Visiting Sanctuaria requires a slightly quirky sense of humor about décor as well as a liking for the flavors and spicing of Latin cuisine. The main dining room is strikingly handsome, but a number of the items placed around the room are Mexican objets d'art (our French is more efficient than our Spanish) for All Souls Day, or as it's more colloquially called, the Day of the Dead. A group of skeletal musicians strut along a shelf, and some of their friends hang out in the window.
Sanctuaria was created as a tapas spot, and while the food isn't necessarily what a visitor from, say, Madrid, would quickly recognize, we'd characterize it as pan-Latino small plates. But not very small; servings are generous to the point where Californians would consider most to be entree-sized. And that's a good thing, as tasty as most of chef Christopher Lee's work is.
He kicked things off with a bowl of posole, more a stew than a soup, the liquid thick with bits of chunky tomato, whose redness surrounded the golden hominy like a halo in a Renaissance painting. A generous amount of pork was braised gently to the point of tenderness, almost sweetness, and a full complexity of flavor that comes from an outstanding soup or stew. Lee then sent an off-the menu dish of chorizo and lamb meatballs in a creamy almond sauce. It was absolutely delicious, with meatballs so tender and juicy, the sauce was almost unnecessary, but it sure was tasty.
It's been amusing watching the word “slider” spread to upscale restaurants and acquire respectability. The small, grease-laden hamburgers exemplified by White Castle--and since we've put away our share of them over the years, we're not looking down our noses--have lost their singularity. Now, a slider is what a menu-writer calls just about any meat-and-bun combo a kitchen flings onto a plate. The Sanctuaria offers a “frita,” a Cuban hamburger. Made with pork and Lee has added chorizo, a traditional variation, topping the burger with a tangle of crisply fried potato shreds. The result is exquisite. There are two of these fellers on a plate, and it's a good thing; they're so tempting we would have had a hard time sharing just one.
“Wicked good shrimp” might make readers of the L.L. Bean catalog think of the state of Maine, but the shrimp saute reminded us of the barbecued shrimp that originated in New Orleans. The juices, thankfully served with some grilled bread for dipping, are succulent, tangy and garlicky, not killer-hot but a little spicy and full of briny goodness. The shrimp were what we consider perfectly cooked, a little chewy and extremely flavorful. The only disappointment was the stuffed eggplant, slices of the battered-and-fried vegetable topped with habanero pepper jack cheese much more bland than we'd expected with a name that inspired thoughts of truly rowdy spicing. The eggplant was wet and a little undercooked inside its crunchy exterior. Only the tingly tomato sauce alongside showed the kitchen's talent.
Many fancy cocktails on the drink list, mostly moderately priced red and white wines from South America in addition to representation from the U.S. and Europe.
Affable service, and a good pacing of the meal. And our apologies for no photos. The computer ate them, not unlike the dog's treatment of our high school math homework.
4198 Manchester Ave.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor