Tonguing The Black Clam
Down the avenue, Fifth Avenue, where lean-tos sell Oaxacan tamales laced with chocolate mole, vendors hawk Dominican empanadas fried cartside in bubbling oil, and a climb up Sunset Park's mountain reveals a stunning panorama of the city, I spotted two new Ecuadorian restaurants squaring off like Siamese fighting fish. A neon pig with a gruesome sword going in one end and out the other led me to select El Tesoro ("the Treasure"). Passing through the doorway, I discovered a commodious dining room where lavish application of neon formed the only source of illumination. A life-size shark snarled from within a red neon lasso, while across the ceiling wandered a rainbow of glowing circles, as if someone had carried an overflowing glass of neon through the room and the drops fell upward.
If you're from Ecuador, you come from one of three places: the seaboard, the Andean highlands, or the Amazonian jungle. One look at El Tesoro's ceviche-dominated menu indicates a seaside type of place. The favorite target of this citrus marination is concha prieta, or black clam, a species found in the mangrove swamps of the Ecuadorian coast and only recently imported here. El Tesoro's supply is fresher than anywhere else in town, tinting the lime juice an arresting shade of dark gray. The clams are beautifully matched with plump pink shrimp in ceviche de concha y camarón ($13). The extravagant amount of soupy brothwhich is drunk once the solid parts have been consumedteems with purple onions and mild green chiles, and the surface is strewn with corn tostado. These dehulled and toasted kernels have been marketed in this country since Prohibition as a bar snack called "corn nuts," but even before that they were a staple of every Civil War soldier's mess.
In addition to 22 ceviches, the menu offers a wealth of other seafood selections, including a profuse and delicious seafood salad ($10) that also features potatoes and avocados, and the more unusual encebollado de pescado, a light broth filled with firm yellowfin tuna, yuca, and barely cooked onion. Also known as languriango, this soup is renowned in Ecuador as a hangover remedy. Fish such as pink snapper, porgy, and sea bass are also available for a bargain $10, though how they will be prepared is entirely at the whim of the cook. Sometimes the whole fish is bathed in a red or green sauce, sometimes deep fried with a simple garnish of pickled onions and woody, twice-fried plantains.
Though Ecuadorian highland fare is not the point of this place, it is sparingly represented. The neon pig promises pork, and the excellent hornado ($8) is served on a large platter with mote (hominy), tostado, salad, and a small black clam ceviche cradled in lettuce. The flesh is tender and the skin is particularly nice in a gluey and chewy sort of way. Another highland staple, goat stew, was impressively rendered on one occasion with a moist heap of yellow rice; another time it was tired and annoyingly sweet. The usual Ecuadorian weekends-only soul food is also available. Pay particular attention to caldo de bola ($6), a stout broth clogged with tubers, roots, and a big hunk of corn on the cob. In the midst of this welter is the bola, as if a softball had been pitched through the open door into your soup. With a shell formed from mashed plantain, this massive dumpling is chock full of all the ingredients missing from the soup, including ground beef, boiled egg, raisins, and pimiento-stuffed olives, making quite a mess before they spill into the bowl. My advice: excavate the ball from the top and eat the ingredients separately. The caldo is much more appetizing that way.
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