Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 | 9:04 a.m.
Look up Mexican restaurants in Las Vegas on yelp.com and more than 500 entries will come up. It is safe to say that most Las Vegas residents know where to find a carne asada taco or even a good chicken mole.
Restaurants representing Mexico's Latin American neighbors, though, are a little more elusive. There are a host of restaurants in the valley representing the cuisines of Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina and other Central and South American countries.
Diners who stick to Mexican restaurants are missing out on arepas, pupusas, empanadas, soups and ceviches that can only be found by exploring Las Vegas offerings from the rest of Latin America.
Many of the restaurants on this list serve their own versions of Mexican favorites, too, so the less adventurous will still likely find something familiar. As the temperatures drop, it also is important to note that the majority of the restaurants on this list offer some form of hearty, meat and vegetable stew that makes for a great wintertime lunch.
1122 S. Maryland Parkway; 385-7309
The Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario said: "Si la patria es pequeña, uno grande la sueña." ("If the homeland is small, one dreams it large.")
The quote is on the cover of Doña Maria's menu, and it could apply to the restaurant as well as Nicaragua. The small restaurant in a yellow house dreams up big flavors.
Start with a "fritanga." In Nicaragua, the word refers to restaurants that serve typical Nicaraguan dishes, and at Doña Norma's, it refers to a traditional plate of plantains, red beans and rice, fried cheese and tender, juicy grilled beef or pork.
On Saturdays and Sundays, they offer robust stews like chicken soup with chicken meatballs and mondongo, a beef tripe soup.
The restaurant is good for eating in or take out, but leave your plastic at home, Doña Norma's restaurant only accepts cash.
4760 S. Eastern Ave.; 341-7776
This east Las Vegas eatery leaves no doubt about its specialty with its straightforward name.
The pupusa is a traditional Salvadoran dish involving a thick corn dough patty that is stuffed with a variety of fillings. The pupusas are served with tomato-based salsa and curtido, lightly fermented shredded slaw with red chilies and vinegar.
Las Pupusas also serves up seafood specialties and a full gamut of Mexican dishes.
4632 S. Maryland Parkway; 736-3089
Across from UNLV's main campus in a strip mall, this primarily Guatemalan restaurant also serves El Salvadoran and Mexican dishes.
The pupusas come with a variety of fillings, including pork, chicken, beef and vegetarian options. Many of the lunch specials — which include fish, shrimp, steak, chicken and pork platters served with salad, rice and beans — come in at less than $10.
The small restaurant with no more than a dozen tables is painted in white and blue and covered in mementos from Guatemala.
Viva Las Arepas
1516 Las Vegas Blvd. South; 366-9696
There is limited seating available at this street-side stand, but most customers scarf down the grilled cornmeal patties with various fillings so fast that standing is no great burden.
The arepa is common in Venezuela and Colombia and, like the pupusa, is made with corn dough. At Viva Las Arepas, the arepas sandwich the filling of choice rather than encasing it, like the pupusas.
Fillings include beef, chicken, ham, cheese, beans and shrimp, and the arepas are gluten free. Viva Las Arepas also offers empanadas and hallaca, a mixture of beef, pork, chicken, raisins, vegetables, olives and capers wrapped in cornmeal dough, and then wrapped in plantain leaves, tied with string and boiled.
Rincon de Buenos Aires
5300 Spring Mountain Road; 257-3331
Hidden among the numerous Asian cuisine-dominated strip malls of the Chinatown corridor of Spring Mountain Road is Rincon de Buenos Aires, a half-restaurant, half-market that serves authentic Argentine cuisine from milanesa to empanadas. The empanadas, stuffed pastries, are especially tasty and a great snack while on the run.
Argentina has a strong Italian influence, and that also is reflected in the menu, which offers several pasta dishes, including gnocchi, a dish that is given its own day in Argentina. On the 29th of every month, it is a tradition for people to get together and eat gnocchi.
The market offers cuts of meat, cheese, sandwiches and empanadas to go as well as a range of South American products from coffee to sodas and Argentina's favorite beer, Quilmes.
Oiga, Mire, Vea Colombian Cuisine
2580 S. Decatur Blvd.; 221-4359
The Colombians know comfort food, and Oiga, Mire, Vea offers up some of the classic dishes that warm the body and soul.
One traditional Colombian dish on the menu, ajiaco — a chicken soup with potatoes and corn — is a great cold-weather warm-up. They also offer bunuelos — fried balls of dough filled with cheese — arepas, mondongo, and a variety of fish, beef and chicken dishes.
The restaurant also has a sweet selection of South American sodas from Brazil's guarana soda to the Inca Kola of Peru.
Mi Peru South American Grill
1450 W. Horizon Ridge Parkway; 220-4652
Mi Peru serves up the full gamut of classic Peruvian dishes, except for guinea pig, which has not quite caught on in the United States yet.
A great way to start a meal is with the Peruvian ceviche, which has larger pieces of fish than its Mexican cousin and also is served with sweet potatoes and both fresh and toasted corn kernels.
Other items include a range of grilled skewers, whole fish and shrimp dishes, pork and steak platters, and a half-dozen soups.
Thursday through Sunday after 3 p.m., Mi Peru serves up its special recipe roasted chicken.
• Fogo de Chao
360 E. Flamingo Road; 431-4500
• Texas de Brazil
6533 Las Vegas Blvd. South; 614-0080
• Via Brasil Steakhouse
1225 S. Fort Apache Road; 804-1400
The Brazilian churrascaria, or steakhouse, has caught on in the United States, and with good reason. What carnivore doesn't salivate at the sound of all-you-can eat meat delivered to your plate on the spit on which it was barbecued?
There's a number of Brazilian-style steakhouses in the valley, including popular national chains Fogo de Chao and Texas de Brazil.
Typically, diners tackle a salad and sides bar before returning to their table and preparing for the deluge of meats in all cuts and varieties that are delivered right to your table.
• Rincon Criollo
1145 Las Vegas Blvd. South; 388-1906
• Havana Grill
8878 S. Eastern Ave.; 932-9310
Cuba is really a Caribbean country, not Central or South American, but the island's cuisine, like the other countries on this list excluding Brazil, mixes Spanish culinary traditions with other influences.
Both Rincon Criollo and the Havana Grill are longtime Las Vegas staples that deliver the traditional Cuban sandwiches and fried plantains along with other dishes.
Try the ropa vieja, a classic Cuban dish meaning "old clothes" that is typically made of shredded beef marinated in a tomato-based sauce. Don't forget the side of moros y cristianos, black beans and rice.