Kanoa Latin Cuisine sits on a stretch of West Grace Street damaged first by downtown disinvestment, then by big parking garages — monuments to our addiction to cars. Occupying a recently renovated, unassuming building — on the outside at least — the restaurant adds welcome zest both to this block and to downtown’s dining mix.
One Sunday afternoon, I arrive at noon for brunch and almost have the place to myself. The long, narrow space plays host to only a few other tables of guests. A waiter welcomes me into the dimly lighted space of exposed brick that’s punctuated with accents of painted and raw wood. A mix of Spanish and English floats through the air from patrons and staff. Within a half an hour, the place is full with more than a few tables of regulars, who chat with the owner, Yofre Blanco, about some recent positive press.
A Venezuelan flag welcomes you at the door, and although food from there dominates the menu, a mixture of pan-Latin cuisine is sprinkled with a few dishes from further afield, like the Italian saltimbocca ($15). But the traditional Venezuelan dishes are the best bets on this menu.
Venezuelan specialty arepas ($5-$8) rival any I’ve had in cities more worldly than Richmond. These cousins to the Salvadoran pupusas are gluten-free cornmeal flatbreads that are split and eaten with your choice of fillings, including vegan and vegetarian options. The menu is helpfully marked throughout to alert diners with dietary restrictions. Try any of the arepas — or any dish, really — with perfectly tender shredded beef, which is delightfully salty and rich in hearty flavor.
Also from the Venezuelan repertoire, chachapas ($8-$10) are similar to pancakes with savory toppings. Tostones ($5-$8), fried green plantains, are topped with ham, cheese, a creamy pink sauce, and, if you want, additional meat. For the indecisive, the combos ($15-$17) allow you to try arepas with either or both of these other specialties. It’s a good starting point to sample food that hasn’t been well-represented in Richmond.
I’m personally a sucker for any country’s version of a hot pocket, so naturally I try an empanada ($4). Don’t let the price or appetizer status fool you — they’re substantial enough to be a light meal on their own. Unlike the Central American version to which I’m accustomed, the dough isn’t wheat-flour based. It’s made of cornmeal, ever so slightly sweet. The waiter, who was born in Venezuela, confirms that this is the traditional style and that some versions are even sweeter. He recommends ground beef and cheese, which is an excellent foil to the sweet dough. The shredded chicken filling has the slightest hint of spice, making the creamy, garlic-cilantro dipping sauce a perfect companion.
Back to Sunday brunch, the El Venezelano ($12) may be my new favorite brunch dish in town. Two arepas are served as a kind of blank canvas, with a smorgasbord of potential fillings: soft, shredded cheese, avocado, seasoned black beans, shredded beef and eggs. I order my eggs scrambled with chorizo, and with a side of plantains they hit all the right notes — sweet, savory and incredibly filling. Pair them with a cranberry-and-Champagne poinsettia ($4), and Kanoa should be at the top of your Saturday or Sunday brunch plans. Bonus points should be awarded for serving brunch until 5 p.m. on Sunday. No matter how much time you need to recover from your Saturday shenanigans, Kanoa will be right there waiting for you.
The menu offers an impressive variety — from salads with an excellent house-made mango vinaigrette, to a few sandwiches, a handful of desserts such as the moist tres leches cake, and entrees that range from Peruvian lomo saltado to the aforementioned Italian saltimbocca. The non-Latin options are passable, but the further I stray from Venezuela, the less interesting the dishes become. The chicken in the saltimbocca, for example, is a tad dry but smothered in prosciutto, cheese and vegetables that add moisture and flavor. Acceptable, but not remarkable.
While most of the authentic varieties of Latin American cuisine remain firmly entrenched south of the river, Kanoa is bringing a welcome infusion to downtown. Great food, a friendly owner who checks in with customers, and a cuisine that’s new to most local diners should make Kanoa a mainstay in Richmond for years to come. S
Kanoa Latin Cuisine
417 W. Grace St.
Tuesdays-Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-2 :30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; Sundays 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
CORRECTION: The word "pupusas" was misspelled when the review first published and incorrectly used in the photo's caption.