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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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A La Brasa Latin Cuisine takes cooking over coals seriously
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The yellow rice with seafood, "Peruvian paella," as the menu puts it, was an ample plateful.
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

Madison is in the midst of a major expansion of Latin restaurants: Salvadoran, Dominican, Caribbean. It should be a good time for A La Brasa Latin Cuisine, on Broom Street in the former Tropical Cuisine space, to make its mark. Yet it sometimes struggles to maintain its footing.

The majority of A La Brasa's menu is Peruvian, with classics like lomo saltado (marinated sirloin served with rice, vegetables and french fries - a charmingly goofy Peruvian touchstone), ceviche, and the purple corn and pineapple punch called chicha morada. A La Brasa's chicha is thin, its sweetness amplified by chunks of pineapple at the bottom of the glass.

According to the sandwich board out front, A La Brasa's rotisserie chicken is the best in town. It too is a beloved Peruvian preparation ("a la brasa" refers to cooking over coals, as opposed to the griddle cooking of "a la plancha"), and this kitchen is right to boast. The roasted skin, complex seasoning, and tender meat both white and dark are definitely among Madison's finest.

The churrasco a la brasa - a thin, seared steak - is seasoned and cooked more simply, though a lighter touch of flame would have yielded a more tender bite. This is the steak frites of South America; instead of french fries, order the excellent tostones (smashed plantains served like potato chips) or yuca fritas: strips of fried cassava root, reminiscent of potato but more dense and almost springy.

Sticking to the eponymous style of cooking would appear to serve A La Brasa well. (There's also whole fish cooked in the same manner, as well as a fried version.) Other dishes fared less well. The yellow rice with seafood, "Peruvian paella" as the menu puts it, was an ample plateful. But the mussels were often gritty, the squid was tough, and the shrimp still sported its digestive tract - a turnoff for many.

A visually striking potato and chicken dish called causas had a briney, vinegar note that I didn't expect. Having never had it before, I also didn't expect it to be served cold. It wasn't my favorite; of the starters, the beef heart anticuchos will be the dish I come back for.

Empanadas are made in-house, but I was stymied at a lunchtime visit by an estimated wait of over an hour for beef empanadas. The tidy pocket pies are stuffed with ground beef, slivers of hardboiled egg and sliced olives; the pork tamales similarly include egg. Both could use a more generous serving of meat, though the starchy outer layers are savory and pleasant.

The chicken and rice stew had no heft, but a nice hit of cilantro. Bread, ham and pork were all too chunky and cumbersome for the pressed Cuban sandwich to really fuse. Mofongo (meat plus smashed plantains via Puerto Rico) featured salty, delicious fried pork, but the whole dish lacked moisture. Dryness is a common failing here.

But as compensation, A La Brasa nails its sauces. The egg-yellow huancaína sauce, the cilantro-heavy salsa verde, even the hot sauce that is not nearly as hot as the servers warn - they are doled out preciously, and it would be foolish to leave a drop behind.

There are plenty of desserts, if your patience gets you there. Service can be slow, and even with a nearly empty dining room, the kitchen gets bogged down easily. Stick it out for the cuatro leches cake, which gets its fourth milk from a "frosting" of thick, caramelly dulce de leche. Alfajores (sandwich cookies filled with the same caramel) often sell out, but are worth the hunt.

I haven't even mentioned the lunch buffet because it's hard to keep up with everything A La Brasa tries to do, from its broad menu to hours that run deep into the evening. The earnest staff are willing to explain and recommend. But maybe seven days a week is one too many; maybe being open until 10 p.m. during the week is too generous. A La Brasa does some things very well, but overextension is a danger, especially downtown where the competition is fierce. But they aren't kidding: That chicken really is terrific.

Postscript: Just before this review was submitted to editors, A La Brasa's Facebook page was updated to read that there may be some potential problems due to changing ownership. I guess you'd better hurry.

[Editor's note: This review has been corrected to reflect the original language of the Facebook post, which was misinterpreted; there is no contention between tenant and landlord.]

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