El Fogon Latino
8026 118 Ave.
780-756-8388
el-fogon-latino.com

Food: 4 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 2 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns

Mon. to Sat. 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sun. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Dinner for two, excluding beverages and tip: basic, $16; loaded, $40.

This reviewer has a soft spot for mom ‘n’ pop restaurants, where there’s been no million-dollar redesign, no swishy menu, no college-aged servers in black skirts and high heels who know nothing about the food they are serving.

Just mom and dad, with the kids (grown-up or teenagers) helping out. The food is authentic, simple and, if you’re lucky, incredibly tasty.

So it is with the second new Venezuelan/Latino restaurant in town. El Fogon Latino is on 118 Avenue, where many family-run ethnic eateries are born.

Kevin Goncalves and his poppa Antonio Marcelino run the front and back of El Fogon, which in Spanish means the family hearth, as in an old-fashioned, outdoor, wood-burning oven. I’m sure there’s a momma somewhere, but she wasn’t working the evening of my visit.

Thanks to the more stylish Avila Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen on Whyte Avenue, Edmonton has been introduced to the heart and soul of Venezuelan cooking.

Arepas are made from a moist, unleavened dough of pre-cooked cornmeal flour. The dough is hand-flattened, then grilled to produce a delicious moist scone-like bun to be sliced open and then stuffed with any number of fillings.

Arepas are fast catching on. I suspect they will be as common as tacos and tortillas in a few years.

El Fogon Latino makes the same basic arepa as Whyte Avenue’s Avila, with simpler, less imaginative, but just as tasty fillings.

They slice open that arepa, fill it with hot, shredded chicken, beef or pork and, for another buck or so, melted gouda cheese. Slap the top back on, heat the whole thing until the gouda and shredded meat have become one, wrap it in paper, and send it out front!

Lots of chopped fish and shellfish in El Fogon’s exceptional seafood soup.

El Fogon Latino has good food, and quite the variety – arepas, tortilla-like pupusas, pancake-like cachapas. I was especially impressed with its seafood soup, closer to a bouillabaisse than a soup, with hearty flavourful fish and cilantro stock, plenty of fish morsels and tasty shellfish – other than scrawny mussels.

The problem with El Fogon is its atmosphere.

The restaurant has none. It is as visually sterile as such strip mall eateries can possibly be – a few white tables with plastic chairs, harsh lighting, stale air. Everything is paper or plastic. The food is good, but nothing is done to make it more visually attractive, not even a sprig of parsley! Skip The Dishes take-out would likely provide a far more pleasing environment in which to eat than in El Fogon Latino itself.

Yet Kevin and Antonio are as friendly and gracious as can be, and obviously work long hours, seven-days-a-week , probably making less on an hourly basis than would any employee.

If you want slightly more expensive Venezuelan street food, with far more imaginative arepa stuffings and an informal yet highly stylish atmosphere, head to Avila Arepa.

But if you want a basic, tasty arepa with some inexpensive accessories, head to El Fogon Latino. As long as you are prepared to make your own atmosphere.

FOOD NOTES

Old Strathcona’s El Cortez Kitchen and Bar introduced some new menu items before Christmas.

The hit of the media tasting, without a doubt, was Mexican street corn, roasted, then drenched in a lush, buttery sweet/spicy sauce. Where they can find such fine corn at this time of year is a tribute to modern food shipping.

At $6, it’s a perfect starter on a cold winter’s eve, and, should you be in the mood, would go well with tequila shots.

New to El Cortez’s menu is sweet and tangy Mexican corn.