Nuevo Latin cuisine, Hispanic food that encompasses Caribbean and South American notes, has been hot since its early days in South Florida in the ’90s. Cafe Salsa has hit the right balance between new and familiar dishes right in the heart of Old Town. Dress is casual and the environment has an aspect that’s very hot right now: an upstairs bar and young scene that’s completely different from the ground floor. In fact, I observed many young couples on dates the Sunday I was there and I’d have to say, it’s a great idea. Taking a date to Cafe Salsa is a nice touch, without being too mushy or “rendezvous-ish”. There’s a beautiful parquet floor and salsa music playing in the background. To be sure, the tables are very close to each other, so you probably won’t be pouring your hearts out. If you are lucky, you might be able to grab a couple of the outdoor seats that overlook King Street.
We visited on Father’s Day, when they had a special menu, in addition to regular favorites. The server informed me that the special menu does come out to play for the various holidays. Dining Companion and I heard through a little birdie that Cafe Salsa is known for their cocktails, and they were terrific. Ol’ Dining Companion tends to like random tropical fruits and ordered the Latin Passion: Puerto Rican Rum, Cointreau and passionfruit juice. I ordered a Cuban Caipirana, chock full of fresh limes. I saw other diners with Mojitos with fresh mint. The drinks were so good, I had a refill. Though very tasty, they are deceptively strong…I’m lucky somebody else was driving! All the drinks were $5.95, which was very reasonable for high-end cocktails.
While we were waiting, we munched on fresh tortillas and baked plantains, served with a fluid salsa sauce. We ordered from the special menu and we were not disappointed. The appetizers were phenomenal! I had the Camarones en Tamarindo: grilled shrimp with Puerto Rican rum and tamarinds. They were big, meaty shrimp served on skewers in a delicious, sweet but meaty sauce ($8.95). We also ordered the Alcapurrias: stuffed green bananas (6.95). This was a first-class appetizer, with an excellent texture, savory-salty flavor and nice presentation.
If you have kids, Cafe Salsa has a few items for the under-10 set, for $3.99. They can have their choice of eggs, burritos and quesadilla; perfect for that sophisticated Metro DC kid who has global taste.
Other items on the brunch menu include eggs with Argentine steak, eggs Benedict and a house omelet with imported smoked ham, roasted corn, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese. All are under $10 and the brunch drinks, like Mimosas, are under $4.
Because there was a special menu (and maybe my willpower was gone after the cocktails), we stayed with the holiday entrees. Though the appetizers were my absolute favorites, the entrees provided some interesting and unusual flavors, a lesson in what is now considered Latin food. I tried the Cordero Saltado ($21.95), which was lamb loin with tomatoes in a bowl presentation. I think it could be compared to Afghani lamb dishes, seasoning-wise. Dining Companion strongly felt that a nice entree should not be presented in a bowl like that; he might be right, a plate might have done it more justice. He ordered the Caribbean swordfish, which was good and very different. It was a light, grilled fillet topped with calamari and a very rich, creamy white sauce ($22.95).
You wouldn’t think we’d have room for dessert, but I was dying to try the exotic flavors of Nuevo Latin in sweets. I ordered the Tres Leches cake and Dining Companion ordered Caribbean Chocolate cake. Usually, he and I try to get different things, so that we can sample each other’s pick. I loved the Tres Leches so much, I almost ate the whole thing before I remembered about sharing! It was moist, with a rich, thick, creamy topping, served in a Bavarian cream sauce accented with red fruit puree. The Caribbean Chocolate cake was the Latin answer to a Black Forest cake, but with a cocoa-truffle topping. The cherries were firm and fresh.
Another great thing about Cafe Salsa? They serve brunch until 3. Just right for days that get started extra, extra late. When you are in the mood for something new, fun and authentic, Cafe Salsa is the perfect choice.
Cafe Salsa, 808 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314
Sunday Brunch 11:30 – 3