If you can’t escape to the tropics this summer, then eat like you’re on a tropical paradise vacation at one of Birmingham’s fabulous Latin American eateries. Authentic flavors from Puerto Rico and Cuba to Venezuela and Oaxaca are popping up all over the Magic City, and these restaurants’ colorful interiors are rivaled only by their dazzling dishes. Here are five great spots to taste Birmingham’s best authentic Latin American cuisine.
Cayo Coco Rum Bar & Restaurante
2015 1st Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203 • (205) 290-5115
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to midnight
This brand new eatery in Founder’s Station in downtown Birmingham transports its guests to old world Cuba, translated through a modern lens. “Cayo Coco is a re-imagining of what expressionism would have looked like in the 1940s, a time of political unrest and beautiful art,” says Josh Schaff, who is Managing Partner with Andrew Collins of The Collins bar. “The restaurant is all about the minor details and making sure that the guest is immersed in an experience that simply is new, unique and delicious.” Unlike anything in Birmingham, the restaurant’s interiors alone make a killer first impression. Rich lime-washed teal walls, an eclectic cluster of rattan light fixtures, oversized modern cane chairs, a striking velvet couch and a curved brass bar with dramatically lit backsplash combine to create an entirely unique ambiance that stirs the imagination. “It really is quite stunning and sets the theme for an enchanting night,” says Josh.
While Jeremy and Anna Erdreich, the brother-sister design team behind Metropolitan LLC, infuse the Cayo Coco experience with a sense of glamour and escapism, executive chef Haller Magee brings the exquisite Latin American flavors. Josh expects that the adobo-marinated pork chop with yucca-stuffed chili Relleno, mole and avocado-corn salsa will be one of the most popular dishes, but he also recommends the mofongo balls, a fried mash of plantains with garlic, braised pork belly and sofrito (a classic Latin American sauce consisting of pureed peppers, garlic, tomato and cilantro). Small plates like tuna ceviche, pork tamales, grilled octopus and roasted plantain cups pepper the menu along with creative Cuban sandwiches; while the rum bar whips up some seriously delicious daiquiris, tiki drinks and, of course, rum cocktails galore. “We will be building the classic mojito in an intelligent and elegant way with a nod towards classic Cuban builds of the drink — no shaking, no stirring, just great white rum, fresh mint, limes and a touch of sugar, topped with an extremely clean soda … simple, elegant, delicious,” says Josh. “We will also have seasonal tropical fruits for building customized drinks of all sorts!” Sounds like a rum bar we could belly-up to!
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4426 4th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35222 • (205) 643-5956
Hours: Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Closed Monday and Tuesday
Nestled in Avondale with its own private path for hungry neighbors at Cahaba Brewery, Tropicaleo serves up scratch-made Puerto Rican food with an emphasis on healthy and vegan options. The bright eatery opens up to a massive back patio with colorful murals, where all manner of fun is had. “We provide food through culture and culture through food,” says owner Gabriel Marrero who revels in sharing his culture with his new Birmingham home. “We host cultural events, salsa and dance nights, and we are a hot spot for local art — just look at our murals.”
Among Tropicaleo’s most popular dishes are the classic Cuban sandwich and the mofongo, a traditional dish of fried, then mashed plantains topped with different meat and vegetable options. Both of these dishes have vegan options that are equally popular. Gabriel encourages adventurous eaters to try alcapurrias, a classic Puerto Rican street food — a fritter made from green bananas, green plantains and small taro stuffed with ground beef or soy protein, served with Tropicaleo’s house sauce or spicy vinaigrette for dipping. To wash it down, try their piña colada, which Gabriel calls “the queen” of their bar offerings. Finish your meal off with their top dessert: “Our flan is legendary — a custard made with eggs, vanilla and caramel, cooked the Puerto Rican way,” says Gabriel. Don’t miss this Puerto Rican gem.
