoke in the dining room air as though it’s your dining room, it’s a quiet night at Latin Deli.
The restaurant’s walls are half Creamsicle orange, half lime. (Barrera does graphic design in his free time, including building his own website.) I’m at the deli after sunset, entranced by the bright walls and not-so-patiently awaiting the timeless glories of a lomo saltado sandwich, a Peruvian beauty of tender beef, onions, pepper and a fried egg. Traditionally, lomo saltado is a plate of simply seasoned potatoes, rice and meat.
“When you cook it at home, you cook it for the whole family. What do you do with the leftovers? You make it a sandwich,” Barrera says.
His has melt-in-your mouth tangles of beef, seared in some olive oil. There's no so salt — just salsa criolla, made with cilantro, onions, chili peppers, a mix of avocado and tomatoes, and a spicy pepper called aji amarillo that sharpens against the rich beef like a blade against whetstone. It’s a leftovers sandwich that tastes like mom’s leftovers sandwich.
It’s not much different across the board at Barrera’s deli; each sandwich is pressed in between cloud-soft ciabatta bread and tastes as homey as you can get when you’re jutted into the corner of a strip mall. For his third location, he’s been buying kitchen equipment a bit at a time. He stores it in his mom’s garage, and when it started to stack up, he offered her $200 a month.
“Last week, this young guy was eating a sandwich and licking his fingers,” Barrera says. “This guy was eating my sandwich like it was last day on Earth. It made me so happy. That’s the truth.”
Latin Deli, 701 Commerce St. (downtown) and 5844 Abrams Road (East Dallas)