Pretty on the Plancha: Latin It Up

Latin It Up proves it’s more than just a place to grab a Cuban sandwich

Every culture has its sandwich, be it the banh mi of Vietnam or the burger here in the U.S. The phrase "Latin sandwich shop" might not immediately paint a clear image of the menu at Latin It Up, and, indeed, the small counter service restaurant that took over Café Marcel's former Fourth Avenue location isn't really serving just one type of cuisine.

There's Brazilian chicken salad (salpicão), Peruvian-style slow-cooked pork and beef and the restaurant's top seller—the Cuban sandwich, which was popularized in its most familiar incarnation in Florida.

All plays nicely together, though, with 14 sandwiches, as well as starters, black bean and sausage stew, pastries and Peruvian ceviche on the weekends (the owner says that, due to the popularity of the latter, it may soon be served all week long). Of course, you'll find yuca, plantains, black beans and other South American staples that you're likely familiar with, but Latin It Up is a good place to do some culinary exploring as well.

Machu Pichu nachos served on a bed of yam, plantain and corn chips, yuca frita and grilled cheese and garlic bread (pan de ajo a la plancha con queso) are hearty ways to start a meal at Latin It Up. My favorite quickly became the croquette-esque coxinha ($1.75 for a single)—a fried pastry pouch filled with spiced chicken and corn.

For those looking for a light lunch, I will warn that Latin It Up likely isn't the place for you. The aforementioned salpicão ($8) is completely dressed in mayo (it's that kind of chicken salad) and served on a thin bed of lettuce. One of the other salads is potato ($7.50) with creamy huacaina sauce. The last option is the house salad ($7.25), which is more of a, let's say, vegetable-forward take on a salad with greens, peppers, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and a miso vinaigrette.

One of the areas this little sandwich shop truly excels is in the sauce department. Spicy rocoto, herby chimichurri, creamy huancaína and bright mojo all add their own dimension with whatever they're paired. Whatever they're paired can be richly flavored, 10-hour roasted beef (on the Beef al Huacaina for $8.95), tender chicken (the Pollo Dulce has an aji spread for $8.50) or sliced ham, to name a few. The Bauru ($7.25) serves up that sliced ham, which is typically not my favorite of the deli meats, with melty mozzarella, rocoto sauce and tomatoes, between perfectly plancha-ed bread. If you're iffy about ham sandwiches, this is one that will surely win you over. The key here is the sprinkle of earthy and herbal oregano, which takes the finished sandwich to a whole new level.

If that all sounds a little meat-heavy, well, it is Peruvian and Brazillian food primarily and that's just kind of how it is. However, vegophiles will be happy to know that Latin It Up also offers four different vegetarian sandwich options, ranging in price from $7.75 to $8.95. The quinoa burger, in particular, is a flavorful testament of all that meat-free cooking can be, topped with provolone, salsa criolla and a black bean spread. While I love my meatwiches, this burger held my attention longer than the Peruvian pork sandwich I paired it with—and that's saying something.

Of course, El Cubano ($8.95) is a must-try here. The sandwich is the top seller for a reason and the two that come most quickly to mind here are simplicity and execution. Well-cooked, tender and juicy slow-roasted pork, lightly sweet and thinly sliced ham, tangy pickles, creamy provolone and a smear of yellow mustard is all it needs to be and nothing more. Then, a firm pressing on the plancha heats the meat, melts the cheese and crisps the bread to seal the deal. This just might be the best iteration of this popular sandwich that you'll find in town. No matter which sandwich you choose, though, you'll be offered the option of plantain, yuca, sweet potato, BBQ or potato chips.

On the sweeter side, daily desserts ($3.50) like pineapple upside down cake or red velvet are served alongside arroz con leche ($2.50), acai bowls ($5.75) and smoothies on the dessert menu. For drinks, be sure to order either a Brazillian lemonade (which is actually limeade with sweetened condensed milk and not nearly as heavy as it sounds) or the spiced, yet refreshing chicha morada (a mix of fermented purple corn, apples and pineapple). Both are $2.25.

For any lunch joint to be truly successful, it's got to be the sort of welcoming environment that you want to become a regular at, the kind of place you'd pledge your lunch hour to. The brightly colored restaurant—walls, tables and chairs included—and smiling staff make hanging out at Latin It Up for lunch or dinner a good time. You see, it seems they know that the typical Fourth Avenue window shopper might not know what to expect from a "Latin sandwich shop," so they're happy to explain and suggest to help guide diners on their way to a culinary tour down to South America. Plus, fans of Latin alt-rocker Manu Chao will be happy to know that the restaurant almost exclusively plays his music. How's that for ambiance?

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