You Will Drool Over These Tasty Pupusas

Roma Bistro may be known for their Latin dance nights, but you should go for the food

Roma Bistro
9737–118th Ave., 780-479-8838


What would you expect from a restaurant called Roma Bistro? Italian? Gypsy, maybe?

What would you expect if you saw that it was somewhat haphazardly installed in a disused Albert’s at the glamorous crux of 97th Street and 118th Avenue, and that all the tell-tale red and white signage was still quite prominent on the exterior? Would you expect food from Columbia, El Salvador and Mexico (and Italy and China)?

No? Well, who would?

Roma Bistro cultivates a reputation as a Latin dance party four nights a week, with free dance lessons, karaoke (en espanol) and live music on weekends. Sunday at suppertime, there are all of two tables in the open, community hall-looking room visually dominated not by the two flatscreen TVs but by a giant replica of sandals against a red curtain framed by festively lit yuletide boughs surmounted by a shiny banner proclaiming HAPPY BIRTHDAY over and over around the proscenium arch of what must be the “stage.”

The TV is loud, though, and a chi-chi dinner party with Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Stipe on TLN provides the prandial hubbub that’s otherwise absent from the room.

Garish souvenirs emblazoned with Columbia behind the till hint at the provenance of the current ownership, even as a novelty sign warns one and all that alcohol may be a cause of pregnancy. Our dinner guests, and menus rife with misspellings and unintentional humour, have arrived ahead of us. 

Latin American fare dominates the menu, right down to the fact that some of the steaks are served with fried plantains. If you’ve been wondering where in town to get deep fried cassava with pork (chicharron), look no further.

You have your choice of the aforementioned steak, shareable seafood (platter, paella, soup), seafood pasta or a halibut steak, or you can build a meal out of appetizer-type things, which is what the four of us decide to do. One reason is that two of us love pupusas, the stuffed tortilla taste sensation poised to take Canada by storm any second now. Plus, the prospect of empanadas, flautas and further crispy Latin comestibles make the scheme too hard to resist.

(I’d like to pause here to suggest that Roma Bistro diversify its slate of salad/vegetable accompaniments. Not everyone likes caesar salad.)

It’s not just that pupusas are fresh-made soft corn tortillas filled with seasoned pork and cheese, then panfried that makes them so addictive. Pupusas are always served with curtido, a crunchy condiment of marinated cabbage, carrots and onions that’s the perfect counterpoint to all that seared, melty goodnesss, as well as a lightly spiced, tomato-based sauce.

Now how much would you pay? Does $2.75 seem too much?

I’ve enjoyed a lot of baked empanadas in my life, but Roma’s empanadas are deep-fried corn shells — “potties filled whit beef and patotes” according to the menu — served all on their own.

My perennial co-diner makes her perennial request for hot sauce, and is rewarded with the unique house-made exemplar: chilies, tomatoes, garlic and onions cooked and pureed to mayo-like consistency. The chewy-crisp empanadas contain molten potato and shreds of tasty beef, to which the hot sauce adds a nice balance of flavour and fire.

The pupusas, which I’ve already drooled about, are more than up to snuff — our dinner guests, who had hemmed and hawed a little about how hungry they were when we ordered, now impinged on the extra pair of pupusas co-diner and I had ordered. The flautas ($9.95) — pan-fried tortillas filled with chicken — are served with hot sauce and sour cream and evince the same simple flair as the rest of the food.

Still not quite slaked, we decide to split an order of the Mexican beef tacos ($12.95) and a Caesar salad ($7.95) for roughage.

I found the caesar a touch over-dressed — or under-lettuced — but it did come with four entire slices of bacon on top.

The tacos, though, those made me want to tell everyone else at the table to back off and go get their own — fresh-made tortillas loaded with tender, pink-seamed slices of beef, topped with a lime-drenched salad of lettuce, cilantro and tomatoes served with righteously spicy house guacamole.

Seriously though, I was already full and I wanted to eat all of it.

Roma Bistro may be lacking in their command of some superficial details — the pace of the meal was a little slack — but they’ve got culinary skills to spare, as far as Latin delights are concerned. Put it on your list alongside Acajutla and El Rancho as a go-to for authentic Central American eats. Bring cash. And sorry vegetarians, you are pretty much SOL.

Editor’s Note: Good news from Langano Skies, a staple of African food in the city and voted “Best African” in our recent poll. The restaurant is undergoing renovations, and should be open for business in the next couple months. Elizabeth Sumamo Schellenberg, Langano Skies manager, says they will be able to open in the original location. Check their website for more information.


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