Cortaditos, Mexican hot chocolate, empanadas, arepas, tostones, tacos and churros are all among the colourful menu items at the little north end wonder, Cafe Aroma Latino (5780 North Street). Ten years after opening (its anniversary was in June), owner and chef Claudia Pinto reflects on why she wanted to share her love for Latin American food culture with Halifax.
What inspired you to open your restaurant?
"I've always wanted to figure out how to share my culture here in Canada. I went to cooking school for a few years. After completing my Red Seal"—trades certfication—"I cracked my back. It was a big accident, I stopped walking for a year and a bit. I had to start re-learning to walk and I was told that I wouldn't be able to work on my passion for cooking anymore," Pinto says. "I started to study international business and had the opportunity to do research that took me two years to put this business together. It was a big accomplishment."
What attracted you to Halifax?
"I was 15 when I moved to Canada. I've lived in Canada for 30 years and in Halifax for 20 years," says Pinto, who immigrated from Guatemala to Fredericton. "My best friends brought me to Halifax. The first time I came, I said 'Oh my god, there are buildings!' Right away Halifax felt like home to me."
Why operate a bodega beside the cafe?
"Because it comes in handy," Pinto says of the groceries she stocks. "When I want to cook, I have all of my ingredients in the building. It's very hard to get spices that I am looking for. Another reason is because we have immigrants that are missing their food and I know how it feels. It's something comforting that I am bringing to immigrant people to be able to still have, because they are far away but at the same time they can still have certain things in their kitchens."
How do you decide on the menu?
"I bring staple dishes from Latin American countries," says Pinto, who features authentic meals from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Argentina. "Sometimes I use the same ingredients. My food waste is less than one percent—I use as much as I can."
What are your favourite ingredients?
"Corn, because that is my main ingredient used here. We are corn people. We come from Mayan blood. If I didn't have corn I wouldn't be able to make the food that I have here." But don't forget: "Peppers that you can mix and play with in cooking, too."
What is your goal with Cafe Aroma Latino?
"My focus is the share the culture. Not to become rich.
"For immigrant people to have a place where they can come to pick up something, even a small item that reminds them of home: That's the reason I opened the business. This is my happy place," Pinto says.
"My payoff is not money, it's the satisfaction of the people I make happy in reminding them of their good memories from travelling or living in Latin America."