Arepas are among the first meals we seek when we fly overseas, and we eat enough to keep the craving sated until our next trip, lamenting the unlikeliness of them being available in India. A good arepa – a fried patty of coarse, slightly chewy, cornmeal, split and stuffed with any combination of meats, cheese, beans, veggies and condiments – is just so damn addictive.
Turns out, we lamented in vain. The Latin Mess, Bandra's latest adventurous micro-restaurant, offers not only arepas, but dishes from across Latin America – empanadas, tostones, yuca fries, esquites, a variety of salsas, condiments and hot sauces that will make pico de gallo look as interesting as soggy kachumber, and yes, that cinnamon-laced rice milk drink (here regrettably too sweet) that makes us instantly hum Vampire Weekend circa 2010.
The Latin Mess is tiny but bright, Aztec chevron-ed and glass-walled, a 12-seater overlooking a Pali Village compound. It is Paris banker-turned-Mumbai restaurateur Ujwala Bhat's ode to all the Latin American food she grew addicted to while she was crunching numbers in the city on the Seine. In 2017, she quit her job and travelled across Latin America for six months, eating and cooking in local kitchens for free in exchange for a place to stay.
The time and research shows. Our frijoles negros arepa has a piquant patty of refried beans, topped with beautifully sliced, perfectly ripe avocado, pickled jalapeño strips, cotija-like cheese, and homemade gooseberry relish. In fact, Bhat, who was at the restaurant (and recognised us from Instagram) said that everything is made in house, using recipes that have only been slightly adapted to the Mumbai palate after many months of trials with friends and family. The only two things she imports are: masarepa and Mexican chilli varieties like arbol and chipotle, which don't have close local substitutes.
Google salsa macha, and you'll find its a “chile-laced peanut butter you’ll want to put on everything”, especially TLM's snappy in-house tostadas. Fat golden yuca chips find a better partner in jalapeño salsa loaded with tart tomatillos and their popping seeds. Ask for the sweet-sour pureed tomato salsa with vinegar that Bhat is currently testing. Tostones, double fried plantains, are crisp on the outside and springy on the inside, begging to be double dipped in Bhat's ambrosial chimichurri. The sweet cooked hogao, however, got no love from us. This Colombian Creole sauce of tomatoes, scallions and arbol chillies reminded us of a Gujarati sabzi.
Yesterday, when we visited, Bhat's buyer had picked up pork from the wrong supplier, so our carnitas arepa with shredded slow cooked pork, mustard, green onion aioli and fried sweet plantain was big on flavour but had stringy meat that dripped oil onto the placemat menu. The arepas are all the size of small burgers, but they make a big meal. We had to take our yuca en escabeche, fried pickled cubes of tapioca root with onions and roasted peanuts, to go. It's listed under salads, but it's really a fun Latin American chaat.
Bhat says the gujiya-like Humitas empanada, stuffed with sweet creamy corn, basil, and chilli flakes has been very popular in the early days – we can see why. The Arabes, with braised mutton and spices though, could do with more stuffing and spice.
Bandra doesn't need any more churros, so we're glad that The Latin Mess provides its crunchy chocolate fix via Brazilian brigaderios, truffles made with chocolate and condensed milk, covered with coco nibs. We held back on dessert, knowing we'd be back, returning to Pali Village to satisfy a fix that started far away, in the East Village.
Getting there: Shop 3, Aruna Niwas, in the lane opposite 5aSec, Pali Hill, Bandra West. Call 2600 5792. Open Wednesdays to Mondays 4pm to midnight. No alcohol available. A meal for two is approximately Rs 800.
bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.
Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in NYC, lives in Mumbai and writes mostly about food and travel for many a publication. She’s a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, and her words have also been found in Conde Nast Traveller, Mint Lounge, Scroll.in, The Hindu, Saveur, The Guardian, and Travel + Leisure, among others. She's crazy about obscure ingredients, and she always knows where to go back for seconds. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @roshnibajaj.
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