Finally! Latin American Flavors Make It to Beirut

How rare is it that you stumble upon a restaurant in Lebanon bursting with fresh new flavors your palate has never before savored? How rarer is it still that said restaurant is fun, pocket-friendly and conveniently situated in the heart of Beirut? 

Welcome to Morenito Cantina del Barrio, where I guarantee you won’t find a single glammed-up burger, a spicy salmon temaki, thin-crust Neapolitan pizza, or a butter-laden steak-frites in sight. Nope, not a fat chance! This restaurant is big on Latin American flavors, with high-quality street food hailing from Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Mexico.

Named after owner and manager Karim Asmar (“morenito” derives from “moreno” which means brown in Spanish—link that to “asmar” in Arabic), the space is awash with a solid color palette of cyan, magenta, and lime green. There is lower-level seating near the corner bar, as well as upper-level seating facing the open kitchen. A rectangular table with 14 barstools encourages communal dining and large group gatherings.

Asmar is no stranger to the food business. With nearly two decades of hospitality management and consulting under his belt, he grew weary of corporate life and yearned to try his craft in the kitchen. Morenito was his answer to what was lacking on the Lebanese dining scene—tastes from Central and South America—as well as an ode to the time he spent in Spanish-speaking countries (he is 100% fluent).

The menu is decidedly varied, with everything from gazpachos and ceviches to empanadas and quesadillas, chilaquiles, wraps, and grilled meats. You must start with the sweet potato fries (7,000LL), which as far as I’ve seen exist nowhere else in Lebanon. Abandon your low-carb diet, and binge on these crispy home-cut spears concealing a tender core. They dip wonderfully in Asmar’s homemade ketchup, which has pronounced sweet and savory notes and puts commercial ketchup to miserable shame.



Sweet potato fries

Would this be a good time to mention that Morenito’s cuisine is totally mayo-free and that everything is lightly-grilled or dry-fried? No oils are used to sauté the vegetables, and the meat is never marinated. What you taste are raw, pure flavors enhanced only by the marriage of ingredients and spices. Few restaurants can attest to these nutritional standards, and health-consciousness isn't even Morenito’s focal concept!

The ceviches, a light and refreshing mix of fresh fruit and seafood, are aesthetically pleasing and come piled inside a glass cup. I relished the octopus-mango duo (13,000LL), which is fragrant with ginger and chili.



Salmon and guava ceviche

The spinach-bacon salad (9,500LL) will blow your mind with its balsamic-vanilla dressing. Crispy bits of bacon and slices of hardboiled egg rest on a bed of fresh spinach leaves, and the explosion of textures will pull you in irresistibly.



Spinach-bacon salad (apologies for the poor resolution--blame the dim lighting!)

I was previously unfamiliar with chilaquiles. A traditional Mexican dish consisting of quartered and fried corn tortillas smothered in a green or red salsa (called mole), the chilaquile was hands-down my favorite dish of the lot. Slightly piquant and unquestionably addictive, it refuses to be mistaken for nachos. In fact, I guarantee that once you try Morenito’s version, you’ll never again opt for nachos given the choice of chilaquiles. They’re supremely delicious.

Chilaquiles are corn tortillas cut in fourths and fried. They are served with mole.

If dining in a large group, the grilled skewers of meat are destined to be a hit. For 65,000LL, you’re presented with twin spears each of first-rate beef, chicken, pork, turkey dogs, and garden vegetables, all of which irradiate outward from a bowl of red Spanish rice. There are over half a dozen dips and sauces to accompany these delights, and don’t overlook the grilled cloves of whole garlic adorning the meaty centerpiece.



The meat lovers' delight

How can such an exotic feast be topped off? Morenito’s very own Tres Leches (“three milks”) is the sweet answer. A sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream, this pastry is deceivingly light and airy.



Tres leches

If you’re an adventurous gourmet who loves to explore new flavors, Morenito is your certain paradise. They've got many happenings throughout the week, including taco nights, open beer, and live musical performances. Check it all out here.

Gouraud Street, Gemmayze
+961 01 575 010

Comments

  1. I work right next to it but for some reason it took me a couple of months to finally try it out, and WOW I regret not going sooner. The food was delicious and affordable, and the staff is so friendly! I was going to tweet to tell you to try it out but I just saw this post :P hehe

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It really is delicious! Almost everything I tasted was a new flavor and taste combo for me, and that's what I loved the most. Great find!

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