If I'd been weaned on Cuban black beans, I'm sure I'd hate the spicy version I had at Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar. If I had a Jamaican grandmother who regularly prepared curry, I'm sure the very good curried shrimp at Paladar wouldn't hold a candle to hers.
While more-authentic and less-expensive versions of many of these foods can surely be found at mom-and-pop spots across South Florida, Paladar does to Latin and Caribbean flavors what the Cheesecake Factory did to Moroccan chicken, for instance, or Houston's did to Thai steak and noodle salad. Paladar appropriated the big flavors of Latin home food, copied some dishes outright and created new versions using familiar ingredients and techniques.
The result is mostly good.
Two friends with roots in Argentina and the Dominican Republic found themselves here recently, and they started looking for familiar words on the menu. Argentine-style grilled-skirt-steak churrasco ($18.95) and ropa vieja ($17.95) called their names.
"The ropa vieja was better than most versions," my Dominican friend reported, congratulating the cumin-scented braising liquid and the decided lack of grease sometimes found with this dish.
I liked the tender skirt steak used in this version. It was served, of course, with rice, black beans and plantains. But the surprise on the plate was the restaurant's aji-pepper aioli. It worked.
While I have no such Latin cred, I've lived in South Florida long enough to know a good empanada from a bad empanada. The short-rib version served here (three for $9.95) isn't the best. I prefer mine filled with hand-cut skirt steak form the Argentine gourmet market not far from where I live. Similarly, I'm not a fan of the mojo-pork tostones ($9.95). These twice-fried plantains were nicely crisped, but why ruin a good thing by adding pulled pork?
There's plenty here to explore, however, including spiced-coconut-milk steamed mussels ($11.95), spicy chorizo queso fundito with tortilla chips ($9.95), jalapeno-spiced lamb stew ($16.95) and plantain-and-pumpkin-seed-crusted tilapia ($17.95).
El Cubano sandwich ($11.95) is made with ham, Swiss cheese and what the menu calls "roasted pulled pork." It sorta, kinda worked, but what's with the honey Dijon mustard? I'm sure this is an abomination to purists.
On another trip, we went healthy. Grilled chicken with roasted-tomato salsa ($16.95) combines mojo-marinated, grilled chicken breasts with roasted-tomato salsa, black beans, cilantro-dotted rice and pico de gallo. Jamaican curried shrimp ($17.95) is a coconut-milk curry with chorizo, bell peppers, onions and herbs over brown rice and red beans. Both dishes were mildly flavored and perfect for a weeknight meal.
Vegetarians can order three side dishes for $12.95, including coconut-mango rice; sauteed spinach with raisins and candied pumpkin seeds; and smoky corn grits.
Mexico is heavily represented at Paladar with six taco preparations, including a chorizo-potato-and-goat-cheese soft taco ($11.95) served with a smoky aioli. But what I love about this place is that you can choose what ethnic tradition you want based on your mood. Not every dish comes with guacamole, for instance, but do try the trio ($11.95), which includes plantain, yucca, malanga and tortilla chips. You get traditional dip, a spicy version and a chef's creation. It might be black bean and goat cheese or roast garlic and mango. Like the Hispanic vote, you know Latin food's popularity has hit an apex when an outfit based in Ohio serves plantain and malanga chips.
For dessert, we had a very good pineapple-upside-down cake ($8.95), nicely soaked in rum, and Cuban bread pudding ($6.95), with raisins, caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream.
Paladar is named after the small, family-run eateries in Cuba that are the only alternative to government-run restaurants. But with seating for more than 300, this is hardly a paladar. It has a comfortable corporate feel. A fourth location will open later this year in Maryland .
jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.
Paladar Latin Kitchen & Rum Bar
The Village at Gulfstream Park, 801 Silks Run, Hallandale Beach,
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Valet or free lots