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Restaurant Tours: Nuevo Latino is heating up

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This may be the year Nuevo Latino cooking finally takes off in Chicago. When the restaurant Mas opened in Wicker Park on the first day of the Great Blizzard of '99, it was immediately filled with customers. A month earlier Rich Melman opened the more upscale Nacional 27 in River North where Hat Dance had been. Havana--an earlier effort in the idiom--shut down, but the beat goes on at the Mambo Grill, its sister spot.

Nuevo Latino is a true Pan-American approach to food, breaking down the culinary borders of Latin and Caribbean nations while incorporating classic French techniques and even some Asian seasonings. It first appeared in Miami in the mid-80s, where it was dubbed "Floribbean." Its patron saint, Douglas Rodriguez, is a Cuban-American chef who got his start in Florida, then opened Patria in New York, wrote a cookbook called Nuevo Latino, and ignited a major trend.

Another progenitor of the style, Nicaraguan-born Michael Cordua, created a successful Houston-based group of restaurants called Churrascos and Americas. He opened a Churrascos at Clybourn and Cortland last year, but despite fine reviews it closed--perhaps due to its jinxed location, which has killed off one restaurant after another.

John Manion, the executive chef at Mas (1670 W. Division, 773-276-8700), did a stint at Churrascos, but his border-busting years began much earlier. When he was in third grade, his family moved from the Detroit area to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where their cook taught him how to prepare her native cuisine. Now he serves up such Bahian specialties as moqueca, a zesty shellfish stew simmered in rich coconut milk and rice ($16).

His starters in this high-decibel, two-room corner spot include a beautifully flavored two-inch-high Colombian griddle cake topped with vigorously seasoned, crisply fried shrimp and a salsa of red onion, horseradish, and tomato ($7). There's a complex new seviche every day (market price) and tacos of rare tuna with papaya, mustard, and rosemary ($6). Carnivores will relish the chili-rubbed short ribs encircled with lime creme fraiche ($6).

Manion's version of pork and beans consists of lean, chili-cured roast pork tenderloin atop a bed of tender white beans perfumed with rosemary and white truffles ($15). Duck breast is glazed with mango and molasses and accompanied by shredded leg confit nested in an empanada with figs, golden raisins, cumin, and chili powder ($17). His rendition of a churrasco or classic grilled steak uses fresh tuna, traditional chimichurri sauce (parsley vinaigrette), and a haystack of julienned, deep-fried yuca ($18). Desserts include a fried chocolate-chip empanada with coconut-caramel sauce and pistachio ice cream ($5).

When you enter the main dining room of Nacional 27 (325 W. Huron, 312-664-2727) you're in the Cuba of The Godfather, Part II: there's a huge display of candles, and deep booths, gauzy curtains, and massive pillars surround a seating area that becomes a circular dance floor late weekend evenings. Chef Randy Zweiban was cooking in the South Beach area when Rodriguez was making his mark, and later honed his skills in Los Angeles.

His tender skirt steak antichuchos (kabobs) are glazed with a smoked chili paste ($5-$8); shrimp and scallop seviche is dressed with avocado to tame the intense citrus marinade ($9). Three-onion soup is aimlessly bland ($4); you're better off with the terrific arepa: crisp corn-and-cheese cakes sandwiching guava-flavored barbecued pork with pepper-jack cheese and roast corn ($7). But the real winning starter is the airy crab fritter bedded on garlicky mashed yuca with chipotle tartar sauce ($9).

Grilled tuna excels here too--this one is perched on escarole and swathed in a formidable shallot jus touched with a hint of vinegar ($23). Also satisfying is the rendition of ropa vieja (literally "old clothes"), a Cuban classic made here with full-flavored braised short-rib shreds served with mashed sweet potatoes laden with corn kernels ($17).

The Mambo Grill (412 N. Clark, 312-467-9797), opened by Roger Greenfield in 1994 and sold to a former associate last year, is one of our town's earlier efforts at border-crossing cuisine, mixing traditional Cuban, Mexican, and Cajun items with a few fillips. The stylings of chef Jose Ostigon are less exotic and the prices are lower here than at the two new spots. There's a classic run of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas ($7.95-$9.95) and a flavorless black bean soup ($2.95). But you'll also find cornmeal-crusted catfish on a sweet-corn salsa, sparked by a tartar sauce spruced up with lemon, lime, and cilantro ($5.95). Sliced portobellos are layered with roasted corn salsa, melted chihuahua cheese, and de arbol chilies that make this one spicy mushroom ($4.95). Best starter of all is the crisp crab cake, offered up with that same tartar sauce and a roasted sweet-pepper mayo ($7.95).

Good entrees include well-garlicked (mojo de ajo) shrimp backed with black beans, tomato, and avocado ($12.95) and the barbecued back ribs glazed with a sauce based on honey, pineapple juice, Tabasco, and jalape–o ($14.95). The accompanying chipotle-laced mashed potatoes are a mouth-warming pleasure. They also pair with a less successful barbecued salmon ($11.95). Other good bets are the traditional, paellalike Cuban chicken with rice ($9.95) and the hearty Cuban steak sandwich with cheese and chimichurri sauce ($6.95).

All three restaurants offer a range of tangy, potent Latin cocktails from margaritas to Brazilian caipirinhas, with an especially zingy Peruvian pisco sour at Mas ($6). --Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Manion at Mas and Nacional 27 photos by Eugene Zakuslo.

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