Spain’s paella, Argentine parrillada with chimichurri, Peruvian ceviches and tiraditos, Cubano sandwiches, Salvadorian pupusas and the seven great regional cuisines of Mexico — these are just some of the diverse dishes and dynamic culinary styles that will be available at the sixth annual ¡Latin Food Fest! March 23-24 at Santa Monica Pier Beach.

Festival director Lucia Tovar-Matthews says she is thrilled with the range of dishes at the two-day Latin foodie fest — the largest in California. The festival will also feature Cuban ropa vieja, Oaxacan corn, Chilean ceviche, Dominican chicken yaroa, Honduran tapado costeño and Brazilian moqueca, she says. “And we pair the dishes with wines from Argentina, Chile, Napa, Portugal and Spain.”

This year’s festival will feature numerous chefs, including veteran Mexican chef Enrique Olvera, whom you might have seen on season two of Netflix’s documentary series Chef’s Table. According to Food & Wine, Olvera plans to open an L.A. eatery based on his NYC restaurant, Cosme, later this year. Olvera will do a cooking demo and a book signing for his new cookbook, Mexico From the Inside Out.

Chilies feature widely in Latin cuisine, and Tovar-Matthews expects to see them uniquely utilized in the diverse dishes at the event. “From the many that are featured in Mexican cuisine (fresh such as jalapeño, serrano, poblano or habanero, dried like guajillo or pasilla or smoked like chipotle) to South America’s aji or Spain’s padron, chilies are often found in Latin food. But the formula that ‘chili equals heat’ is oversimplified at best and dead wrong at worst.

Javier Plascencia's chile en nogada; Credit: Courtesy Latin Food Fest

Javier Plascencia's chile en nogada; Credit: Courtesy Latin Food Fest

“Indeed, the idea that chilies in Mexican food mean incendiary levels of spice is a misconception, too. Chilies, whether in Spain or Mexico, are more often used for the non-spicy aspects of their flavor profile than for their heat. It is from within the tremendous variety of those flavors — sweet, spicy, bitter and more — that the wonders of Latin cuisine can be found.”

Also doing a cooking demo at the food event is Marcela Valladolid, host of the Food Network show Mexican Made Easy and CBS’ The American Baking Competition.

This will be the third time chef Ben Diaz, director of culinary innovation at CBDcuisine Consulting, is participating. “Every year, the festival gets bigger and bigger,” Diaz says. “This time, I plan to outdo myself with a cured octopus ceviche on a crisp with aguachile gelee, espuma and a few garnishes.”

If you are attending the event, get there early — Diaz will be doing a secret second item available only to the first few guests.

Dominican yaroa; Credit: Courtesy Latin Food Fest

Dominican yaroa; Credit: Courtesy Latin Food Fest

The food fest is as much about Latin spirits as it is about food. Reflecting the increasing popularity of these spirits in the United States, there will be tastings of agave liquor, bacanora, cachaça, mezcal, pisco, popo, pulque, raicilla, rum, sotol and tequila. “The festival has its finger on the pulse of the Latin gastronomic and drinking culture,” says Alexandre Chaigne, state manager of CNI Brands, the exclusive importer of Combier liqueurs, AVAL Cider, Banhez Mezcal, Libélula Tequila, Piscos Mistral and Control C. “I love it because it brings a lot of great people together, allows you to taste the best food and drinks at the same place, and explores the new trends and flavors that are still hidden gems.”

The variety of Latin spirits and cuisine is unparalleled, says Andrea Zepeda, mixologist at Embajador Tequila. “Pairing is an important part of the festival’s agenda. With tastings served neat and mixed, and mixology demonstrations, the event elevates distilled spirits as a category with the cuisine of the festival.”

While tequila and rum are the typical intro to Latin spirits and cocktails, the industry is seeing an uptick in the use of niche spirits such as pisco, mezcal and cachaça, Zepeda says. “More mixologists are choosing these unique and distinctly Latin spirits to provide new flavors and deeper complexity to cocktail making. Still, I believe tequila will continue to hold the top spot when it comes to a distinctly Latin spirit.”

If you want to create your own Latin flavors at home, here are a couple of recipes to try.

Poblano rings
from Casa Marcela by chef Marcela Vallodolid
(Serves 6)

3 fresh poblano chiles
3 cups vegetable oil, or as needed, for frying
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups panko bread crumbs
3 tablespoons ground dried guajillo chili or ground chipotle powder

Place the poblanos directly over a gas burner on medium-high heat. Using tongs, turn as needed, so the chilies can char evenly. The chilies will turn black and look burned. This should not take more than five minutes, and be careful not to overdo it, because chilies can turn soft and release water if cooked for too long.

Transfer the chilies to a resealable plastic bag and let steam for about 5 minutes. This will allow for easier peeling. Peel the charred skin off the chilies and slice into ¼-inch rings, discarding the stem.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy saucepan until a deep-fry thermometer inserted into the oil reaches 350°F. (If you do not have a thermometer, test the oil with a piece of bread crumb, which should sizzle when it touches the oil.)

Meanwhile, arrange three bowls in an assembly line. In one, place the all-purpose flour seasoned with about one teaspoon of salt; in the second, place the beaten eggs; and in the third bowl, place the mixture of panko bread crumbs and ground guajillo.

Carefully dredge the poblano rings in the flour, making sure not to break them. Shake off the excess flour and soak in the beaten egg. Then cover with the panko-guajillo mixture.

Fry in the hot oil until crisp and golden in color, about two minutes. Remove from the oil and set on paper towels to drain the excess oil. Season with salt while the rings are still warm.

Meringues flavored with charred cornhusk powder and filled with sweet corn cream
From chef Enrique Olvera’s Mexico From the Inside Out

4 dried cornhusks (½ ounce)
2 large egg whites
½ cup of sugar

1½ cups fresh corn kernels (from 3 ears)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8th teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup mascarpone

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Spread the husks on a large baking sheet; bake for eight to 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Reduce the oven temperature to 200.

Break the husks into small pieces. Transfer to a spice grinder in batches and grind to a powder. Sift the husk powder through a fine sieve.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. With the mixer on, gradually beat in the sugar until medium peaks form. Add 2½ tablespoons of the husk powder; beat at medium-high speed until stiff.

Transfer the meringue to a pastry bag fitted with a ¾-inch round tip. Pipe four 3-inch rounds of meringue onto a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Bake for about an hour and 10 minutes, until the meringues are set and sound hollow when lightly tapped on the bottom. Let cool completely, at least 2 hours.

Meanwhile, make the mousse. In a skillet, combine the corn, sugar, salt and ¾ cup of the cream and bring just to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat, stirring, until the corn is tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a blen­der and puree until smooth. Strain the puree through a fine sieve, pressing on the solids. Let cool completely, then whisk in the mascarpone.

In a bowl, beat the remaining ¼ cup of cream until stiff. Fold into the corn mixture until no streaks remain.

Transfer the meringues to plates and gently crack open with a table knife. Spoon the corn mousse into the meringues and sprinkle with the remaining husk powder. Serve right away.

Latin Food Fest takes place at Santa Monica Pier Beach on Friday, March 23, from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., and Saturday, March 24, from noon to 3 p.m. (VIP tickets allow entry at 11 a.m.). Information at

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