4105 Crosshaven Dr, Vestavia Hills, AL 35243 • (205) 791-7711
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Becky Satterfield of Satterfield’s restaurant opened up this colorful restaurant in the new Cahaba Heights development that also houses Crestline Bagel and Leaf & Petal. El ZunZún focuses on authentic Oaxacan cuisine along with traditional dishes from neighboring Mexican states. Their uber-popular al pastor tacos feature thinly sliced, adobo-marinated pork shoulder cooked on a spit and served on house-made corn tortillas with grilled pineapple, Jamaica-pickled red onion, radish and cilantro.
Manager Mary Ann Saylor encourages diners to try the short rib enchiladas with mole negro or the mole negro chicken tacos. “Oaxaca is the motherland for mole negro,” says Mary Ann. “Our guests who are unfamiliar or reluctant to taste a sample of our moles probably haven’t had it prepared properly or haven’t ever had the experience. Typically, once they do try it, they love it and want more.” Order the mole sampler of negro, Amarillo and coloradito mole sauces to get familiar with this rich, flavorful sauce made of chiles, fruit (often chocolate), nuts and spices. Pair it with the Hummingbird Margarita made fresh with Milagro Tequila, Royal Combier, agave and freshly squeezed lime juice, served with a half-coated rim of sal de gusano and an orange wedge. “One is good; two is better,” says Mary Ann.
El ZunZún’s lively Sunday brunch features traditional Mexican breakfast items such as chilaquiles and huevos rancheros, along with a full bar with Mezcal Michelada, Bloody Maria and mimosas. And live music by Holguer & His Broken Corazones rounds out every brunch from noon to 3 p.m. “Our guests love El Zunzún’s friendly, family vibe and our crew of hard-working and lovable staff,” says Mary Ann. “It’s so exciting to introduce our guests to a new world of flavors and drinks. We look forward to the door opening to greet our new guests and loyal regulars every day.”
Miami Fusion Cafe
2015 5th Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203 • (205) 730-9003
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Closed Sundays
“We serve a variety of Caribbean cuisine, mostly Puerto Rican and Cuban,” says Luis Delgado, executive chef and owner of Miami Fusion Cafe. The Cuban sandwich is the downtown joint’s most popular sandwich, and the Puerto Rican-style slow-roasted pork plate is the most popular entrée. Luis adds, “However, the mofongo is moving quickly to the top as more and more people try it. We also have a delicious bakery filled with treats, but our most popular is the Jesus Cake, which will be going into distribution soon in the local Birmingham metropolitan area.”
Miami Fusion Cafe not only hosts a bustling downtown lunch crowd, but they also cater small office luncheons to large weddings and everything in between. And they have an event space upstairs available to rent for any occasion, as well as a new food truck, dubbed “El Conquistador.”
But perhaps the most notable Latin American touch is the culture they are intentional about creating. “We strive to treat everyone like family. Our motto is ‘Building a family, not a business,’ so we have created a place for people to come that feels like grandma’s house, a place where their name is known,” says Luis. “This is more than a business — it’s family; it’s a legacy.”
Luna Latin Cuisine
4120 2nd Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35222
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 9:30 p.m.; Closed Sunday and Monday
Luna Latin Cuisine recently opened in an old firehouse in bustling Avondale and serves Latin American comfort food with a focus on Venezuelan cuisine. The menu features a handful of traditional Latin American items that can be personalized with your choice of ingredients. For example, arepas are cornmeal patties stuffed with your choice of cheese, black beans, pork, beef, chicken or avocado. Cachapas are like an elaborate quesadilla made with sweet corn pancakes and stuffed with cheese and, for meat lovers, beef, pork or chicken can be added. Another Venezuelan favorite is the tostones, twice-fried green plantains topped with all manner of goodness: meats and beans are accompanied with guacamole, slaw and pico de gallo and drizzled in queso fresco.
Starters like the crowd-favorite Mexican Street corn, fabulous sandwiches and mouthwatering entrees round out the menu. A jaw-dropping entrée called the Cuban fries includes hand-cut fries tossed in homemade garlic sauce with roasted pork shoulder, cilantro mayo, dill pickles and Manchego cheese. They recently started serving brunch on Saturdays, so stop by Avondale’s old firehouse for some Latin American comfort food.
Go grab a spot in the sun, order a margarita and taste some authentic Latin American flavors at one of these great spots!
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