La Kumbala on Market Street is Wilmington’s latest foray into Latin American cuisine. It yields a nice hybrid between the heavily Americanized versions of Mexican food, often served up with complimentary chips and salsa, and genuinely authentic staples that sometimes prove a bit too adventurous for casual diners.
I slid up to the bar one evening in the old Marc’s on Market building, regrettably having missed the weekend party. La Kumbala bills itself a lounge, too, with a large, open dance floor, so folks can dine and then dance it off. I apparantely had missed the bachata contest from Saturday. Since I was there on a weeknight, I got ESPN Deportes and a few mildly rowdy fans. (My Spanish is terrible, but I think the announcers didn’t give Turkey much of a chance of to prevail at RFK that evening).
La Kumbala’s menu features an interesting blend of old favorites and specialties. As well, it boasts the ubiquitous sides: chips and salsa, refried beans, and yellow rice. Skip the watery queso dip; it drips off the tortillas so easily it leaves little flavor and results in nothing but stained clothing. But the pupusas are another story. A traditional Salvadoran dish, pupusas are basically a stuffed tortilla, filled with pork, beans and cheese. They’re easily worth the price of admission. The modestly spicy pork packs potent flavor with its unctuous and reasonably salty taste. The cheese, piping hot, needs to be handled with care. I burned my tongue twice because I simply couldn’t wait for it to cool down before diving in for more.
The bistec in red sauce is a study in contradiction. On the one hand, there’s the spicy sauce, which comes tinged with a tangy tomato base and a healthy dose of crushed red pepper. It’s bright and lively. The cut of beef, however, is subpar and overcooked. It’s tough and chewy—a bit amiss to those looking for higher quality steaks. Nonetheless, the bistec is very much worth trying. The sauce is fantastic. Just be sure to go in with your eyes wide open.
The camarones chipotle also hit all the right notes. It’s easily my favorite item at La Kumbala. Though the shrimp were perhaps a tad overcooked, the rich, smoky flavor more than made up for it. Smoked, dried jalapeños are probably my favorite means of adding spice to any dish, and La Kumbala offers an entrée with a nice balance between briny shrimp and smoky pepper.
Balance is so important with spicy dishes. The biggest mistake chefs make is producing something so potent that the meat becomes irrelevant because none of its natural flavors get past the spice. The camarones chipotle don’t suffer this problem. The spice comes through without rendering the shrimp moot.
During a return trip for lunch, I learned of La Kumbala’s $1 taco special—something appropriate for every bank account. Yet, I still went for a combo meal, with two enchiladas and one taco—specifically, the chicken enchiladas a la diabla and a simple ground-beef taco.
Most diners are familiar with “fra diavola,” the Italian version of “a la diabla.” I’m sure we could do a master’s thesis on why these cultures associate spicy foods with a female devil, but that will have to wait for another day. In either case, diabla/diavola is characterized by crushed red pepper, jalapeño and other high scoble seasonings.
The enchilada a la diabla comes a little soggy, but the shredded chicken is seasoned nicely. A little more dark meat would’ve benefitted the dish, but otherwise it maintains itself solidly tasteful. The diabla sauce, boldly red, with ever-present spiciness, impresses the palate, too.
I feel a little silly gushing about a taco. After all, it is just ground beef, lettuce, and tomato on a crispy corn tortilla—but this might be the best one I’ve ever had. The beef, simmered beautifully, carries notes of the tomatoes and finely diced green peppers. If La Kumbala will part with the recipe, I’ll be first in line.
I sampled a shrimp fajita, too, but there’s not much to say. It is a little too heavy on onions and peppers and, overall, not much different than any other fajita across Wilmington’s catalogue of Mexican restaurants.
Though the menu offers a half-dozen desserts, churritos were all they had during my visits. I was bummed not to taste the flan. But I suggest diners share the churritos; eight come on a plate with an even mix of sugar and cinnamon. Sweet, crispy, and oily, they’re quite good. Still, the plate is too much of a good thing for just one person.
I recommend diners work La Kumbala into their dining rotation, particularly if looking for a few good, mildly spicy dishes. The kitchen staff is doing some nice work. Perhaps, next time I’ll even get to enjoy a dance contest.
7213 Market St.
Tue. – Thurs., 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Fri. – Sun., 11 a.m.- 2 a.m.