By early evening, the stretch of Jamaica Avenue that bisects Richmond Hill has the eerie look of a deserted movie set. The overhead J train seamlessly blocks out all traces of sky as a few tardy pedestrians propel down the sidewalk through pools of orange light that issue from the smattering of stores still open. By contrast, Rinconcito Guatemalteco (“the Little Guatemalan Corner”) is as brightly lit as a hospital operating room—the walls, tables, and chairs all antiseptic white, the dazzling light beaming from plastic chandeliers. The whiteness is relieved by a few artifacts, including a pair of miniature leather sandals and a rug woven to emphasize the Tikal pyramid’s prominent exterior steps, down which sacrificial victims were once flung.
Even jaded souls familiar with both Mexican and Yucatecan food will find plenty of surprises on the menu. Rellenitos de plantano ($1 each) are stubby lengths of ripe plantain that have been mashed and re-formed around a sludgy filling of turtle beans, then fried to near blackness. They’re sweet and delicious. Another uniqueness is tamal colorado ($2.50), which unfurls from its palm leaf much shorter and stubbier than its Mexican counterpart. Modestly dotted with pork, green olives, and long threads of mild red chile, it glows red with achiote. Strangely, the tamal is sided with a plain deep-fried tortilla.
A further surprise is the enchilada ($2.50). In Mexico, it would be called a tostada: a rigid tortilla heaped with ground meat, roughage, and crumbled cheese. And speaking of tortillas, any soup or entrée at Rinconcito comes with a basket of homemade Guatemalan tortillas, which are half the size of and twice as thick as the Mexican product, too bulky to wrap around anything. Dip them in the soupy black bean puree instead. The same masa is used to make credible pupusas, stuffed with cheese, pork tidbits, or a combination—as good as the product you’ll find in the best Salvadoran restaurants, making a good case for a unified Mayan cuisine. Unfortunately, the tart radish called curtido that goes with them at Salvadoran spots is nowhere to be found.
The meal-size soups include the usual pan-Hispanic choices of chicken, cow foot, and beef ($6), shrimp, and seafood ($12), the latter a disappointment with its single clam and shrimp, plank of fish, and salty, undistinguished broth. If you’re in a soup mood, turn to the menu section called Platos Principales, which carries the disclaimer “Note: Our food is done in the Guatemalan style”—in case you were expecting Burmese, I guess. There you’ll discover pepian ($7), a stew of pork and chayote, the green summer squash sometimes called christophene or mirliton. With a texture and taste something like a poached Granny Smith apple, it complements the bone-in pork fragments in the deeply flavored broth, thickened in a novel manner with crushed squash seeds.
Mountain food all over Latin America tends to be starchy and fortifying, and the mains are massive earthworks that contain, in addition to a generous entrée, a landfill’s worth of rice, refried beans, salad, and, weirdly, a mayonnaise-and-macaroni salad worthy of a little old lunch counter in Dubuque. Entrées range from a simple fried fish to meat-stuffed chile rellenos disappointingly made with red bell pepper to hilachas, shredded flank steak in a mild red sauce. My favorite, however, goes by the rabble-rousing name of revolcado ($7.50), which merely means “mixed up.” It contains all sorts of hacked meat parts in a thick and chile-driven gravy. Beanless like they do it in Texas, it’s as good as any chili con carne I’ve ever tasted.