In the confines of his tidy galley, a rotisserie churns around and around, roasting entire chickens to a burnished bronze. Nearby, flattened skirt steaks sizzle on a grill alongside onions, bell peppers and tomatoes.
This is Zarza Latin Food & Grill, where Avelino and his wife, Maria, stoke the fires fundamental to a cooking style popularized in their native Colombia. Much of their menu has a familiarity with dishes found in Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico — any place, really, that was touched by Spain at some point in history.
At Zarza, a vegetarian might make do with a mild-tasting Spanish yellow rice, black beans that are hearty and soupy, and any number of starchy side dishes, including plantains cooked two ways — the smashed, fried, green tostones and the sweet, caramelized maduros.
The Avelinos dig deep into their own culture with arepas, which are flat, griddled corn cakes that take the place of bread at many Colombian dinner tables.
Zarza is their first stab at owning a restaurant, though Richard Avelino, 45, says he has held a variety of restaurant jobs since moving to Florida some 15 years ago. Having worked both in management and in the kitchen, he says he’s ready to take on a place of his own.
Open now for roughly one month, Zarza has captured a steady clientele in a part of south Lakeland that’s surrounded by residential communities. The kitchen’s simple system and streamlined menu caters well to customers who want a hot, fresh meal to go.
The small, spare dining room does have a handful of tables for those who prefer to dine in. There is very little décor, but customers can gaze at several flat-screen televisions, or just focus on the open kitchen, which offers additional theater, as Avelino and only one or two assistants scurry to prepare food, fill plates and ring up orders.
At its core, Zarza is about speed-grilled meat, chicken and seafood. It’s also about slow-turning voluptuous, whole chickens on a spit, a deliciously economical cooking method dating to medieval times. Entire restaurants are popping up these days devoted to this ancient art that seems to be eclipsing pan frying for Sunday honors.
Zarza’s chicken is especially gratifying and abundantly flavorful, owing, I wager, to a brining process and exterior rub of subtle spices and herbs. The moist, tender birds may be purchased in whole, half or quarter portions.
Zarza’s grill is put to effective use with cuts of pork and beef that have been pounded thin, seared and splashed with a thin, tasty sauce that could use a touch less salt. You can add a scattering of shrimp and tiny, tasty scallops to some dishes.
A showstopper is the perfectly seasoned chicken-and-shrimp fajita, $11.50, featuring a smoking, sizzling tangle of chicken bites, medium-size shrimp, onions, peppers and tomatoes. The estimable dish comes with a stack of soft, corn tortillas, shredded cheese, lettuce, sour cream, rice and beans.
Still hungry? The platanos maduros, $2.50, $4.50, add just the right amount of sweet to counter the salt-and-umami mix of grilled meats and veggies. Another winning side dish finds chunks of perfectly cooked new potatoes anointed in garlic oil, $2, $3.95.
The restaurant also grills fish, burgers and pork chops.
There is no dessert, so far, but Zarza certainly deserves hurrahs for fast, tasty fare kissed with fire and smoke.
By: Eric Pera
Source: The Ledger