Joe and his partner, Erin Mullally, did the only logical thing: They bought and gutted that restaurant. And, like the pulse of any good Latin American narrative that involves reinvention and transformation, they delivered a viable new dining spot: Pipian's, a Latin American Kitchen.
In many ways, entering Pipian's is like entering some surreal Latin American novel. First, there is that bizarre enormous mythic metal fish that hangs right inside the doorway. It is eating a smaller fish. Of course there are many metaphorical possibilities of what the fish signifies, but in some inexplicable fashion, it feels right just dangling there. And those awful wooden booths, which have witnessed demise, failure and years of accumulated detritus, have been liberated, lacquered and transformed into a very spiffy polished wooden floor.
Mythical fish, tables that are now floors, a long story from a waiter about his evil twin--this is just the kind of bedazzlement that needed to pick up this venue and give it a whole new spin.
Of course no heightened narratives are really necessary, as the concept of a Latin American kitchen is seductive enough. The menu holds true to the promise as it rambles loosely through our southern cousins' terrain. Without sprawling, the menu visits some of the more ancient, indigenous dishes of Latin and South American shores and serves up some tempting interpretations.
The Sikil P'ak ($7) is a great way to start the meal. This pepita purée is a purist's homage to the versatility of seeds. This purée makes a nutty and savory dipping sauce. Blended with roasted tomatoes, jalapeño, green onion and cilantro, this is a rustic and almost primitive preparation that harks back to pre-Colombian times. Served with thick wedges of fresh tortilla, sliced tomato and cucumber, it is a substantial way to begin a meal.
Some of my fondest memories from time well spent in Ecuador and along the coastline of Costa Rica involved eating lots of roasted fish and freshly steamed mussels. At Pipians, the Mejillones ($9) are plumped up in a light brodo with a bit of garlic, then finished in a light ancho cream sauce. The ancho is used correctly. Its velvety and subtle flavors add a slight dimension of heat that is finished as the cream swims up and bathes the mussels, bringing forth their buttery flavor. Served with toasted bolillo, this makes an excellent appetizer or an entrée for one.
The Mayan Tamal ($6) might have a limited appeal to a town that raises the status of fresh green corn tamales to a rarefied art form. Here, the banana leaf-wrapped tamal is stuffed with stewed chicken or pork, and topped with salsa crudo. This traditional tamal features a dense masa, which is wisely offset with an incendiary marinated cucumber salad. Generous portions make this a solid lunch bet.
The dinner menu feels more free-ranging in its ambition and scope. From the showstopper Brazilian baked pineapple and shrimp Piña Estillo to Argentine broiled rack of lamb, the dishes salute the exotic nature of the foods of the sun.
The duck entrée, Pato con Pipian Verde ($15), was probably the most impressive dish that we sampled. This true Oaxacan pipian made from tomatillo, serrano, pepitas and a bit of broth was light and complex. The subtle balancing of the pepitas and chiles allow a slow, sustained release of a mild heat that showcases the duck without overwhelming it. A generous portion of both breast and thigh meat, as well as turned potatoes, whole roasted button mushrooms and sautéed greens, make this a casual and filling plate.
The Brazilian Galinha Asa com Verdes ($11) is a simple plate of roasted orange chicken with sautéed greens and steamed rice and butter-fried bananas. When I think of Brazilian cuisine, I think of dizzying combinations of fruits and spices and rice, a fusion of Spanish and African foods. Given its heritage, this dish is remarkably subdued. The chicken, a generous quarter portion, is glazed lightly with an orange sauce. The plate is substantial with plenty of rice, fried bananas (not plátanos, but regular bananas) and sautéed greens. The greens were easily the best part of the dish. Reminiscent of steamed African pumpkin leaves, these were flavorful, cooked until tender and perked up with tomato and lemon. This dish is easygoing and rests lightly on its simple flavors.
The Moqueca ($13), a traditional Chilean fish stew, arrived tableside as a large platter of rice studded with sea bass, shrimp, octopus, mussels and clams in a red-pepper broth. The broth, sharp and sweet, tasted a bit of coconut milk and pineapple, with just the right bit of heat. The seafood was all scrupulously fresh and steamed until tender. Again, the portions are so generous that one order can easily feed two people.
All told, Pipian's follows through on its concept of a Latin American kitchen. The food is honest and served up with an abundance of good will and lack of pretension. The bar, tucked in the back of the restaurant, is friendly and funky in a welcoming way. The selection of beers is impressive at the full-service bar. A very limited selection of wines is available; one hopes that this will be expanded in the near future.
Pipian's celebrates what is best about the foods of the Americas, with a little rough-around-the-edges approach that banks on bold, assertive flavors. Yet while the culinary rule of thumb tends to be the hotter the weather, the more intensely flavored the food, what should be vibrant and sensual in appearance at Pipian's feels just a bit curtailed and restrained. At moments it seems as if the kitchen is cautiously testing the waters of Tucson, as if they need assurance that we're not afraid of a rough and spicy tumble, the sweet hallucinatory kiss of habanero, the sharp bite of lime.
Let us be clear: Be not afraid.
Even the erudite Colin Spencer holds forth that perhaps as a nation we have a subliminal fear that spices and herbs, being wild themselves, "might liberate the beast within and so despoil the fabric of civilization."
Oh, make it so.