› Where: Conga Latin Food, 26 E. Main St.
› Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday-Saturday
› Prices: $3.95 for tacos to $14.95 platters
› Alcohol: Beer, sangria
› Phone: 423-201-4806
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a series of reviews featuring our staff's favorite places to dine. They are either go-to spots we frequent for good service and conversation, the favorite dishes we order over and over or the one-of-a-kind Chattanooga dives that make us love our Scenic City that much more.
I've had several go-to favorite restaurants over the years and I hesitate to put Conga into that category. For some reason, the places I choose to frequent a lot tend to go out of business, and it usually has nothing to do with the quality of the food. The owners retire, move out of town or the landlord prices them out of business.
I hope this doesn't happen to Conga, though they were forced to relocate when the landlord tore down their original location on Main Street to make way for new apartments. Fortunately, space was made available for them in a new building across the street and farther north, a few blocks closer to Market Street.
Though brothers Alex and Rene Hernandez made many improvements to the original location after opening in 2004, the new place is quite a bit nicer with covered outdoor seating in addition to the open and friendly indoor space.
I even saw mother Eva Rodriguez smile from the kitchen last week. There wasn't much to smile about in the very small kitchen in the old place, though she managed to turn out some delicious fun.
Conga Latin Food serves Salvadoran dishes, with plenty of items that should be familiar to most folks. Things like burritos ($7.50), tacos (3 for $4.95), tostadas ($7.50) and tamales (2 for 4.95). There are differences, however, in even how some of those are prepared. The tamales are wrapped in plantain leaves instead of cornhusks, for example.
Ceviche is also a popular Conga item.
One thing you won't get is a basket of tortilla chips and salsa like you get at Mexican restaurants, which I mention because some folks seem to expect it. Instead, you get fried plantains, a few fresh-made tortilla chips (something they've added in recent months) and some chimichurri and tamarind salsa. I'm pretty sure I could put the chimichurri on a shingle and I'd eat it. It is made from parsley, garlic, vegetable oil, oregano, white vinegar, a few spices and it's good. They do sell this separately if you want to take some home.
Conga also serves pupusas, which are stuffed tortillas filled with cheese and either pork, chicken, steak, beans or cilantro and onion. At $4.95, it's tempting to get an order of two and a burrito, but you'll likely end up taking food home. I know this because I've done it many times. The burrito is huge and the pupusas are good-sized and full of flavor.
If you are really hungry, and you want to try a variety of items, try one of the platters. At $14, they are a little pricier, but you get plenty of wonderful food.
I've liked everything I've eaten at Conga since discovering it years ago. Earlier in the week, I just wanted a burrito and got the veggie with black beans and rice. On my next visit, I chose the Pacifica platter. It came to the table piping hot, which meant the green peppers and onions served over my fish were still steaming.
Fresh is the key word for the food at Conga and that came through with this dish. The fish was tender and seasoned perfectly. The same was true for the rice and black beans. Simple, but delicious.
The plate also comes with sweet plantains, a guacamole wedge, yucca and a tostones, a twice-fried sliced green plantain.
By contrast, the South American Bandeja plate features flank steak, chorizo, plantain, rice, beans, fried yucca and empanada.
The new Conga Latin Food space opened one year ago this month. Like the food, it is tastefully done and simple. The emphasis is on quality.
Conga must be a pretty pleasant place to work because everyone is always smiling. Rene and Alex greet most customers from behind the bar in the center back of the dining space in front of the kitchen.
My waitress was friendly and helpful, offering personal favorite menu items. I visited later in the lunch hour on a beautiful Friday and the place was full, but as I said earlier, my food came fast and hot.
Conga is where my family ends up for lunch when out-of-towners visit. It is also where I end up on those days when I crave a burrito or when I'm not sure what I want to eat. It's good and is relatively inexpensive, with the platters being the exception, but they are worth every penny.
Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6354.