Restaurant Review - Sky-high Latin flavor

The stars are aligned at Aires Latinos

Aires Latinos is proof that gifted cooks are not the province solely of four- and five-star establishments.
At this very minute, surely — since this brand-new restaurant is open nearly all the time — a Colombian family is producing an array of startlingly sophisticated dishes at moderate prices, thanks to inexpensive ingredients. This is white tablecloth dining on white vinyl, destination dining where the destination is ... Tucker?

Food lovers will recognize the address as the tiny space that was once the beloved Evelyn's Greek-Italian-American Cafe. The dining room's walls have been roughly sponged in a salmon-coral shade that unifies the seating arrangements: a few worn booths and small tables, and an inviting dark wood counter along one wall.

There's no liquor license at the moment, but one is welcome to bring one's own libation while the paperwork lags. Until then, Aires Latino's host will urge you to try one of their homemade juices (the blackberry is delicious) blended with water or milk.

The former is preferred before or with a meal; the latter tastes something like a milkshake. But both the unusual offering and its freshness set the stage for what's in store.

Enthusiastic menu descriptions pale in comparison to the real things. It is absolutely correct that ceviche de camaron ($8), for example, is shrimp "in an exquisite house special sauce." Neither tart like the traditional Caribbean ceviche nor ketchup-sweet like the Buford Highway Mexican versions, this one packs a mild tang that is crisp and elegant.

On no account should you miss one of the soups. The cup size is plenty if you're ordering something else, although one can hardly get enough of the thick, pure tomato or the lightly rich shrimp soup. A third changes daily, anything from vegetable to corn to a lovely chicken with vegetables and tiny noodles ($2.95 a cup or $3.50 a bowl).

The obvious care taken in balancing the soups' textures and flavors carries over to the more concentrated sauces. Flavors are strong, particularly the garlic, but everything is fresh and minimally cooked.

Only a handful of dishes are strictly Colombian; everything else among the seafood, pork, chicken and beef selections is Latin-influenced, except for the children's hamburger. But yes, there is the traditional bandeja paisa ($11.50), beef surrounded by or beneath pork rinds, fried eggs, rice, beans, avocado and sweet plantains.

And there is paella, made only on Friday and Saturday nights. The market price was a ridiculously low $10 when we ordered it the other night. And if you are wondering how that could possibly be, it's due to the lack of costly saffron. But surprisingly, the dish doesn't miss it. It seems impossible that the hearty, fluffy rice soaks in so much flavor from Spanish sausage, chicken, clams, shrimp and crab when only specks of each are present. It does, though.

Garlic lovers will appreciate the heady aroma and full flavor of filete de pescado al ajo ($13.95), grilled tilapia expertly sauteed and smothered in garlic sauce.

Mention you love garlic and you'll be treated to a small saucer of that sauce — or any other sauce you might like — along with the creamy pink sauce that normally accompanies papitas con salchicha ($4.95), a scrumptious potatoes and sausage appetizer that's light in spite of itself.

Plantains, beautifully fried, pop up alongside a lot of things. Blue corn tortillas burst with poblano pepper strips, red onions and white cheddar cheese ($4.95). The house salad ($6.75) is anything but usual: apples, grapes and raisins in a sweet and sour dressing on mixed greens.

Aires Latinos is not your run-of-the-mill chips and salsa and fajitas kind of place. Look instead for such interesting and tasty things as marinated chicken served with peaches and bacon pollo Caribeno ($13.95). Or the aromatic Caribbean-flavored beef dish ropa vieja ($9.50). Or the baked boneless chicken breast that glistens beneath parsley sauce, pechuguitas al perejil ($12.25).

Don't expect stellar service; the operation is simply too shorthanded at this point. Every time I've been, there have been only two cooks working deftly in the kitchen and one server working feverishly everywhere else. In other words, don't arrive expecting to be out in an hour. Your patience, however, will be amply rewarded.