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Foodie Friday: Salvadorean slow food made with love at La Cabana

By Pam Kapoor on August 15, 2014

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Enough gets said about the popular modern restaurants that are elevating Ottawa’s food scene. And we love trying and raving about those impressive joints.

But we also love the tried and true institutions that represent the enduring foundation of Ottawa’s proud food scene.

When one apt613.ca reader asked us to write about her favourite restaurant, La Cabana, upon donating to our recent Indiegogo campaign, we cheered.

If you’re looking for a ‘nouveau’ menu in a trendy, slick space, La Cabana isn’t for you.

If you’re up for some downhome Salvadorean cooking, La Cabana is a must. This cuisine features many of the ingredients and techniques made familiar to us by Mexican fare, but is generally milder in flavour and heat.

Everything the La Cabana kitchen puts out is prepared fresh daily. And authentically. We might almost think of the place as a Salvadorean family home, serving plate after plate of slow food made with love by grandma herself.

Let’s start with the iconic Salvadorean treat, the pupusa. I said in a previous Foodie Friday post that La Cabana’s pupusas are widely considered the best in town – their corn flour patties are made large, stuffed amply with pork, chicken, or cheese, and browned to perfection.

Fried plantains – a side dish or snack popular throughout South America and the Caribbean – are served with saucy black refried beans and sour cream for smearing.

The yuca con chicharron is a pleasing taste experience – large pieces of starchy cassava are brought to life with fried pork rinds.

La Cabana serves up winning tamales – another iconic staple of Latin American cuisine – masa (corn flour dough) stuffed with goodness and steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. This kitchen does a delectable filling of chicken, potatoes, and olives; another intriguing variety is their sweet corn tamale.

A shredded beef salad called Salpicón features minced radish, a surprise for this palate, which plays the main flavour role in this otherwise subtle dish.

I also tried the chorizo platter – zesty pork sausage which La Cabana serves with those saucy beans and rice. This plate probably delivers the spiciest punch on the menu, though I’d characterize their chorizo as more salty than hot. (They grind and season their chorizo in-house and send it out to be cased.)

On every table is La Cabana’s famous curtido (think Latino kimchi). Some vegetarian options for main dishes showcase seasoned vegetables and gooey cheese.

We shared glasses of maranõn (juice made with cashew apple pulp) and horchata (a milky drink made with ground nuts or barley). As someone who’s wild about tamarind (tamarind paste is a pantry staple at my house), I have to say the tamarindo drink at La Cabana NAILS IT.

A satisfying meal along with a theme-appropriate beverage can come in at under $20.

Don’t expect a stylish atmosphere here – the décor verges on kitschy and telenovelas on big-screen televisions can be distracting. It’s the patrons and food that make the place comfortable. The spacious dining room has a cozy feel; large tables invite groups to linger.

There’s good reason why La Cabana is going on 18 years of understated operation. In an industry where restaurants rise and fall so easily, the key to survival is quality, consistency, and value. On these, La Cabana delivers.

I’ve lived in this area for 15 years and embarrassingly only discovered La Cabana recently. But I will be returning soon, and often, to eat the rest of their menu – including food that comes in a bowl (Sopa de Pato with tripe and hoof; seven seas soup with fish, shrimp, scallops, octopus, and clams).

PS : The Latin grocery attached to La Cabana is a great incentive to visit – I picked up some Guatemalan brand black refried beans, Cuban coffee, guava paste, and a stack of house-made tortillas.

La Cabana is located at 848 Merivale Road. Call (613) 724-7762 for hours.