A grand South American villa in The Venetian’s restaurant row is home to chef Lorena Garcia’s newest project, in collaboration with John Kunkel’s 50 Eggs Inc., Chica, a melting pot of rich and robust Latin culinary creations. Famed for her infectious on-air personality in the food world, Garcia’s “Aha!” moment occurred immediately after she graduated law school and took a job as an attorney. “I didn’t even last the entire day,” she says.
She abandoned that profession, enrolled in cooking school and has been making her case with Latin cuisine, culminating with Chica. The diverse menu draws inspiration from classic flavors, giving guests the opportunity to explore dishes from Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, and many more countries.
Inside the Villa
The vibe of the room is sophisticated and social with a few intimate nooks and corners for those seeking privacy. Two large murals of women “guard” the restaurant, dimly lit lounges, swanky bar and seating areas, designed with beautiful woods and velvety fabrics. “We want guests to be transported to the heart of the Latin American home,” Garcia says. “The bar up front flows back through the ceviche courtyard and right into the Wall of Fire—a beautiful open kitchen showcasing rotisserie, rodízio and live-fire grilling. It’s grand and glorious.”
Executive chef Mike Minor is not new to south-of-the-border cuisine. A decade of travels with chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of Border Grill exposed him to Latin American food that’s mostly eaten on the streets and in the homes of local chefs. His made-from-scratch mantra is evident in the regional flavors in Chica’s menu. “What’s been fantastic is his excitement about learning the new cuisines that we’re introducing at Chica,” Garcia says. “And our team is top-notch—more than half are women, I might add—and they are absolutely delivering incredible food on every plate.”
Food From a Latin Kitchen
Must-tries, according to Garcia, start with the assorted arepas accompanied by nata butter (a homemade Latin American butter made from boiling milk). Follow this with the Meyer Lemon Chicken, a brightly flavored protein accented by chimichurri. “I am also crazy for the short ribs, the Asado Negro, which is a very traditional Venezuelan dish,” Garcia says. “This might be Mike’s favorite dish, too. It’s slow-cooked in a rich wine sauce until the ribs almost become black. It’s sticky and unctuous and absolutely addictive.”
Other entrées include the 12-ounce Oaxacan New York strip, which sits atop Minor’s mole sauce that is made with 25 ingredients (and counting). Just a finger lick offers an oasis of flavor that dives deep into the soul. “It takes six hours to make the mole, and the chili negro—with all the spices, like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and others—[it] makes the kitchen smell so good,” Garcia says. The Yucatán halibut is based on the cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork considered to be the king of Mayan barbecue. The fish is rubbed with achiote, then roasted in a banana leaf with pineapple and sweet plantains. A play on classic sides is the Mac con Queso, made with Peruvian corn, hearts of palm and spinach in a Parmesan cream gratin.
The menu dances with Latin attitude right on through to dessert, which ranges from lemon buñuelos—lemon zest–filled Venezuelan doughnuts—to coconut panna cotta and arroz con leche.
At the center of Chica’s space is the ceviche bar, where guests can get comfortable on stools and discover the day’s fresh catch as they watch ceviche being prepared. Chica specializes in Peruvian ceviche, which uses Tiger’s Milk (traditionally called leche de Tigre), a sauce made of fish and lime juice. “The taste is limey and fresh, with a bit of richness from condensed milk,” Minor says. While enjoying this sea-based delicacy, consider a wine such as a Casablanca Valley sauvignon blanc for a pairing that’s bright and fresh.
Coffee With a Conscience
A good meal is not complete without a cup of cafe (or three). Downtown artisanal roaster Vesta Coffee, which prides itself on sustainably sourced green coffee from around the world, has custom-curated a few seasonal Central and South American selections especially for Chica. You can currently enjoy Amaybamba from Cusco, Peru, with notes of raisin, date, walnut and baking spices; Calera from Metapan, El Salvador, with rich chocolate and graham cracker flavors; and Sonora Estate from Central Valley, Costa Rica, with chocolate and caramel nuances. All three arrive in a French press with an hourglass timer that indicates when to push the plunger.