Join me, if you will, in a quick round of word association. I'll say a word, and you say the first thing that pops into your mind. Ready? Here we go:
I'm guessing you said, "Chips."
If so, you might want to adjust your expectation before you venture to Salsa restaurant across from Cummins Station. There are no bottomless bowls of tomato-onion-pepper-cilantro dip or infinite baskets of fried tortilla triangles at SoBro's new Latin-themed eatery.
Founded by Puerto Rico natives Marcos Cruz and Juan Reyes, Salsa draws on the culinary traditions of the Antilles, where the island geography and related weather patterns make cultivation of corn difficult. Accordingly, Salsa leans more heavily on rice, yuca, beans, potatoes and plantains than on the ubiquitous maize of Mexican cuisine. The result is a refreshingly exotic — albeit inconsistent — repertoire, whose culinary successes outweigh its shortcomings.
When Cruz first came to Nashville to study pediatric neurology at Vanderbilt, his childhood classmate Reyes (a veteran restaurateur) came to visit. The friends recognized a void in the market for Latin cuisine, so over the summer, Reyes moved to town and planted a flag (with red and white stripes and a single white star in a blue triangle, to be specific) in the rapidly re-energizing district in the umbra of the Music City Center.
Salsa is sleek, well-lighted and vibrantly colored, with walls of glass looking out at the skyline. A patio is under way, and when warm weather comes, garage doors will rise, extending the dining room into the urban landscape.
When that time comes, Salsa could become a central gathering spot for the Cummins Station crowd leaving work and conventioneers exiting the undulating mothership of corporate meetings a few blocks south.
Here's the happy news about happy hour: It's long — 4 to 7 p.m. — and it's cheap, with two-for-one drinks clocking in around $4 each. Here's the sad news: We didn't like the look of many of the cocktails on the list (lots of rum with Coke, cranberry juice, Diet Coke, pineapple and OJ), nor did we love the flavor of the drinks we sampled. Bourbon with acerola cherry juice was thin and sweet, and Limoncillo (Don Q Limon rum with lemon juice) recalled an overly sweet margarita mix. Next time we'll stick to Yazoo, or a glass of wine.
Having never traveled to Puerto Rico, we were blissfully ignorant of the standards of authentic cuisine. For better or worse, our assessments of the fare — which we found unmemorable and unforgettable, in equal parts — come without prejudice of comparison or nostalgia.
There were a few high-profile failures, most notably the seared tuna. No doubt our disappointment with this dish was heightened by the disparity between the online photo and the actual dish that arrived on the table. While the website promised delicate seared slices of sea-glass-pink fish fanned on a bronzed croquette, the reality was an overabundance of gray-purple tuna steak, plated with sautéed carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and zucchini. (We would have to play do a lot of word association before seared ginger-tamarind ahi evoked garlic-sauteed cauliflower.)
Churrasco with tamarind-ginger sauce also fell flat, as the thin skirt steak presented an athletic workout in cutting and chewing. We sent the majority of both tuna and churrasco back to the kitchen uneaten.
But to be fair, those dishes didn't stand a chance against the show-stopping center-cut pork chop known as Chuleta Can Can. A thousand thank-yous to our extremely hospitable server who recommended this dish, which she aptly described as "as large as your forearm." So hefty was the cut of meat that there was an upcharge from the menu price, because the butcher delivered larger cuts than expected and there wasn't a saw in the kitchen to trim the portions. I'm not sure how I feel about all that information, but even at $23 for a pork chop, it was worth the price. Then again, this was no mere pork chop. Chuleta Can Can was like a cross-section of a pig, all the way out to the skin. Reyes rubbed that brontosaurus-sized rib with lemon pepper, garlic, vinegar and red-orange spices, then scored the bumper of skin and fat around the whole thing so that it buckled in the heating process and took on the beautiful scalloped appearance of a seashell — like a caramelized chicharrón-style carapace over tender juicy meat. It was a giant buttery, spicy, unctuous, pork-rind-encrusted thing of beauty that fed my entire party of five and reduced the gray tuna and tough steak to pale distant memories.
It seemed that for every culinary failure, there was a dazzling triumph. For every shrimp in glumpy garlic-cream sauce, there was shrimp gumbo, layered with clam juice, warm mild spices and a fruity hint of red bell pepper. For every order of overly crisp fried-plantain tostones with scant topping of bland ceviche, there was a hearty and intriguing pastelón de amarillos — a hearty cheese-topped casserole of beef and plantains, which our group affectionately dubbed "banana lasagna," due to the mildly sweet fruitiness of the mashed plantains standing in for sheets of pasta. Don't knock it till you try it.
There's enough good stuff on the menu that Reyes & Co. could simply cut out the bad stuff, making it easier on guests and staff alike. In fact, that's the plan — to see which traditional dishes resonate with local tastes, then concentrate on them. In our opinion, here are a few keepers: lightly fried, tender, almost-greaseless calamari; sweet corn fritters along the lines of fried polenta fingers; and the trio of desserts made by Reyes' wife, Yulitsa. Do not miss the side of mofongo de yuca, steamed cassava root mashed with cilantro and onion and deep-fried into a golden croquette that is like an ingenious marriage of mashed potatoes and french fries.
Meanwhile, if you still can't shake the craving for salsa, take this piece of advice: Avoid the so-called Salsa Salad, which was little more than an out-of-season caprese (mozzarella and unripe tomatoes) on a bed of romaine with a side of guacamole and a perplexing ramekin of pureed mango. The best salsa at Salsa just might be served up on the dance floor — Reyes hosts a monthly dance party. Now that should get your mind off chips.
Salsa serves lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. For information about monthly salsa dance nights, visit Salsa Restaurant Nashville on Facebook.