A family affair

La Familia’s Central American comfort food
By BRIAN DUFF  |  October 31, 2007
FUSION CUISINE: Central American flavors with Caribbean spice.

La Familia Restaurante | 906 Brighton Ave, Portland | 207.761.5865 | Mon-Thurs noon-8 pm; Fri noon-10 pm; Sat noon-8 pm | Visa/MC, Discover
Sigmund Freud believed it was a family meal that inspired the ideas and anxieties behind human civilization. A primitive band of brothers killed and ate their father, and in the bout of stunned indigestion that followed they created the taboos and moral impulses foundational to the societies that followed.

Perhaps these origins explain why it is so pleasant to encounter a true family restaurant. Only our shared desire to deny our horrific beginnings could make it so touching to see an extended family work together over a meal. Whatever the appeal, it is certainly a great part of the charm at La Familia Restaurante. Everyone who works there is part of the extended Galvez clan. The restaurant often closes early so they can all attend events at the church where one of the Galvez family ministers. As if to include you, younger brother (cousin?) Tito might address you, in a manner at once gruff, friendly, and familiar, as “bro” while he takes your order.

Seen through the prism of family many quirky aspects of La Familia — the flags out front, the rotisserie turning in the window, the fish tank in one corner and the television in the other — become part of the appeal. The food is appealing too. Like the Galvez family itself it is both Caribbean and Central American. The portions are ample, and while La Familia is not Tu Casa cheap, it’s affordable.

Central American cuisine tends to be less spicy than Mexican, and not afraid of grease. True to form the empanadas were deep-fried rather than baked, and the crumbling beef was mildly spiced. More interesting were the tostones — slices of plantain fried and served with a garlic-and-butter dipping sauce. The butter seemed sweeter than the fruit and the garlic added some bite. Ceviche, with big shrimp, tomato, onion, and olive, offered a refreshing citrus zing to the first course.

Both Tito and a man we met in the parking lot seemed to be pushing me toward a sort of mixed grill called El Tremendo — the name of which reminded me fondly of a breakfast special served in central Michigan called The Violator. El Tremendo is relatively restrained, though it’s quite a meal. The steak, spiced and marinated with an adobo that included flavors of pepper, vinegar, and lime, was quite good. The chicken breast and pork chop were rubbed with a mild red spice mixture (perhaps paprika and red pepper) and very tender. A cup of stewed sweet red beans with chunks of yam could be spooned over the rice. The tacos were fine if unremarkable — three big soft tortillas filled with an ample portion of seasoned beef, diced lettuce, and tomato.

On the Caribbean side was a fish-and-chips that is a satisfying variation on a familiar dish. The haddock was a wide thin piece that was moist, flakey, and not over-fried. Both fish and fry had been turned in the red powder, with its subtle heat, which seems to be a house specialty. For dessert we tried the house flan — a dense variety that is ghostly white and sprinkled with cinnamon.

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