Food & Drink

Soul Food

Alma brings a Latin beat to Canton.

Alma Cocina Latina, the new Venezuelan restaurant in Canton’s Can Company, roared out of the gate after opening in late April and quickly amassed a serious following among food critics and diners. I’m not surprised. Alma is the brainchild of Caracas-born Irena Stein, the elegant genius behind two wildly popular eateries on The Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus—Azafrán and Alkimia—that transformed the way faculty and students think about “institutional” fare. I first tasted Stein’s inventive global cuisine years ago at an academic event she’d catered solo, and, like everybody there, was stunned to find vibrant multicolored shots of chilled summer soups in place of the usual warmed-over pigs in a blanket. Her charm offensive against the industrial food complex easily won hearts all over campus. With Alma, she brings her vivacious can-do spirit and ferocious talents to the general population at a restaurant that focuses on the cuisine of her native land. The result is a smashing success.

Alma—that’s “soul” in Spanish—is a clean, white space judiciously dotted with greens, a neutral canvas for Stein’s brightly colored kitchen creations. A cocktail bar on one side turns out variants of popular Latin cocktails, like the Pisco de María, a dusky, mellow version of the Peruvian pisco sour. On the other side of the space, diners line the small exhibition-style kitchen to watch chefs prepare, among other South American specialties, numerous iterations on the traditional Venezualan “sandwich,” the arepa.

Arepas—thick flatbreads fashioned from ground maize—are staples of Venezuelan and Columbian street food. But in Venezuela, they take these densely delectable grilled rounds and stuff them with various fillings, turning them into a “yummy, amazing experience,” as our waitress enthusiastically explained. Alma devotes an entire menu to arepas, and indeed, after sampling a few, I understood what our waitress meant. The various fillings of shredded, mashed, or ground meats, seafood, and beans provide a lovely textural contrast to the crunchy arepas. Like many of the plates here, they’re often enlivened by the lush sweetness of plantains or enrobed in queso blanco. The meltingly delicious Luis Brito’s pig arepa was my favorite, dripping with pulled pork, avocado purée, and tomato mojo, but the beach pisillo (something like a refined tuna salad), an entirely different taste experience featuring finely minced skate, avocado, and aji dulce, a sweet red pepper similar to pimento, was a close second. These things are hearty and messy, so I recommend you order one or two (or three) to deconstruct and share.

Alma is a clean, white space, a neutral canvas for Stein’s brightly colored kitchen creations.

Other eminently shareable plates my group loved include a selection from the antojos (“whims” or “cravings”) and acompañantes: crispy chicken wings gilded with spicy pineapple-guava sauce, yuca fries with cilantro mojo for dipping. Of the three versions of ceviche, we preferred the pesca del día, which, on the night we tried it, was a snowy mound of diced, mild fluke sparked with bright tendrils of microgreens and bathed in tiger’s milk, the traditional lime marinade used to cure raw fish. The spicy tomato marinade in the ceviche vuelve a la vida was addictive, but it overwhelmed the delicate flavors of the shellfish.

Along with the numerous small plates, you’ll find a good selection of salads dressed in tropical flavors like tangerine and tamarind, as well as a trio of soups (black bean, fish, cream of squash). With all this bounty to share, it seemed almost superfluous to order one of the three entrée-sized platos calientes, but when we spied the pescao frito being delivered to another table, we couldn’t resist. A whole dorade, crisp-fried and accompanied by tostones and tropical slaw, proved to be all it promised—firm-fleshed and sweet, it had us picking every last bit from the bones.

Similarly, we were tempted by the menu of postres (desserts) and gave in to a pedestrian-sounding vanilla rice pudding recommended by our helpful young waitress. It was anything but ordinary. Studded with Amarena—those deeply rich Italian cherries that usually grace designer cocktails—and enriched by puréed bananas caramelized with tangerine and South American coffee, it was spectacularly good. Other offerings—among them a rum-soaked coconut cake and mango goat-cheese cake—we’ll save for next time.

The only negative at this fresh newcomer is the noise level, which is deafening. I say that as someone who can stand a fair amount of din. When the place was packed (which it seemed to be all the time), we longed for a little acoustic relief—afterward, our throats were sore from the necessary shouting. Still, we wouldn’t let it keep us from the considerable allure of Alma. Like its dynamo of a proprietress, this place is simply irresistible.

ALMA COCINA LATINA 2400 Boston St., 667-212-4273.
HOURS Sun. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Mon.-Wed. 5-10 p.m., Thurs.-Fri. 5-11 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-11 p.m. CUISINE Latin. ATMOSPHERE Eco-chic.
PRICES Small plates and sandwiches: $4-18; entrees: $12-35; desserts: $8-10.50.