When you come to Shanghai, perhaps the last thing you expect to try is Latin American food. But dotted among the many eateries in this city are a handful of Latin American restaurants offering reasonably authentic Brazilian, Argentinian and Peruvian fare.
As Latin America encompasses 20 countries, from Mexico in the north to Chile and Argentina at its southern tip, the cuisine is greatly varied.
All of the cuisines have been influenced by immigrants from Spain, Italy and Portugal, among other countries, as well as the original inhabitants, the indigenous Native Americans.
Brazilian cuisine involves lots of beans, and has more of an Italian and Portuguese influence than the other Latin American countries. Known for its rich flavors and meat-heavy diet, Brazilian food is not for the weight conscious.
The national dish is Feijoada, a black bean dish created by the African slaves, who had to feed themselves from beans, rice and undesirable off-cuts of pigs, such as ears, tails and trotters.
These days, it's made with more premium parts, such as bacon and sausage. Cassava flour is ground and used as a side dish along with beans.
Brazil's other big claim to food-fame is the churrascaria, the Latin American barbecue, which derives from the Pampas region in south Brazil, where it borders Argentina. In the past, Brazilian cowboys raised cows, slaughtered them, and cooked the meat over coals either in a fire pit or on a grill over a fire.
Nowadays, the meat is cooked on skewers in a commercial oven, for between five minutes and two hours, depending on the meat. A range of meats are served, accompanied by bread, salad and grilled vegetables.
Peruvian food is centered around corn, chili and potatoes, and has been influenced by Japanese, Chinese and Spanish immigrants. It is one of the least known of Latin American cuisines, but it is heralded by food lovers as one of the best in the world.
A variety of dishes are eaten, including fried guinea pig, shrimp chowder, roasts cooked over stones and ceviche, raw fish marinated in lime juice. Peruvian food really is the hidden gem of Latin America - surprising, tasty and a real fusion of flavours.
Mexican food, perhaps the most widely known of Latin cuisines, is heavily influenced by the Spanish who conquered the Aztec Empire. Native corn, beans and chili are mixed with ingredients brought by the Spanish, such as beef, pork, chicken and cheese. Corn is the basic starch, and is used to make tortilla pancakes that can be filled with spicy beans and meat. In fact, Mexican food is so integral to the culture that UNESCO has added it to the list of the world's "intangible cultural heritage."
Ambience: Cozy, fun, yet slightly sophisticated. The front courtyard has a very South American feel, while inside is homely yet polished. Colors are vivid blues, greens and reds.
Who to invite: Family, close friends, a date
Pros: Ceviche is small but always packed thanks to its charm and excellent food. The menu offers a range of dishes, beautifully presented in artistic arrangements.
Cons: The service. There is a difference between attentive and over-zealous. The hovering waiters need to learn to give their customers some space (at least on one visit).
Recommended: The restaurant is named the Peruvian dish "Ceviche," which is raw fish, doused in a citrus marinade that serves to slightly cook it. It's delicious and spicy - there are milder versions with peanuts (an Asian touch). Try the refreshing, sour and lightly spiced Fu Man Chu. The Pork Chicharron (twice-cooked pork) and Lomo Saltado, or beef tenderloin, are delicious.
Drinks: Beer, wine, some spirits. There's a range of wine by the bottle but a limited range of wine by the glass.
Cost: Small plates cost as little as 30 yuan, while bigger plates cost 120 yuan. Expect to pay around 200 yuan per person for dinner and a drink.
Address: 559 Fuxing Rd, near Sinan Rd
Tel: 5404-1052 (reservations recommended)
Who to invite: Business associates for a casual lunch, family
Pros: For 195 yuan, you can get an all-you-can-eat lunch, including a buffet range of salad options, stews, and desserts. Waiters walk around with large meat skewers, offering slices until you indicate you've had your fill. The food is delicious, and there really is no end to it.
Cons: If you aren't a big meat eater, this place won't be worth your while. Although there are delicious vegetable options and grilled Brazilian cheese, the real highlight of this place is the vast quantity of prawns, fish, beef, lamb and pork ribs.
Recommended: Roast potato salad, ox, grilled cheese and the pork ribs. The desserts, which are Portuguese inspired, are also delicious.
Drinks: A limited range of beer and wine is available, as well as a number of South American-inspired cocktails.
Cost: The main reason to go is the barbecue or for the Feijoada, the bean stew - they do a special for Sunday lunchtime with a range of varieties. The all-you-can-eat barbecue costs 128-198 yuan for lunch, or 198-298 yuan for dinner (not including drinks). You can also buy sandwiches, burgers or pizza for 60-100 yuan.
Address: There are five Latina restaurants in Shanghai
166, Grand Gateway Plaza, 1/F, 1 Hongqiao Rd, near Zhaojiabang Rd (6447-2260)
Xintiandi, South Block Plaza, Lane 123, Xingye Rd, near Madang Rd (6320-3566)
633 Biyun Rd, #R5, 1/F, Jinqiao Green Leisure and Sports Center, Yunshan Rd, Pudong (5030-6672)
165 Lujiazui Ring Rd, La Villa, Pudong (3383-0588)
Ambience: Casual and colorful. On a warm evening, enjoy margaritas and appetizers in the patio in front. Inside, Cantina Agave is full of Mexican-style decorations and a festive atmosphere.
Who to invite: Friends for a fun, noisy dinner out, or weekend brunch topped off with margaritas.
Pros: As a young, happening restaurant in the heart of the former French concession, Cantina Agave is unpretentious and relaxed. It has all the Mexican favorites, including fajitas, burritos, tacos and nachos, as well as a range of tequila drinks and beers. You can also pick a shell and select your own fillings, basically creating your perfect taco from scratch. It's a bustling place for a casual night out.
Cons: It may be fun and relaxed, but it's nothing special. The food is definitely delicious, but is fairly standard. And while the outside seating may be appealing on a warm evening, you will have to contend with crowds.
Recommended: The Fajitas de los Gringos are incredible. A sizzling hot plate of spicy meat and capsicums, accompanied by a generous helping of refried beans, rice and lettuce, topped off with a variety of salsas. Truly, as my mother would say, a "taste sensation." The Beef Taquitos, which come with guacamole and shredded cheese, are deep fried and morish.
Drinks: When eating spicy, rich Mexican food, a cold beer or chilled margarita is a must. They have quite a selection.
Cost: Smaller starters start at 45 yuan, although these may fill up someone with a small appetite. Larger meals range from 70 to 105 yuan. A lunch special costs 55 yuan.