Latin food is often celebrated for its simplicity, its use of herbs and spices and humble ingredients all combined in a way that somehow manages an artful balance between skill and invention. At its core, it delves into the garden of necessity, seeking out ways to utilize what others would consider to be the cast-offs, and transforms them into delicacies. And for that reason, its freshness, its heat, and its soul have captured the hearts – and the palates – of food lovers all over the world.
It stands to reason, then, that its influence has stretched far afield of the borders of its homeland, creeping its way to the north to spice up the restaurant scenes of cities all over the U.S. and beyond. And while it might be tempting to give it a more modernized twist, adding in techniques that make it but a shadow of itself in the face of fancification, it is those who maintain its authenticity who achieve the most success in bringing the flavors of Latin America to plates across the border.
Doing just that – and with a sufficient amount of flair – the team at La Cocina Mexican Grill & Bar in Seacrest Beach have but one thing in mind when they execute a dish: freshness. Everything they use, from the cuts of meat to the fish to the produce are brought in daily, sourced from local farms and caught in local waters. They showcase all the area has to offer, utilizing those ingredients to create the music in the vibrant dance that is true Latin cuisine. Knowing when – and how – to elevate is the key; and as one can readily see from glancing at the menu, La Cocina manages to elevate their food without ever sacrificing its heart.
“We use the freshest, most local ingredients in our cuisine, and that’s critical in achieving the true essence of what authentic Latin flavor is all about,” said Executive Chef Eric Bartholomew, who brought his notable expertise in Latin cuisine to La Cocina when he took the position in early 2018. “When I’m developing a menu, my goal is always to expose guests to ingredients and flavors that they may have never tried before. I always want our guests to leave having experienced something new, and I really want La Cocina to be the first place folks visiting the 30A area think of when they want a great Latin- inspired meal.”
Naturally, one cannot grace the doorstep of a Latin restaurant without sampling their salsa, and La Cocina could well consider the simple condiment as one of their many claims to fame. So fresh is it in flavor and texture that it might be sinful to refuse its charms. So, too, would it be an affront not to sip one of their signature margaritas, a refreshing drink whose freshly squeezed lime juice is balanced neatly by the sweetness of agave.
There are, of course, a number of plates to tempt the tastebuds, as none of the dishes at La Cocina is anything short of an epicurean samba. Topping the list of their starters, the achiote chicken wings bring the heat with their coating of achiote spices and creamy arbol ranch on a bed of watercress salad. Showcasing the Emerald Coast at its finest, the pescado tacos serve up freshly caught Gulf fish nestled in corn tortillas with housemade slaw, spicy red chili aioli, and the sweet crunchiness of pineapple-jicama salsa.
For meat lovers, the ribeye asado is not to be missed, offering tender, flavorful beef seared to a perfect medium rare, topped with red chimichurri sauce and served with an accompaniment of green chili whipped potatoes, crumbled cotija cheese, and roasted baby carrots.
True, not all of the restaurant’s offerings follow the traditions of Latin countries in the strictest sense, but Bartholomew never muddles or compromises the strength of their accent.
“Between Central and South America, there are so many different cuisines and food cultures that it’s a bit overwhelming! It does keep me in passionate pursuit of learning about it all, though, so I still continue to study foods and ingredients that are not well known on the contemporary food scene. There are still many flavors and dishes that most people have never had the opportunity to try, and I want to be the one to offer it to them.”
For the team at La Cocina, the dance is all about the flavor.
La Cocina Mexican Grill & Bar is located at 10343 E. Co. Highway 30A, Seacrest Beach. Reservations are not available, but service runs Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 9 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, call 850-231-4021 or visit www.lacocina30a.com.