All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
The idea began with something like a dinner party. About 17 years ago, Carlos Branger, who had recently moved to Texas from Venezuela (in the Andes area near the border of Colombia) would have friends over and cook things that he loved from home. He’d stuff fresh corn envelopes with beef and chicken and sample queso blanco, arepas and cachapas born from family recipes. To Branger, the joy of hosting was immense.
“People would ask: Where can I get this food?” Branger says.
Dallas, of course, was home to multiple options for Tex-Mex and perfect taquerias, but there were few Latin American options. So Branger developed and market tested an idea that wholly embraced the simple, ageless feeling of welcoming people into your home and sharing good food. He wanted Dallas to know the joy of the zaguán, which loosely translates to the physical place in your home where you welcome guests. The word is imbued with deep meaning for Branger.
“Zaguán is the symbol of Latin hospitality,” he says.
The sensory experience at Zaguán Latin Cafe and Bakery, on busy Oak Lawn Avenue, is real. Sitting in the cafe’s creaky bistro chairs, you hear the crackling grind of Colombian coffee. Steam pumps from the arepas like corn-on-the-cob plucked straight from the grill. Your eyes will lead you into the pastry case, where dulce de leche alfajor cookies have a thick snow tops of powdered sugar.
I’m sitting with one of Zaguán's top sellers, the miraculous arepa (sister to gorditas or Salvadoran pupusas) which is stuffed with chicken and griddled queso blanco. The arepa speaks for itself: One bite in, each ingredient and flavor arranges itself into clearly defined, bright panels in your mind like some sort of delicious synesthesia. You’ll see the sunset yellow of corn and cloud-white salt.
The ingredients are as simple as that: Corn flour mixed with a little salt, oil and water kneaded and blend for 15 minutes. Then it's seared on the flat grill.
One of the best things about Zaguán is the ubiquitous cheese. Branger lights up when I ask him about it. It’s named Paisa and is a pasteurized queso blanco recipe, and decades ago, Branger’s father co-created it. His brother runs the Paisa operation in Miami; it’s a family cheese.
Paisa cheese sears magically on the flat grill. Crispy edges appear with the tomato-sauce-marinated chicken in the arepa. Zaguán fries it, grates it or slices it thin to griddle. It’s got the breezy, clean flavor of milk and just a few pops of salt. It's near heaven when combined with ham.
In May, Zaguán celebrated its 15th anniversary. Branger’s wearing a tiny pin that says the restaurant recently had a quiet little birthday. They cook, they feed and then they move on.
Zaguán began as something like an over-the-counter spot, with four glass cases of soft baked goods, like the cachito stuffed with minced ham and cheese and delicate pastries. (All breads are made in house.) The demand for more food and more service allowed Branger to toss in some tables and let people experience something more.
The chicken sandwich, juicy chicken breast marinated in tomato sauce and served on crusty-to-pillowy bread with tomato and mayo, is stupendous. So are the breakfast sandwiches. (Get one with an espresso, for the love of all that's holy.) It's also inexpensive, healthy as you'd like and fresh. It has gelato and coffee if you're into that sort of thing.
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The flavors illuminated in the pastry case and the menu are still a celebration of Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina and the Caribbean. Drop in on a light day, and you might find guava- and cheese-stuffed bread samples on the counter and catch the aroma trail of ropa vieja, shredded steak marinated in tomato sauce.
“If you go to Spain, many places in Latin America, Peru, Puerto Rico, you see zaguáns all over,” Branger says. More than good food, that's what he wants Dallasites to experience: the feeling of welcome upon entering his home.
I finish up the delicious arepa, the flavor of real corn strong in my mind, and order an espresso. Behind the counter, a chef drops a plate loaded with a cachapa, chicken and griddled cheese inside — Branger's family queso blanco — announces that it's ready and moves onto the next plate.
Zaguán Latin Cafe, 2604 Oak Lawn Ave.