Friday, July 25, 2008

The quest for Pupusas - Restaurant Review: Rincon Latino

I first fell in love with the pupusa at the Red Hook Ball Fields in Brooklyn. If you've never had the pleasure - it's an El Salvadorian thick corn-tortilla stuffed with ingredients like gooey cheese, creamy refried beans, or crispy chicharrĂ³n (fried pork rind) usually served with a side of curtido (a spicy pickled cabbage relish). The Red Hook Ball Fields are a truly unique dining experience, now sadly endangered. Tons of vendors from all over Latin America set up stands and sell regional cuisine - all in a tiny space you can try aqua frescas, tacos, ceviches, and yes delicious fresh pupusas. Funny enough, for a city that has just about every culinary treat you can imagine, it's increasingly hard to get your hands on a pupusa. The Diner's Journal goes into some depth about the issues around that here. Ball Fields aside, what was even more shocking to me was there was not a single restaurant between Uptown and Downtown Manhattan.

Fortunately Atlanta is much more pupusa friendly, and I could resist trying them again at Rincon Latino on Buford Highway. The restaurant is in a cruddy strip mall as is nearly everything on Buford Highway, and I was pleased to see that the boyfriend and I were the only non-Latinos in there. Major points for authenticity. The decor is institutional at best, but the prices are low and the food is great, so who cares about what it looks like?

First up was a dish of perfectly fried plantains with a side of sour cream. I've rarely had bad fried plantains, but these were exceptionally sweet and moist, and the sour cream offered a nice counterpoint to the almost dessert-like sweetness. The plate was also huge and was far more than we could eat, so it could easily be shared by 4.

I also couldn't pass up the chance to have an aqua fresca, so I tried the horchata(cinnamon rice milk) version , and it was simultaneously creamy and refreshing. Definitely don't miss it!

Next we tried the shrimp cocktail which had come highly recommended. It wasn't hard to know why people were so in love with it. It came in a giant goblet, and for a restaurant that otherwise dispenses with presentation, it was a lovely site - piled high with giant succulent shrimp and slices of avocado. The cocktail sauce was unlike any other I've had. It was refreshing and light and had a distinct citrus flavor that was a great compliment to the shrimp.

Last of course was the pupusas, I had so been looking forward to. We most definitely over-ordered, and I'd say that with other dishes, 3 would be plenty. We tried pupusa rebuelta (cheese, pork meat and beans), pupusa de chicharron y queso (fried pork rind and cheese) and pupusa de loroco con queso (vine flower and cheese). All were tasty, although I found it hard to distinguish one from the other because the dominant flavor in all of them was the masa tortilla.

Alas, when you really loved something the first time, the second time is rarely as good. The pupusas were nicely crispy and not overly greasy, but I wish the ingredients had stood out a bit more. The slaw provided nice crunch but could use a bit more spice. Overall I enjoyed the pupusas but I thought the shrimp was the real stand-out. Fortunately for $1.85 a pupusa, they were well worth the money and were quite filling.

Rincon Latino was definitely a fun change of pace from tacos and fajitas, and I'm sure I'll be back.

Pros: Cheap eats, authentic, don't miss horchata aqua fresca and shrimp cocktail
Cons: Institutional decor, pupusas and slaw could use more flavor

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