Paint It Black
Nobody doesn't like llapingachos. I fell in love with them last year in Quito, where they're the quintessential worker's lunch. Fried to brownness on both sides, these massive patties are mainly potatoes and cheese, though some incorporate eggs, onions, and/or annatto (which produces a surreal orange color). At Quito's bustling Santa Clara marketwhere a slew of vendors offer meals at makeshift wooden countersllapingachos always come in pairs, tricked out with peanut sauce and further add-ons that can be acquired from surrounding stalls.
At Braulio's and Familia, a two-year-old Ecuadorian bar in Woodside, the llapingachos (charmingly translated "tortilla potatoes," $7) arrive discreetly hidden under a fried egg. Comically dainty, they seem almost an afterthought on a platter that also features a tossed salad, a link of the best chorizo you've ever tasted, and a brawny serving of fritadanuggets of pork that have been marinated, boiled, and then fried to oily fibrosity. In the Ecuadorian fashion, a number of other catchall platters are available, including bandera ($11.95), a visual representation of the national flag composed of bands of white and yellow rice topped with shrimp ceviche, and, at opposite ends of the plate, a tomatoey goat stew and a dish of tripe and potatoes called guatita. Though the latter is a favorite of mine, Braulio's version is so bland and featureless that it's hard to distinguish spuds from stomach.
As the name suggests, Braulio's and Familia is a family operation, and the moniker is probably intended to distinguish its child-friendly ambience from that of most Ecuadorian and Mexican bars in town, which cater to a strictly male and mostly drinking clientele. The youngest Braulio cavorts among the tables, as a shifting roster of relatives wait, tend bar, and cook. The menu notes: "especialidad en carnes y mariscos con sabor Manabita," referring to the province of Manabí, which lies along the seaboard, just opposite the capital and two miles straight down as the stone drops, which explains why mountain food like llapingachos and guatita lag behind seafood at Braulio's. As you might expect, the ceviches are killer, and indeed many believe this dish of seafood "cooked" in citrus was invented in Manabí. The length of the list is impressive, encompassing 10 varieties. In contrast to the drier versions served in Mexico and Peru, Ecuador's is really a cold seafood soup, and always comes accompanied by a handful of crunchy corn nuts and a massive plate of oiled rice. Dump the remaining broth over the rice for maximum enjoyment. The plain fish ceviche ($8) was roundly agreed to be the best at a recent meal, sharpening the snapper with purple onions, cilantro, and hot peppers. A close second was the ceviche de pulpo ($12.95), featuring gluey sections of tentacle from an adolescent specimen, a less sour broth, and what tasted like the tiniest trace of cumin.
A third notable ceviche was what brought me into Braulio's in the first place, though there are at least a dozen other Ecuadorians within easy walking distance: ceviche de concha negra ($9.95). Ecuador's favorite ceviche is often translated "black clam," but that doesn't suggest the creature's oozy and chewy texture. This species is one of several that, according to the proprietor, must be imported from Ecuador. Unfortunately, the lag time between capture and concoction means that Braulio's version is more likely to satisfy homesick campesinos than seafood connoisseurs. A better fate for the creature is arroz con concha negra ($11.90), a large platter of nearly-Chinese fried rice flecked with green onions and other vegetables. The taste is intriguing. Even better, the black clam paints the rice a glorious shade of black.
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