Surveying the available choices in Buffalo’s collective menu channels my childhood stamp album, a binder the size of a couch cushion. I would flip through it, sighing at empty spaces.
There are 20 countries in Latin America, but most of my Latin American pages are blank. Mexico’s tacos and tortas are filled in, finally. Niagara Café’s roast pork and stewed beans anchor my Puerto Rican page.
Two miles north on Niagara Street, Venezuela’s Rancho Latin has given us arepas, stuffed corn cakes and patacon, plantain sandwiches of shredded beef and herby mayonnaise.
Pasión, the restaurant following Elmwood Avenue’s Cozumel, aims to fill in a bunch of Cuban, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, Colombian and Venezuelan slots. Dinner there gave me a few doubles, but not many new specimens I wanted to keep.
[PHOTOS: Sharon Cantillon's gallery from Pasion]
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to Pasión. It’s an Allentown restaurant with its own parking lot. The drink menu has solid classics.
The first pina colada I’ve enjoyed in a while ($9.19) offered bits of fresh coconut between my teeth and breezy pineapple.
Pasión’s version of pork and beans was legit. The lechon asado roast pork plate ($12) comes with two sides. Pasión’s sautéed squash, its vegetable of the day, was enjoyably tangy-smoky and not mushy. But I’d pick the properly cooked black beans and maduros, caramelized plantains, for a solid dinner anchored by a heap of tender, well-seasoned pork braised till its natural sweetness came out.
While it was good, Niagara Café already fills the pork-beans-maduros spot for me, albeit in a cocktail-free environment.
I liked Pasión’s Cubano sandwich ($13) for more of that roast pork, but there was too much of it. Can there be too much pork, you ask? Let me explain. My definition of a proper Little Havana (or Ybor City) caliber Cubano has its essential roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickle calibrated to heat through in the searing sandwich press, melding its layers into crispy-crusted solid-state satisfaction.
Pasión’s was overwhelming. It was overstuffed, arriving with unmelted cheese, too-thick pickles and a greasy wake from all that pork. None of which stopped me from wolfing down its remnants the next day.
Croquettas ($6), ham and potato croquettes, were terrific fat fingers, expertly fried.
The arepas ($10), Venezuelan corn cakes stuffed with chicken salad, were cold and stiff, prompting Cat to say “I wish we were at Ranchos.” I was one El Vato Swizzle (watermelon, lime, tequila, chile-agave syrup, cilantro, $9.19) away from agreeing. It was delicious, and made me want to relax on the patio and watch Allentown go by.
That’s the way it went. Pastelitos de carne ($7), pastries stuffed with Cuban ground beef, were doughy and underflavored. Peruvian-inspired ceviche ($14) drowned fish and shrimp bites in a citrus solution that left a bitter limeade aftertaste.
Guisado de pescado ($10), fish soup, paired weak broth with chewy chorizo empanadas. Chicken pinchos ($9), skewers of grilled chicken breast, varied from tasty bites to charcoaled chews of cotton-ball dryness.
Solid entrees balanced the scales. Enchilado de camarones, shrimp sautéed in tomatoes ($22), tasted fresh and was relatively light. Scooping it up with dusky rice dotted with black beans was a highlight of my meal. Skirt steak ($19) with chimichurri was accurately cooked and satisfyingly beefy, but could have used a rest before serving to retain its juices. The coarse salsa of garlic and herbs added range.
Our server smoothly steered us to choices like the yuca chips, a tasty potato alternative. (The menu misspells it as yucca, which is a cactus cousin.)
Dessert (all $6) introduced me to coconut flan dancing a beguiling coconut-caramel tango under a topknot of toasted coconut ($6), a winner. Tres leches, a cake much like angel food smothered in a sweet condensed cream, also found favor with the table. There also was a chocolate blood-orange flan, stiff as fudge and murky in flavor ($6).
Pasión has competent cocktails, and an enviable location, patio and parking lot. The best dishes I tried covered familiar ground. It takes more to thrill in Buffalo these days, with so many hungry young operations lining up to eat your lunch, so to speak. Pasión could use a little more fire in the kitchen.
Pasión - 7 plates (out of 10)
Drinks, Latin standards hit the spot, but yen for culinary adventure unfulfilled.
WHERE: 153 Elmwood Ave. (436-2444)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; Sunday brunch is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $6-$14; sandwiches, $7-$13; entrees, $11-$23.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.