FOOD & ENTERTAINMENT WRITER
One of the joys of my job as a food writer, is being able to experience the artistry of chefs I’ve admired on television and in other media. I’d been a fan of Lorena Garcia for quite some time, yet never had the opportunity to try her food.
But now, I’ve been to Chica!
Chica, at the Venetian Hotel & Casino, is a collaboration between Chef Lorena Garcia – renowned celebrity chef, author, TV personality, and philanthropist, and John Kunkel’s 50 Eggs, Inc., creators of the popular Yardbird Southern Table & Bar. At Chica, Chef Lorena has crafted a pan-Latin menu which encompasses the cuisines of Mexico, Central America, and South America.
I invited my friend Tony to join me at this exciting new eatery, located off the casino floor, at the entrance to the area known as Restaurant Row. The space had the feel of a beautiful Mexican hacienda at sunset – warm earth tones, splashes of bright color here and there, polished wood tables, earthenware tile floors, and decorative panels of rust-colored wrought iron, which divided the space into smaller areas, yet kept the floor plan open and flowing.
We ordered cocktails to start. I chose the Primavera – Spanish cava, elderflower liqueur, and pink peppercorn infused tequila, topped with diva cucumber foam. True to it’s name, this cocktail was like springtime in a glass – the floral notes of the sparkling cava and the elderflower were bright and played nicely against the stronger flavored tequila. And diva cucumber foam is not, in fact, made from temperamental cucumbers that make outrageous demands and cancel performances without warning. No, it turns out diva cucumbers are a light, sweet, seedless variety of cuke, and the foam just added the final touch of springtime freshness! Tony ordered the F.W. Margarita – tequila, fresh lime, fresno chili, fresh pressed watermelon juice, and orange bitters with cilantro. With the bite of tequila and lime, the mildly sweet watermelon, flavor, and the slight heat of the chili, this was a nice way to wake the palate for the meal to come.
The staff had prepared us a tasting menu, so we were able to share some of Chica’s most popular offerings. We started with one of their signature dishes, the Asado Negro Arepas. These housemade corn cakes – a staple of several Latin cultures, were flavored with anise and piloncillo – a pure, unrefined cane sugar, and topped with tender, flavorful braised short rib. Garnished with a hint of red onion, micro-cilantro, and a touch of crumbled Cotija cheese, they were an explosion of flavor! Smoky, with a hint of spice and an herbal pop from the cilantro, there was an underlying sweetness that gave them balance. A real “wow” moment! We also sampled some arepas usually presented in the Arepa Basket. Made in a variety of flavors, we tried two cheese arepas and two flavored with cilantro. I was hoping for more pronounced flavors, but he accompanying nata butter, made with cream from boiled raw milk, was creamy, cool, and delicious. Next up was the Classic Ceviche – a stunning mix of raw mahi- mahi, Peruvian corn, sweet potato, red onions, and cilantro, swimming in an excellent leche de tigre – a traditional Peruvian marinade made with lime juice, which cures or “cooks” the fish, some of the fish juice, and in this case, a touch of condensed milk for creaminess. The firm, white-fleshed mahi-mahi had a sweet, clean taste, while the citrus, onion and cilantro gave the dish bite and zing, making it another beautifully balanced offering. To be honest, if the server hadn’t cleared it, I would’ve drunk the remaining marinade directly from the bowl! The Empanadas came last – pockets of housemade pastry dough, stuffed with braised ground beef, sweet plantains, black beans, and queso fresco. Different from the ones I grew up with in Argentina, they were excellent – they had been finished on the grill, which gave them a wonderful smokiness, and they were topped with a spectacular Guasacaca pico de gallo – essentially a spicy Venezuelan avocado salsa.
We shared two entrees: the Yucatan Halibut, prepared in a delicious, sweet yet earthy achiote marinade that gave it a hint of spice at the end. Roasted perfectly in a banana leaf, the fish was topped with a habanero pico, which provided heat, but never overpowered. A rosette of pickled red onion added just the right note of acidity, while the sweet plantains on the side were addictive. All those different flavor profiles – sweet, earthy, acidic, spicy, and even a touch of bitterness from charred orange – singing together in harmony, demonstrated Chef Lorena’s skill in designing her dishes, and the kitchen staff’s excellence in executing them. Our second entree was the 12 ounce Strip Steak, grilled beautifully, and served on a smear of Oaxacan black mole – a complicated sauce made with up to 27 ingredients, including 6 types of chili peppers, plantains, onion, garlic, tomatillo, cloves, cinnamon, chocolate, avocado leaves, and more. The complex flavors of the mole are hard to describe – dark, garlicky, subtly spicy, with a slight chocolatey undertaste, it was absolutely irresistible. I actually wanted more on the plate, as it complemented the beef so well. The juicy, flavorful steak had a lovely char from the grill, which gave it a satisfying smoky quality, and it was accompanied by more of those delicious pickled onions, a bunch of fresh cilantro, and a wild mushroom quesadilla, made with bleu cheese, huitlacoche, and jalapeño pesto. Both entrees were knockouts!
We weren’t too stuffed, so we were happy to try some of Chica’s desserts: the Tres Leche’s Dulce De Leche – a traditional Latin treat, featuring a light sponge cake, soaked with three different types of milk; in this case, a touch of dulce de leche. The cake was topped with meringue, which had been lightly bruléed, and garnished with a disc of dehydrated pineapple and a fruit pico, made from mango and dragonfruit. Light, moist, and not too sweet, it was scrumptious. We also tried the Marquesa De Chocolate. A bit like a Latin tiramisu, it was made with espresso soaked graham crackers and a deep, rich Venezualan chocolate mousse. Made from El Rey small batch chocolate, the flavor was very dark and bittersweet, with a hint of citrus at the back end – maybe a bit too bitter for my palate, but still yummy and decadent. Served with crema ice cream and a raspberry sauce that brightened the dish and cut through the richness of the mousse, it would be any chocolate lover’s dream!
Lorena Garcia is the first Latina chef represented on the Las Vegas Strip, and her Latin roots and family background mean everything to her. This is clearly reflected in the homey quality of her food. Yes, it’s fine dining, but these recipes clearly come from the heart, and you can taste the love with which they were made.
Chica. Sabor casero. Sabor con amor!