Ask Yosi Sarshalom where he's from and the first thing he'll tell you is that he's Jewish. Then that he's from Venezuela. Press a bit further, and he'll explain that his mother came to the Americas from Syria via Israel. At his Upper Kirby restaurant, Gusto Gourmet, all of those influences make themselves known. It's rare to see a Latin menu free of pork, but this one very nearly is, save a ham-and-cheese cachapa. But the greatest impact is in the menu items that combine both Venezuelan and Syrian influences in a single dish.
The best of these is the Latin kibbeh. In the Levant, fried kibbeh tends to mean seasoned, ground lamb or beef served in a crisp jacket made from bulgur. Sarshalom's beef mix practically exhales cinnamon and clove, revealing flavors distinct to the Middle East. But instead of groats, his crumbly meat is encased in a layer of yucca batter that resembles a miniature Twinkie. Hard as it may try, though, a Twinkie has never been as ethereal. The croquette-like coating crunches and melts at first bite, which makes it difficult, though worthwhile, to dip the dough in its accompanying cilantro-spiked sauce.
Much of the menu sticks to one country or another: Arepas and cachapas are mostly filled with Latin ingredients such as plantains and Venezuelan cheese, while pita sandwiches are stuffed with falafel or kafta. But the anomalies that combine the two traditions are the most fun. Case in point, the pabellón pita sandwich. I hope the pita takes no offense if I describe it as plump—it's so soft, chewy and lusciously warm that it just seems appropriate. Within its doughy crevices lie the key components of the unofficial national dish of Venezuela. Shreds of braised beef tangle around stewed black beans and a single sweet plantain in each third. It's all dressed in cool, tangy tahini. Should it work? Probably not. Does it work? Absolutely.
Then there's the falafel tostada. The stiff base isn't a tortilla, but a thin, flat layer of the chickpea fritter. It's spread with hummus, a bit of spicy muhammara, just enough tabouleh to make an impact but not a mess, and more zig-zags of tahini. It's smart, a bit witty and a lot satisfying. And that's what all good fusion should be.