Tortilla Flat

El Tamarindo's a long way from Monsanto

A tortilla at El Tamarindo, perfectly round, exuding a pleasant, grassy-floral scent, has the appealing softness and density of warm skin, like the dusky feel of a burro's neck. The only relation it bears to a Frito's chip or a boxed taco shell is that it's made from corn. And corn is the most politically and economically contentious of foods these days.

A corn tortilla like this one is one of the oldest American foods — the first one may have been pounded out around 5,000 years ago. Not much changed in the production of corn or the making of the tortilla until the Green Revolution of the late '60s, when the multinationals got into the game. These days, you can't tuck one around your savory beef, onion, and green pepper fajita at El Tamarindo Café without feeling a pit-of-the-stomach mix of nostalgia and gloom. The future is breathing hotly down your neck. Forgive me if I lapse temporarily into pessimism, but I spent my week rerunning scenes from a gloomy 2004 documentary called The Future of Food, and let me tell you, tomorrowland never looked less cheery — belonging, as it apparently does, to Monsanto.

The biotech giant is busy patenting corn that doesn't reproduce or corn seed that doesn't germinate without a specially formulated Monsanto chemical, and that corn is accidentally crossbreeding with the many varieties of maize cultivated for centuries in Mexico. Still, the long arm of the multinational hasn't yet wrapped itself around the throat of the 3-year-old El Tamarindo on State Road 84 in Fort Lauderdale. I may have been haunted with visions of Monsanto's eventually owning the world's entire, genetically morphed corn crop, but the cooks at El Tamarindo go blithely along, making delicious tortillas to order in their kitchen. They serve them, thick as pillows, with fajitas or thinner ones as soft tacos wrapping chopped chicken. Others are puffed up and sandwiching a filling of pork and puréed beans for Salvadoran pupusas. Ground corn turned to liquid silk goes into their tamales too.

Joe Rocco

We'll have lots of opportunities to ponder the past, present, and future of corn at El Tamarindo, because the place will keep drawing us back as long as it keeps making warm tortillas. That mellow amber lighting bouncing off honey-colored woods is a magnet, and so is the ebb and flow of interesting conversation going on in many languages. There's the feel of the white tablecloth and linen napkins and the genuine, shy smile and halting English of our waitress. Busboys here are efficient, and the prices on dinner entrées are criminally low. You can order, for example, a perfectly yummy palomilla steak smothered with pickled, salted onions for $7.99, a grilled skirt steak for $10.99, or a plate of fried fish of the day for whatever the market price is — and this market, believe me, is a bargain. You can even get breakfast here beginning at 8:30 a.m.; no better way to start the day.

The tortillas for Tamarindo's Honduran baleadas are made from wheat flour. And there are no tortillas at all served with the palomilla steak, the parillada mixed grill, or the fileto ranchera. With these, you get cubed yucca or sweet or green plantains or a mixed salad plus a garlicky bowl of chimichurri. And, of course, rice and beans. And you can order any of the steaks topped with a mound of grilled, marinated shrimp.

If it sounds like this menu is all over the map, that's at least partially true — it's all over a map of the American continents, anyway. The proprietors of El Tamarindo have come up with a brilliant strategy to attract every Latin-food-loving soul within a 100-mile radius: They'll dish up your meat and veg in the style of Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, El Salvador, Honduras, or Mexico. Just pick your pleasure.

Unable and unwilling to limit ourselves to a single geographic area, we took our pleasures myriad and ill-matched. Our waitress snickered in disbelief when we ordered a sampler appetizer plate ($11.95) followed by three chicken tacos ($5.95) followed by a fajita ($15.95), a tilapia fillet ranchera-style ($12.50), and the bistec de palomilla($7.99). A meal without borders: The herbs of Buenos Aires mingled with the slaws, cheeses, and flowers of Havana, San Salvador, and Tegucigalpa. And when our sampler plate arrived, we were ignorant tourists — none of us had actually ever tasted a pupusa before, much less one topped with curdito — the pickled slaw made of cabbage, carrots, and peppers. The pupusa, a thickish masa tortilla wrapped around a filling made with loroco buds (in flavor like a tart summer squash), or alternately homemade cheese and shredded pork or beans, makes a terrific snack with fresh tomato salsa. And we hardly knew what to do with the bowl of sweetish, runny sour cream — like a cross between crème fraiche and clotted cream — surrounded by a moat of pureed red beans. It turned out the cream was meant to accompany the baleadas (thin wheat tortillas rolled around shredded chicken), as were the white cubes of salty, homemade cheese, the Latin version of feta. There was a small bowl of pickled vegetables that seemed to marry fine with everything. And there were chunks of fried pork rind — intensely pig flavored and fatty — cubes of the root vegetable cassava, tasting like a sweet white potato, and thinly sliced marinated grilled beef.

By the time the three of us had polished off this huge plate, plus three soft chicken-filled tacos (much improved by the addition of pickled jalapeños, chopped marinated tomatoes, and the sweetish sour cream), we couldn't believe we still had three entrées coming. You get to choose two side dishes with each entrée — black beans, rice, cassava, sweet plantains, tostones. Tamarindo's black beans and rice are scrumptious — the rice pillowy soft and slick with butter, the beans hearty and salty, retaining their form and texture.

We had no quibbles with our entrées. A tilapia fillet was fresh and sweet, lightly sauced with sautéed tomato and onions. There were fat, buttery caramelized plantains to go along with it. The palomilla steak was a thin, flat, peppery plank of sirloin, heavily marinated in salt, garlic, and oil, given a toss in a pan, and smothered with warm, wilted, pickled onions. Marinated strips of beef, crunchy green peppers, tomato, and onions comprised a fajita gleaming with oil in a rich brown sauce. You spooned this into warmed tortillas, balancing the whole on your palm. Then a quick fold and it was in your mouth, offering a clear, if temporary, way out of suffering.

We must have been insane to order this much food, we told each other through mouthfuls of garlic bread soaked in chimichurri. We wiped our oily lips on the cloth napkins and ordered more Dos Equis. The looming shadow of Monsanto had receded. At the table behind us, well into his wine, a man with a German accent insisted again and again: "I love my life."

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