Winds of Change

For the most part, hurricanes are dangerous. They wreak havoc on homes, possessions, lives. But at least one hurricane has had a positive effect on the Broward dining scene.

Thanks in no small part to Hurricane Andrew, which brutalized Miami-Dade County in 1992, Broward is finally diversifying. When folks down south found themselves suddenly homeless, many moved north in search of shelter. They wound up settling in condo developments and apartment buildings in what were then considered "white bread" communities. It's taken a few years, but the substantial ebb and flow of immigrants has accounted for a noticeable increase in good Latin American restaurants in Broward.

As ethnic populations expand, you can now feast on Puerto Rican fare at La Cocina Puertorriquena in Pembroke Pines, Mexican food at Mejico Grande in Davie, Brazilian and Colombian cuisine at Sabor Brasil in Pompano Beach, and upscale Cuban specialties at Little Havana in Lighthouse Point. This demographic shift possibly explains why the last several meals I consumed in Miami-Dade's Latin American eateries were downright awful. Let's face it: The experienced, knowledgeable, and talented Latin cooks have left Miami-Dade. As often seems to be the case (think Florida Panthers), Miami-Dade's loss is Broward's gain.

Take Vicente Torres, chef at La Hacienda, a six-week-old Venezuelan restaurant on Pines Boulevard, for example. He cooked at Caballo Viejo, a Venezuelan restaurant, and the elite pan-Latin American establishment Yuca, both in Miami-Dade, before taking charge of the stove at La Hacienda. And though Hurricane Andrew might not have been the direct impetus for La Hacienda's opening, the need for a well-run Latin American restaurant on Pines was obvious, according to proprietor David Orsini. Orsini, a native Floridian and first-time restaurateur, owns the burgeoning business with two brothers from Venezuela, Vicente and Ramon Falcon.

Located in a strip mall on the site of an erstwhile Italian restaurant, La Hacienda's exterior -- which includes a banner over the previous sign -- looks transient and doesn't inspire much confidence. But the partners spent a couple of months designing the interior, ordering furniture made from saman trees, which are common in Venezuela. The trees grow to be hundreds of years old, and the varnished chairs and tables seem to have been carved directly from the huge trunks. You can even see the rings of the trees in the seats. The warmth of the wood is complemented by colorful miniature hammocks, which cut down on the glare from the ceiling lights. "We improvised there," Orsini admits. "People kept telling us it was too bright, so we strung up the hammocks."

While the front of the menu advertises Venezuelan and other Hispanic specialties, it's tough, especially if you're unfamiliar with the cuisine, to pick out the strictly Venezuelan items. It's best to ask the friendly staff for recommendations. They're delighted to chat about Venezuelan specialties as they dish out hot, complimentary garlic bread on wooden plates. I use the term "Venezuelan specialties" loosely, because Venezuelan cuisine is not easily defined or characterized. Most South American countries incorporate a variety of influences in their Spanish-based fare. Peru, Ecuador, and Chile, for example, promote an Incan diet -- lots of dried meats (llama!), grains like quinoa, and potatoes. Brazil has its Portuguese and African elements, utilizing peanuts and coconut milk in recipes. Argentina is known for both its homegrown beef and its pasta, thanks to the large community of Italians who settled there.

But Venezuelan cuisine remains somewhat untouched by either native Indian or exotic ingredients. Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, author of The Book of Latin American Cooking, writes that "the basis of the cookery is colonial more than anything else with borrowings and adaptations from other Latin American countries." Her observation certainly rang true when it came to La Hacienda's "tri-tips" main course, which our server told us was Venezuelan. The three boneless steaks, juicy and flavorful, were accompanied by chimichurri, a parsley-garlic sauce "borrowed" from Argentina, and guasacaca, an avocado-based sauce "adapted" from Mexico's guacamole. Both dressings were tangy and delicious, as was a third condiment of spiced, pickled onions. Greaseless fried yuca, neither stringy nor soapy, as undercooked yuca can be, rounded out the generous portion.

I don't know which country inspired Venezuela to pair a tamal with a scoop of chicken salad as an entree, but the combination was a tasty one. The tamal was tender, the moist corn filled with ground beef and peas. The chicken salad was also outstanding, white-meat poultry and carrots coated with thick mayonnaise. The origin of arepitas, an appetizer, was easier to determine. These round corn cakes stem from Colombia. At La Hacienda they were deep-fried like fritters and as a result crunchy and mild. For more robust flavor, the arepitas can be ordered "con chicharonnes," meaning the batter is mixed with tiny nuggets of pork.

In some cases Venezuelan fare most closely resembles the foods of Cuba and Puerto Rico, Spanish-settled countries that were also isolated in part by water. A starter of octopus sauteed in heavy olive oil and garlic tasted familiar, but the addition of paprika gave it the color of a ripe tangerine and a subtle kick. The octopus itself was wonderfully succulent. Black beans, a side dish we ordered with our meal, was also similar to what a Cuban restaurant would serve. The beans were whole but soft, with a good, rich broth and a pleasant smoky flavor. I can see why the Venezuelans call this stuff "native caviar" when mashed.

And two main courses, goat tarkari and oxtail La Hacienda, were comparable to dishes from the aforementioned islands. The two stewlike main courses were replete with chunks of meat sagging off the bones into the rich gravy. Both the goat and oxtail were superb, differing only in terms of the slight curried flavor of the goat. Accompaniments of yellow rice and fried plantains made these hefty portions even larger.

Tequenitos was the only dish I didn't recognize. Purely Venezuelan, the appetizer consisted of sticks of baked dough filled with queso blanco. The cheese oozed out of the tequenitos with every bite. We weren't as surprised by the rice pudding, a somewhat expected sweet. Still, we found it an excellent version, the grains of rice unified with cream and cinnamon.

Venezuela may have what Ortiz calls "a small cuisine," meaning that it isn't very unique. But at La Hacienda, the cuisine is made large by the thoughtfulness with which it's prepared. Thoughtful, too, are the owners, who come around to see how patrons are enjoying the fare.

Let's hope another hurricane won't be coming around too soon. Storms like Georges might just convince the owners it's time once again to pull up stakes and move north. Next stop: Palm Beach County.

La Hacienda. 11252 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines, 954-443-0955. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.

Tequenitos
$3.95

Sauteed octopus
$5.95

Goat tarkari
$10.95

Oxtail La Hacienda
$11.95

Rice pudding
$2.50

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