I've known about Amazonas Latin Grill for quite a while, but their cafeteria-style method of service didn't make me want to rush to visit. Also, I assumed, quite wrongly, that because Amazonas was located in a brutally unappealing strip-mall plaza anchored by a Wal-Mart, the fare would be equally unappealing.
But when a friend extolled the virtues of their Venezuelan-inspired cuisine, I swallowed my pride ' and, ultimately, everything on my plate. Since that initial visit, I've been back scores of times, and their meals have never failed to impress. Most remarkable is how delightfully cheap everything is, which may also explain the long line that forms at noon. In fact, they close relatively early ' 7 p.m. on weeknights and 8 p.m. on weekends. With all the businesses in the Sand Lake Road'John Young Parkway corridor, it's no surprise that it gets busy at the lunching hour. What is surprising is how appetizing the array of dishes in the steam table looks. Owners Enrique and Gabriela Vuolo appear committed to serving quality food ' just take a look at the heaps of glistening yellow rice, perfectly caramelized plantains and saucy shredded meats behind the counter and you'll be convinced.
Amazonas is a place you love taking newcomers to ' particularly those apprehensive about the quality. There's a pleasure in witnessing their conversion after a bite of the tender, chunky shredded pork ($7.99 with two sides), the superbly spiced shredded chicken ($7.99 with two sides) or the salty shredded beef ($7.99 with two sides). Even those who'd rather play it safe will find gratification in an order of grilled chicken ($6.49 for quarter-chicken with two sides) ' moist, tender and nicely seasoned. A rare disappointment: On my last visit, the side of cilantro roasted potatoes wasn't very flavorful.
Sandwiches are another specialty, whether it's a traditional pabellón ($6.99) ' a hoagie filled with shredded beef, french fry sticks, plantains and cilantro mayonnaise ' or the Venezuelan burger ($5.99), a must for diners with a penchant for protein. A fried egg and ham add to the meatiness of the burger, which also includes avocado, white cheese, lettuce and tomato. The churrasco ($8.99 with two sides) is a hefty slab of beef, and a wonderfully tender one at that; the price would lead you to think otherwise, but the steak is one hell of a deal. (Be sure to ask for some chimichurri sauce and a cup of their homemade hot sauce for an added kick.) Smaller items, like doughy ground-beef-filled potato balls ($1.50) and crispy chicken arepas ($4.99), are nice options for those who don't want as filling a meal. I wasn't so impressed with the flan ($2.49), but the tres leches ($2.99) and bienmesabe ($2.99), a spongy, creamy coconut-rum cake, made scrumptious endings. Same goes for the marquesa de chocolate ($2.99), a layered chocolate-cookie cake that's rich, but not too rich.
The fact the joint is always packed at lunch is a testament to the kitchen's prowess in churning out massive quantities of food ' good food ' in so short a period of time. The diverse patronage that patiently waits in line serves as an affirmation for uninitiated diners, and guarantees a return visit.