Sultry summer weather makes us crave food from similarly hot climes. A refreshingly tropical drink on the side wouldn't go amiss, either. Luckily, neighborhood Latin American restaurants are plentiful, with most offering reasonably priced rustic dishes that show the influence of Portugal and Spain as much as their indigenous roots. A sampling of the latest . . .
"Brazilians eat rice with everything," says the friendly lady serving us at Muqueca (1093 Cambridge St., Cambridge. 617-354-3296. muquecarestaurant.com). Heaping amounts of tasty, fluffy white long-grain rice accompanied just about every savory dish served at the small storefront café in Inman Square. As its name suggests, the specialty is moqueca, a Brazilian fish stew cooked in special clay pots. The shrimp moqueca ($12.95) was a delicious sum of some basic parts: a broth of finely diced tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro, and shrimp. The vegetables added delicate sweetness to the seafood and the cilantro a bright note. Along with rice, it was served with pirao, a bland soupy sauce made from fish stock and thickened with manioc root.
Another moqueca, the cod Capixaba ($15.95) was filled with tender cod chunks and sliced plantain, covered in a creamy tomato sauce, and topped with a halved hard-boiled egg. As a contrast, the unusual lasagna de banana (baked plantain with a béchamel sauce and mild cheese) was topped with a sprinkling of oregano that added an odd, funky flavor.
A highlight at Muqueca is the freshly made fruit shakes made without any syrups or sugar.
Wash it down with: the piña colada ($2.85) made with pineapple and coconut.
Little La Casa de Pedro (343 Arsenal St., Watertown. 617-923-8025. lacasade pedro.com) is tiny no more. The former Watertown Square restaurant moved into a grand, boldly decorated spot (with striking paintings and ornate chandeliers) in the former arsenal and now has a lovely patio by a fountain. The Venezuelan-influenced menu offers pan-Latin variety from an all-natural steak to quesadillas. The trucha Galarraga ($15.75), a pan-fried trout filet named after Venezuelan baseball player Andres Galarraga, was topped with a sauté of roasted peppers, onions, and garlic, and some lightly fried calamari. The swordfish tips ($18.25) in a creamy sun-dried tomato sauce sounded less glamorous, but, served on a slice of unskinned fresh pineapple, looked and tasted more exotic. The pineapple added a complimentary sweetness to the rich sauce.
Though an empanada ($3.50) was forgettable, the reina pepiada arepa ($5.50) -- arepas, or grilled corn cakes, are a Venezuelan staple -- had an appealing filling of soft avocado and chunks of chicken.
Flan, a universal Latin American dessert, can be so-so, but Pedro's crème caramel-like quesillo ($4) was addictively crea my and sweet (we suspect condensed milk comes into play).
Wash it down with: Mango moijto.
Miami Restaurant (381 Centre St., Jamaica Plain. 617-522-4644) is a lovely little Cuban café, its walls lined with Cuban memorabilia including a still of Tony Montana from the movie "Scarface," etched with the words "The World Is Yours." The friendly staff makes traversing the menu, which is barely translated into English, less of an ordeal. The ropa vieja ($8), a traditional stewed steak dish, was basic, but, served with rice, fried plantain, and excellent baked pinto beans, it was a good value. The most expensive item on the menu was a whole baked red snapper ($20), which was perfectly cooked in a creamy tomato sauce. The fish came with a plate of delicious boiled yucca and onions. Desserts (flan and arroz con leche) are amazingly priced one buck apiece. But it's the batidos con frutas ($3) that are hard to pass up. These milk shakes are made with fresh fruit and vanilla ice cream and no flavored syrup.
Wash it down with: Batido con papaya.
This spring, Taqueria Carrizal (254 Brighton Ave., Allston. 617- 779-0022) opened in the spot where the Salvadoran café Sabor Latino used to be. It's a simple, attractive room painted yellow and plum with a jukebox filled with Latin music. The menu includes Mexican, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran dishes and familiar items such as tacos, fajitas, and burrito.
The combinación Salvadorena ($6.95) included pupusa, enchilada, tamal, and empanada de carne molida. By far the most intriguing item was the pupusa, a stuffed traditional Salvadoran corn pancake, just the right thickness to hold the stuffing and not too doughy. It was served with a mild hot sauce and the traditional curtido, a salty cabbage slaw. Pupusas ($2) are available in different flavors, but beware: The dry bean and cheese came without cheese; the succulent squash and cheese was much better.
Salvadoran tamales are wrapped in plantain leaves, not cornhusks, which adds an individual, earthy flavor. However, the chicken tamal contained bones. Not good. Carrizal's menu seems stretched thin and unfocused.
Wash it down with: Horchata.