Sabor Latino reviewed
Long before Cafe Habana, Sabor Latino took Ann Arbor beyond Mexico to other destinations south. But the Latin American dishes on its old menu felt like afterthoughts--a few appetizers or turnovers that were listed on the menu but not all available daily. Now its new owners--husband and wife Marco and Jen Wong Baez and their partner, Khai Lee--are making Sabor truly Latino rather than merely Mexicano-plus.
Their cosmetic changes are minor: they've cleared some space near the entrance, making the original lunch room feel less cramped. In the brick-walled dining room next door, photographs of places like Cuba and Peru heighten the pan-Hispanic atmosphere. But the most important change is a greatly expanded menu--in fact, three menus: for lunch, for dinner, and a unique and expansive weekend brunch.
All the old menu favorites remain, and they're still prepared by the same cooks. And though the prices have inched up a notch for some of them, Sabor Latino still lets you order a single taco or tamale for $1.99, an enchilada for $2.25, and a vegetarian tostada for $3.15. You can eat a little here, or you can eat a whole lot, at affordable prices.
Many of the Mexican dishes are fairly standard, with a few twists. Getting beans whole instead of refried is a nice change of pace--or would be if the beans weren't so plain and flavorless and the rice, both white and Spanish, weren't so bland and dried out around the edges. Also, Sabor is only one for three on its main meats--a good batting average only in beisbol. The beef can be rubbery, and the chicken ranges from passable to chew-toy tough. But pork fares much better: on a torta--a Mexican sandwich in comforting white-bread bun handles--the pork was savory and tender. And abundant, juicy pork was the only star of the masitas de puerco, a Cuban entree that was pretty but soulless: those blah beans and rice, a few slices of onion, and some lonely
strips of cassava.
The place does much better with vegetables. In fajitas, omelets, sopes, and arepas--little corn cakes that look like English muffins--they're garden-fresh and reliably roasted or sauteed to just the right texture. The arepas come topped with beans, guacamole, cheese, sour cream, and a choice of beef, chicken, chorizo, or roasted veggies. Broccoli--not a veggie I associate with Latino food--makes an incongruous but not unwelcome appearance among the veggies.
Still, I found many of the Mexican items underspiced. To really appreciate Sabor Latino, you need to venture to the samplings of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, Argentinian, Colombian, Salvadoran, and other Central and South American cuisines. This is the only place in town where you can find any food at all from many of these cultures.
The really special experience is the weekend brunch. The pupusas, a Salvadoran dish with thick corn cakes sandwiching eggs, cheese, onions, and a choice of meat, is a delightful change of pace (it compares to an Egg McMuffin as a wedding cake does to a Hostess Twinkie). You can feast on a "giant Mexican breakfast"--mouth-watering chilaquiles (tortilla chips fried crispy then softened with salsa), three eggs, refried beans, and guacamole. But even the brunch dishes not labeled as "giant" are large, if not ginormous. They range from huevos rancheros and omelets to more unusual fare like the Colombian-style omelets pericos, stuffed with tomatoes and onions, with arepas and a plantain smothered in white cheese on the side (an amazing marriage of sweet and salty). Remarkably, all the eggs for our party of six were perfectly cooked--but it took an inexcusable forty minutes to serve them.
Sabor's service is decidedly spotty. At lunch, a very solicitous server checked with the kitchen several times on whether dishes had gluten and even brought a bag of cornmeal to the table so we could read the ingredients. On a previous visit, though, another server brought enchiladas with cheese to an eater who had requested no dairy. On three out of four visits, at least one order was mixed up or forgotten. Under the new ownership, the place feels in some ways like it's not yet in sync--though, to be fair, even under the former owners the service had a lackadaisical air.
Despite its faults, Sabor Latino is a community treasure. For one thing, it takes risks to present unique cuisines--it's the only place on a late Saturday night where, if you have a hankering for cow's tongue, it might just be the daily special. And the fact that it's open till 3 or 3:30 a.m. four nights a week is welcome news for night owls and a rare thing in this go-to-bed-early big small town. Considering all the cultures it draws from, this may be the most cosmopolitan eatery in Ann Arbor.
211 N. Main, 214-7775
Mon.-Wed. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Thurs.-Fri. 11 a.m.-3:30 a.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-3:30 a.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-3 a.m.
Appetizers $2.50-$7.99, salads $4.50, entrees $8.50-$12.97, tostadas and a la carte items $1.99-$6.95, desserts $3.50-$4, breakfast entrees $6.50-$8.50.
[Originally published in November, 2009.]