It had been a long day. We got lost coming back from a birthday party in Hendersonville — my countryside “shortcut” became an unintended driving tour of area apple orchards — and then endured several tedious errands before veering back south to dine at Sabor!, the Latin American mobile food eatery in Arden.
Tired and hungry, we rattled into the lot, my child and I, on an empty tank. It was barely past five, and already the “bustaurant” was, well, bustling. Sabor!’s recent move — from the food-truck lot in downtown Asheville to its own space in a lonely roadside plaza — looks smart. Isolated this way, with its splashy black-and-red paint job, the bus is a true oasis.
A family was dining out back of the bus, in a picnic space shaded by a huge poplar tree. Inside, the vehicle features two lengths of bench seats, an extra flourish of hospitality that sets it above most food trucks.
Sitting there, waiting for our order to be prepared by Sabor!’s owner/executive chef, Daniel Martinez, I felt myself truly relax for the first time that day. Latin jazz chugged hypnotically out of the speakers. Cushions softened the seats, and the bus windows were adorned with metal leaf sculptures. The late-afternoon sun pulsed in, making us drowsy.
My son leaned against me in a near-nap, and we became absorbed in the conversation of three men, also waiting on the bus benches. By their accents and their T-shirts, I guessed they were South Floridians of Italian descent. A recent vacation to the mother country was being discussed.
“I brought my own water with me everywhere in Rome. My own water and my own toilet paper. That’s what you have to do.”
“What are you talking about? You don’t have to do that. I didn’t do that. Pffffffffttt.”
One of the men fiddled with his diamond pinky ring, a habitual-looking gesture. There might have even been a “fuhgettaboutit.”
Their banter felt somehow soothing. Sabor! has obviously been discovered by residents and tourists used to authentic, big-city cuisine. The close atmosphere of the bus seemed ready to sprout pockets of community.
Martinez, a super-friendly guy who shook our hands and asked our names, is a Miami native who offers an expert array of Caribbean and South American fare. As with any mobile food unit, the menu is changeable and rather limited. The day we visited, many of the dishes promised on Sabor!’s website weren’t listed on the chalkboard next to the bus.
Those missing delicacies included the Cuban burger; the anticuchos (skirt steak and grilled potatoes with aji panca, a Peruvian red-pepper sauce); the black bean and potato soups; and, my personal favorite, what I grew fond of as a teenager in the Spanish-flavored North Florida city of St. Augustine: picadillo, essentially a spicy ground-beef hash.
But at least Martinez was serving what is, arguably, his cuisine’s keynote item: the Cuban sandwich. Nestled into a slab of crusty loaf so long it invoked a surfboard, this hot staple was packed with thick-sliced pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles, topped with slightly spicy mojo sauce, and pressed and grilled in the classic style.
It’s possible to make a Cuban sandwich with all the right ingredients and still not have it synch together as it should. Sabor!’s Cuban didn’t have that problem. It was a pure pleasure. (The bustaurant also serves a version with grilled chicken.)
Tender, shredded braised beef — the popular idiom is “ropa vieja” or “old clothes” — showed up on a sandwich topped with a spicy Central American relish. It yielded the same textural satisfaction as the American Southern version of that pairing: coleslaw with pulled-pork barbecue. In another version, Sabor! ladles its ropa vieja over rice in a simple, tangy criolla sauce.
A Peruvian dish, pollo ala brasa (grilled, blackened chicken) came with lime-infused rice: a succulent success. Hospitality point number two: Martinez prepared for us a slightly plainer version of this dish as a child’s meal.
Side items included fried mofongo-style plantains, a savory interpretation. Unfortunately, Sabor! wasn’t serving any dessert that day. The online menu gushes about pastries with guava, coconut, and cheese, and I couldn’t help but miss them. I’m going to be forward and suggest another possibility: cinnamon polvorones (shortbread cookies), something else I learned to love at St. Augustine’s Latin American bakeries.
Despite the rather short menu that Saturday, what was there was solid and promising. Sabor! has the warmth and the skills to survive. And that mesmerizing soundtrack can only up the odds.