(Sept. 10) Steaming tortillas, the kick of cilantro, the surprise of lime juice, steaks and pork that melts in your mouth. These simple ingredients bring to mind good eating, the kind of eating that makes your customers linger over the table to tell tales, laugh, ask questions and eat some more. It’s the kind of eating that’s unmistakably Latin.

Latin American cuisine encompasses a mammoth geographical area that includes Mexico, Central America and South America. Just as the regions of France possess their own culinary distinctions, the regions and cultures of Latin America lend the overall cuisine exciting nuances in flavors, textures and cooking techniques.

Influences on Latin American cooking stem from colonization and native traditions. Italian immigrants brought their love for pastas to Argentina. Native Indians, the conquering Portuguese and the West African slaves they brought to work in the sugar cane fields largely influenced Brazilian food.

POPULARITY COUNTS

Restaurants exploring Latin American cuisine are capitalizing on the interest in all things Latin. More important, they are raising the appreciation levels of a public accustomed to tissue-wrapped tacos and nachos topped with processed cheese.

“We do traditional South American cooking. We don’t use a lot of ingredients, but we let the ingredients speak for themselves,” says Dan Krinsky, co-owner and co-chef with his wife, Ticha, of Tierra in Atlanta.

They travel for a week in the spring and fall throughout Central and South America to taste dishes and develop new recipes. Recent journeys have included jaunts to Chile, Peru, the Yucatan Peninsula and Rio de Janeiro. The restaurant’s signature appetizer, mussels in pasilla pepper broth with corn, jicama and cilantro, was featured in Bon Appetit magazine last fall.

Krinsky says he uses boniato, chayote and calabaza squash to create several dishes on the menu. He pairs pureed boniato with seared tuna and serves it with escabeche, a dish of chicken, fish or seafood tossed with onions in a vinegar marinade.

As a side dish, Krinsky sautees kale and adds lime juice, kosher salt and pepper. He uses kosher salt for the truer flavor it imparts, he says. “It stands up better and there’s not that metallic flavor,” he says.

Costa Rican hearts of palm salad is a specialty at Nacional 27 in Chicago, says Randy Zweiban, executive chef and partner. He arranges hearts of palm on a bed of greens mixed with slices of organic green avocado, papaya and an avocado vinaigrette.

“Venezuelan food is a mix of European cooking with plantains, rice and black beans,” says Pedro Alarcon, chef/owner of La Casa de Pedro, Watertown, Mass. Spices and herbs form the flavor backdrop for his cooking. He primarily uses garlic, salt, freshly-ground pepper, saffron, cumin and paprika, cilantro, basil, rosemary, oregano and sage.

Roomba’s Franco-Camacho chooses to use each fruit and vegetable he serves in one recipe only. For example, diners don’t find malanga served in three different dishes. Rather, they find it prepared one way: pureed with pumpkin seed-crusted mahi mahi alongside eggplant caviar and coconut-curry lemongrass sauce.

ENHANCE MEAT DISHESB>

Both extravagant and inexpensive cuts of meat are common to Latin American cooking. Ropa vieja, a dish that literally means “old clothes” uses pieces of lesser cuts. At Nacional 27, Zweiban usually makes ropa vieja with shoulder or rump portions. “However we’re now using lamb shanks that are braised, reduced and then folded back into the meat,” he says. He chops jicama and red peppers and adds them before the dish is served alongside garlic mashed sweet potatoes and corn. He then tops the dish with onion rings and drizzles mango sauce over it.

Tierra’s Krinsky serves slices of matambre, a poached butterfly flank steak rolled with eggs, carrots and peppers to commemorate Argentina’s independence. “Five or six times a year we focus for a week on the foods of one country to commemorate its independence day,” he says.

Fandango customers feast every day on roast suckling pig, known as lechon asado. Keff uses a 35- to 40-pound pig that is cut into five large pieces (two back legs, two front legs and the loin). She makes a paste of annatto seeds and spices that is made into a slurry with sour Sevilla orange juice. “We rub that on the pig, wrap it in banana leaves, then coat it again with the paste and cook it in the oven for seven hours at 300 degrees,” she says. For an accompanying sauce, she combines juices from the pans as well as onions, poblano chilies and zucchini. She serves the dish with pickled red onions.

Keff also serves bluefin and local albacore tuna. She dips the fish in a Cuban sauce of olive oil, lemon and garlic before grilling, then serves it with herbed stewed tomatoes and plantain chips.

TIME FOR DESSERT

Flans are a well-received choice for closing a Latin American meal. The flavors of coconut, orange, passion fruit-mango and chocolate enhance the flavor of the classic caramel custard made with milk, eggs and condensed milk, says Casa de Pedro’s Alarcon.

Zweiban offers a roasted pineapple dessert. He slices and cores the fruit into 2-inch thick rounds and places them in a roasting pan with a rum and vanilla bean mixture. He dices them after he removes them from the oven and cools them. He heats them before he serves them with ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Roomba is known for its white chocolate key lime cheesecake, served with date whipped cream and a warm berry compote. Banana liquer adds flavor to bananas tres leches, a sponge cake soaked in condensed milk, heavy cream and evaporated milk. Customers also snap up churros drizzled with hot Mexican chocolate.

At Tierra, customers favor the Salvadoran fig pie, a tart shell filled with dried Black Mission figs. The figs are soaked in lime juice and paired with a sour cream base. Summertime mango tarts and homemade lime ice cream also are favorites.