Who invented paella? Legend has it that hungry gods commanded a Spanish priest to prepare a rice dish. He did—the following Sunday. While paella is typically savored on Sundays in Spain, in Sarasota you can enjoy it any evening at The Table Restaurant. They prepare this aromatic “peasant's platter” of saffron-infused rice Valencia-style, with a flavorful, fresh mix of shrimp, calamari, mussels, and chorizo (pork sausage). The Table Restaurant, 1934 Hillview St., Sarasota (941) 365-4558.
Jalea de mariscos is a classic Peruvian seafood dish that pairs crisp-fried jumbo prawns, corvina (white fish), and octopus with a piquant onion and lemon chili sauce. Selva Grill adds fresh yucca fries and cilantro salsa for a taste experience that’s riotously flavorful in any language. You don’t have to be able to pronounce it to enjoy it. The many-layered meaning is blissfully clear to your mouth. Selva Grill, 1345 Main St, Sarasota (941) 362-4427.
The Spanish tradition of lingering over wine, inspired chitchat and small plates of tasty nibbles called tapas is alive and well at Sangria Tapas Bar. New to tapas? Begin your lesson with the Plato Mixto, a dish of olives marinated in thyme and rosemary, sweet roasted peppers, cured Serrano ham, salty manchego cheese, and spicy Spanish chorizo (sausage). It’s the perfect little plate of complementary textures and flavors. Sangria Tapas Bar, 1532 Main St., Sarasota (941) 955-8272.
The Columbia Restaurant’s signature red snapper Alicante is a century-old family recipe, created by Casimiro Hernandez Jr., son of the restaurant’s founder and grandfather of current owners Casey and Richard Gonzmart. The snapper is baked with a layer of sweet Spanish onions, white wine, peppers and almonds, then set on a mound of yellow rice and garnished with bacon-wrapped eggplant and shrimp. Tangy, colorful, surprising, seductive—it’s Spanish fare at its best. Columbia Restaurant, 411 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota (941) 388-3987.
Chinese food in Peru? Si! Shì de! Peru enjoys a large Asian population. One tasty result of this union is chifa, a cuisine inspired by both cultures. Arroz chaufa (or fried rice) is a popular chifa dish. Javier’s, known for its stellar Peruvian cuisine, reinvents it as a bracing stew of rice, shrimp, chicken, scallions and crunchy red pepper. Spice it up Peruvian-style by adding a healthy dose of aji pepper. Javier's on Siesta Key, 6621 Midnight Pass Road, Sarasota (941) 349-1792.
Classic Brazilian rodizio is, basically, a never-ending barbecue. Inspired by the lives of Brazil’s cowboys, known as gauchos, it consists of all-you-can-eat rounds of skewered meats carved tableside. Terra Nossa cooks slabs of pork, beef, sausage and chicken over a churrasco (open fire pit), and serves the meat up with heaping plates of rice, beans, fried bananas and collard greens. Best to leave your vegetarian pals home. Terra Nossa, 5758 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota (941) 929-9778.
Cinco De Mayo pan-sears red snapper with roasted garlic and tomatoes and serves it on a bed of black rice with blood orange and chipotle reduction. Huachinango Cinco de Mayo, as this dish is called, pays homage to the Mediterranean-inspired cuisine of coastal Mexico, where tomatoes, garlic and hot peppers transform fish into an alluring feast for the eyes and palate. Cinco De Mayo, 1551 Main St. Sarasota (941) 917-0043.
Tacos al pastor, or pork tacos, are so popular in Mexico City that a special breed of restaurants (taquerias) serves nothing else. At Two Senoritas, the pork is marinated in a mix of achiote (red annatto seeds) and fresh citrus juice for 24 hours, then chargrilled and served over piping hot corn tortillas, topped with fresh pineapple, onion and cilantro, with salsa verde and frijoles charros, or pinto beans, on the side. Taco heaven! Two Senoritas, 1355 Main St., Sarasota (941) 366-1618.
El Habañero‘s pollo asado en casuela (pot-roasted chicken) is definitely not your grandmother’s chicken soup—unless she happened to be Cuban. It’s a garlicky, citrus chicken with a kick. The chef is mum about his “secret seasonings,” but he will reveal that the chicken is marinated overnight in citrus juices and seasonings, then roasted over low heat, until the tender meat is falling off the bone. Fortunately for us, Castro can’t keep this tasty treat to himself. El Habañero, 417 Burns Court, Sarasota (941) 362-9562.
Some like it raw—especially when it comes to fish. Ceviche is the Latin version of sushi—with a citrus kick. At Peruvian Grill, the tilapia is marinated in a zesty mix of freshly squeezed Key lime juice, sliced onions, salt and chile. The citrus juice actually “cooks” the fish so that it is, technically, not really raw. This old-world tradition, considered Peru's national dish, has become the hottest new culinary trend on our shores. Peruvian Grill, 5769 Beneva Road, Sarasota (941) 923-8902.