The latin connection

I have a theory about why the Latino craze originally kicked off in Thailand: it was the Ricky Martin-World Cup connection. With literally millions of Thais glued to their screens for the biggest soccer event on earth way back in 1998, it was perhaps inevitable that they would be seduced by the Puerto Rican’s rhythmic rumblings.

Two years later, the seed that Ricky planted in many a-mind has grown into a Thai love affair with all things Latino. Rainbow-coloured clubs and restaurants with bands pumping out sambas, cha chas and boleros have sprung up like cacti after a desert storm; dancing classes are de rigueur among the mobile-phone set and now there are even Latino food and cocktail-making classes for the truly dedicated Latinophile.

I have a second theory that although the craze may be here for a while, it will eventually fade. But it will have had an important effect on the Bangkok culinary scene via its introduction of Latino food to the discerning Thai palette. And it is the food, perhaps, that will be here to stay.

The Salsa Club and Restaurant, underneath the Pathumwan Princess, is currently one of the most sophisticated spots to practise those Ricky or Jennifer moves. Vividly-painted and decorated with some stylish artworks designed by Silpakorn University students, the space sets the appropriate mood although it doesn’t quite manage to shake off the feeling of being part of a large hotel.

However, as is so often the case with Bangkok hotels, the food is exceptional, and popular consensus seems to place American chef Bryant Oxman at the forefront of the current Latino culinary assault.

We checked out the Club on a Wednesday night when the crowd was relatively thin but the resident Columbian seven-piece band, Kalamary, was still delivering crowd-pleasing tunes.

There’s really only one appropriate cocktail to kick off a Latino-themed evening with, and that’s the Mojito (Bt200), a blend of Havana Club rum, fresh mint, lemonade and lime juice over ice. Here they come in a massive saxophone-shaped ceramic mug that almost seems bottomless – a generous if ostentatious cousin to the humbler style served at places like The Havana Club (on Sukhumvit Soi 22).

A sturdy snack of Guacamole de Sergio (Bt140) accompanied the cocktails while we pondered the enticing menu, best characterised by the term “nouvelle Latino”. Chef Oxman, who we chatted with later in the evening, says he shys away from the “fusion” label that is being popularised, saying emphatically that the food he cooks “resembles food in the southern part of America, and of Mexico. It’s not in the process of changing.”

We settled on entrees of Nopales Ensalada (Bt110), a “fiery salad of cactus, white corns and shredded pork with Tequila Habenero vinaigrette”, along with the Latino Caesar Salad (Bt140) and Seafood Empanadas (Bt130) which were an interesting twist on everyday Thai curry puffs. The cactus salad had me completely entranced, and Oxman expressed surprise that I had never tried cactus before.

“Cactus flowers? Never eaten them? I grew up in Colorado, in the southwestern part of the United States and we eat them there. In Mexico they eat them, too,” he explains. “The young cactus buds are tender, real tender. You just take the spines off them, then most people would grill them, then make a salad.”

He imports them from Mexico already pickled, but says that they are familiar to Thai cooking. “So I’m trying to get fresh ones here. I know what they’re called, but I can’t find them in any market.”

For mains my partner settled on a good ol’ hearty paella, which came with shellfish, Chorizo, pork and chicken, while I made a superb choice: Barbados Rum & Pepper Painted Grouper, which came with a black bean fennel stew, grilled banana and a vanilla-scented mango-haberero mojo. It could not be faulted and I wondered how anybody could ever make it to the dessert menu – which features such tempters as Flan de Coco y Ron (coconut rum flan, Bt 100) and Triple Chocolate Torta (Bt120).

Oxman began cooking in South Florida about 15 years ago. “That’s where a lot of the Caribbean, the Cuban and the South American influence came. It was kind of second nature from there,” he says, adding that he prefers to work with spicy food.

He came to Thailand nearly a year ago for a holiday and hasn’t left since. It’s possible that he was seduced to stay by som tam. “You know that’s the first thing I ate when I got here. I ate it out on the street, and that’s when I really, you know…,” he said, smiling the smile of a som tam lover. “The fermented fish they put in – the stink – it was beautiful! The heat wasn’t masking anything, but it was an impressive heat. It was heat like I had never experienced.” It certainly would be if you added 15 chillis the way Oxman does.

Despite his love of Thai cuisine there’s not a heavy Thai influence in Oxman’s dishes, although he points out that the dishes are created using very similar ingredients. He does, however, create dishes aimed more to the Thai palette. “I bring the heat up a little bit, make it a little more acidic,” he says.

As to whether the fad will transform into a permanent feature on the Bangkok scene, Oxman’s not sure: “I ask myself that everyday: what’s going to happen in Bangkok? We have to educate people (about Latino cuisine).” But Oxman is hopeful that Thais will come around to savour Latino food. “The Thais have very good palettes. They’re accustomed to eating strong food and aren’t into the real fancy frilly food that lacks flavour. They appreciate taste.”

As my partner and I settle back into our chairs and rethink dessert, we watch people take to the floor to show off the latest steps they’ve mastered, while others enthusiastically shake the maracas the band’s passed around to get things happening. And we agree that it would be a very good thing if this Latino craze was to last for a while to come.

The Salsa Club Restaurant is located underneath the Pathumwan Princess Hotel, MBK Centre, 444 Phayathai Rd, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330. Open nightly 6 pm to 11 pm, with snacks and drinks served until 2 am. Phone 216 3700 for reservations. Prices quoted above do not include VAT or 10% service charge. Latino food classes are now running at The Salsa Club on Saturdays.

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