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Betting on the Food

Bowl of restaurant Aroma Latin American Cocina's ceviche.
Sabin Orr

At Aroma Latin American Cocina, Chef Steve Kestler spins diverse flavors into a delicious new concept

By the time this story runs, Aroma Latin American Cocina should have a proper sign out front. Since it opened in November, the tiny eatery has had only a simple banner hanging outside. A few doors down from a Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym and a beauty supply store, the tiny café doesn’t stand out from its neighbors. It’s nearly impossible to see from the street. And, on top of all this, chef Steve Kestler is serving dishes unfamiliar to many American palates. You could predict Aroma would be another shuttered restaurant before too long. If it weren’t for one thing: The food is incredible. What Kestler is doing at his tiny Green Valley storefront is as exciting as any new concept on or off the Strip.

It evokes Jamie Tran’s opening of The Black Sheep off Durango and Warm Springs in 2017. Vietnamese comfort food with French influences wasn’t something Las Vegas diners were accustomed to. The Black Sheep was also in a hard-to-find strip mall stuffed with other businesses. But the food was different, dynamic, and worth seeking out. Word quickly spread. Now Tran is a James Beard finalist, who had a respectable showing on Season 18 of Top Chef. Aroma Latina American Cocina is in different part of town, Kestler is cooking a different style of cuisine, and he hasn’t had the publicity that Tran has. But it seems inevitable that once people find Kestler and Aroma, they’ll be fans.

Kestler, 40, spent years in high-end kitchens, including Bouchon, Bazaar Meat, and EDO Tapas & Wine before striking out on his own with the Maize St. food truck. It was in the world of mobile eateries that he met Yasser Zermeno. The two teamed up for Aroma, with Kestler running the back of the house while Yasser handles the business.

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The pair’s goal was to find an affordable space, which, in the current market, wasn’t easy. So, they took the hidden storefront, rebuilt the interior themselves, including the handmade lighting fixtures and host station, and let their food do the talking.

Aroma offers a tour of Latin American cuisine, which sounds both buzzy and overambitious. Usually, when a chef tries to combine dishes from different countries in one menu, they suffer from a lack of focus and cultural background. Kestler is an exception, however. Born in Guatemala, he serves dishes from his home country, as well as dishes from Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. And, like the dishes from his former kitchen-mate at EDO, Oscar Amador, many of the plates have a heavy, thoughtfully executed Asian influence.

Unlike Mexican or Peruvian cuisine, Guatemalan food hasn’t cracked the American mainstream, but it’s intriguing to imagine what Kestler will introduce to the Las Vegas culinary scene. Consider his Guatemalan enchiladas: “If you go out to the street in Guatemala, you’ll see these ladies on the corner with giant baskets of tostadas,” he says. “They’ll have the pickled beets, the cabbage, the meat with tomato sauce. That dish, I’m not doing anything different with it. It’s just pure nostalgia from back home.” The crunchy tostada, the acidic beets, the flavorful beef picadillo and the sharp cotija cheese are tied together with a hard-boiled egg that adds a rich throughline bite after bite.

Often, Kestler takes an ingredient or experience and puts his own spin on it. The mangonada salad, for instance, is both simple and complex with just five ingredients — mango, jicama, greens, cashews, and chamoy vinaigrette — that undergo a sophisticated preparation. Inspired by snacks he’s found in the Mexican market near Aroma, Kestler slices the mango thin, creating an exotic carpaccio. Then, he sous vides it overnight with chamoy seasoning, giving the fruit layers of flavor that are reinforced by the vinaigrette. The jicama and cashews also are dusted with chamoy, intensifying the flavor profile and adding texture. It’s a provocative plate, something not often said about salad.

Such attention to detail is a hallmark of Kestler’s cuisine. To cook his 15-ingredient mole, he says, is a 10-minute process, but prepping those ingredients takes 12 hours. He uses it in a number of dishes, including a short-rib taco with escabeche that’s stunning to look at and even better to taste.

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Peruvian food offers a natural opportunity to incorporate Asian influences, because there’s a large Japanese population in the South American country; the two cuisines have intertwined for more than a century. Kestler’s nod to the traditional fusion is lomo saltado Nikkei, featuring beef tenderloin, beef jus reduction, peppers, tomatoes, onions, fried potatoes in aji amarillo cream, and acidic sushi rice — a mixture that blends harmoniously.

Aroma Latin Cocina is just getting started. As diners continue to find it and Kestler incorporates more dishes into the menu, excitement should build. “We bet not on the location,” he says, “but on our ability to produce good food. Eventually people will know and find us.” In a town full of foodies, it seems like a safe bet. Φ