Restaurant Reviews

A Saucy Colombian

We Americans are ridiculed the world over for our use of ketchup. We put it on everything, critics say, without discretion.

Probably so, but in culinary reality, just about every culture has its singular condiment. The Brits love brown sauce. The French adore aioli. The Chinese couldn't do without duck sauce, the Vietnamese fuss for fish sauce, and the Mexicans, as we all know, compose countless kinds of salsa.

Fact of the matter is, condiments can enhance some foods, elevate others, and rescue still others. Trace the origin of these flavorings and I bet you'll find it was a caveman, dissatisfied with his long-suffering wife's cooking, who invented nearly every one.

Salt & Pepper Grill, a three-month-old Colombian eatery located in a rundown strip mall on Pembroke Road in Pembroke Pines, is a case in point. The zesty aji (chopped peppers , onions, cilantro, and garlic) and chimichurri (minced parsley, garlic, and olive oil) are served in unlimited quantities and include the perfect measure of sharp or tart ingredients to oily or sweet ones. And they harmonize with, and occasionally even increase the palatability of, these traditional, home-style South American items.

The chimichurri went particularly well with the exceptional sausages. The blood sausage had a crumbly, soft interior, owing in part to the inclusion of rice, and was intensely savory without being overwhelmingly coppery. An order of chorizo supplied chunks of a more peppery meat with a firmer texture, more packed than loose, with a minimum of grease.

Some of the problems at Salt & Pepper are due to the language barrier, which is not a roadblock at all if you are fluent in Spanish. If you're challenged in that category, however, you may not get exactly what you want. For instance, the waitress who spoke very little English, assured a phobic member of my party that the mojarra en salsa de coco was not a whole fish but rather a fillet. Actually, it was a deep-fried, head-and-tail-intact tilapia that had a moist, clean-tasting interior that my friend thoroughly enjoyed -- once I had beheaded, boned, and filleted it for her.



But miscommunication doesn't always end up in disaster. My favorite supper in any Colombian restaurant is sancocho, a big bowl of soup-as-a-meal filled with vegetables typical to the culture -- cassava (yuca), corn on the cob, potatoes -- plus rice, cilantro, and whatever meat, poultry, or fish has been used to make the stock. We were informed that the only soup available was chicken, but the brimming bowlful turned out to be sancocho de cola, or oxtail (translated on the menu as "tale"). We weren't disappointed. The meaty flavor of the slow-stewed oxtail added depth to the broth, which housed both starchy root vegetables and sweet corn. Served with a scoop of buttery white rice, beautifully crisp deep-fried tostones (pounded plantains), and a rather tired salad comprising shredded iceberg lettuce and a tomato slice, the dish was soul-satisfying.

The side platters of salad, rice, and tostones accompany every main dish, despite what the menu promises -- red beans, sweet plantains, fried egg, pork skin, what-have-you. Some of the billed goods arrive; others don't. But the rice plate seems to appear no matter what you order, in great abundance. At one point, my party of four had seven of these platters on the table. Fortunately, we had an ample cazuela de mariscos to soak up the plethora of grains. Based with rich, creamy coconut milk, the fish stew featured a fresh treasure of tender mussels, shrimp, calamari, and tilapia. The house had recommended this dish above all others, to its credit.

A few of the dishes, however, aren't so perfect. I've been assured on a number of occasions that Colombian arepas are truly likeable, and Latin American steak really is better when it's overcooked. Neither assertion is viable at the aptly named Salt & Pepper -- as in, please pass it -- where the arepas (cornmeal cakes) are dry and the churrasco and flank steak are, no matter how you request them, cooked to rival your favorite doorstop. Then there's the chewy ground beef-and-potato empanadas that tasted as if they had been microwaved.

But those are not major flaws. Indeed, the management strives to make guests comfortable in what appears to be a former fast-food restaurant with wooden booths and serviceable table-and-chair sets. Most of the atmosphere is supplied by bakery cases stuffed with pastries and a freezer case with ice creams and ice pops. There's also a candy counter that offers Colombian chocolates and caramels, a collection that, all told, is too tempting to resist. The expertly made tres leches is a perfect excuse to indulge, as it's rare to encounter exactly that right balance in moisture and firmness. Strawberry batidos of a straw-standing thickness are another way to infuse sugar straight into the bloodstream, though grape aficionados will find that South American red wine specials can run as inexpensively as five bucks per bottle. That kind of hospitality, as welcome as aji on a substandard steak, might even ensure that customers give the Salt & Pepper frequent shakes.



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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick