BY JOE DISTEFANO
As the Culinary King of Queens, I’m so very fortunate to live in the most diverse and delicious destination in all of New York City. Really I’m not royalty though, I’m an ambassador, and a hungry one at that. Today, we take a trip to Ecuador via the International Express—aka the 7 train—to savor the offerings at the family run Rincón Melania in Long Island City.
For decades the sum total of my knowledge of Ecuadorean cuisine in Queens was limited to the many food trucks that line Warren Street forming a Little Quito of sorts where one can enjoy such traditional specialties as seco de chivo, a hearty goat stew; various ceviches; and the sunny yellow potato and cheese croquettes known as yapingachos. About year and a half ago though I started to hear my fellow Queens food nerds chattering about an Ecuadorean spot called Rincón Melania located some 3 miles away from Little Quito.
“How good can it be? There are no Ecuadoreans there,” I thought to myself practicing culinary contempt prior to investigation. Good enough to garner a glowing review from the Times it turns out. I’m a little late to the party, but I’m doing my best to eat my through the exquisite Ecuadorean cuisine that makes up the menu of this restaurant whose name means Melania’s corner.
The Melania in question is family matriarch, Lucila Melania Dutan, whose son Nestor Jazmani Dutan and his siblings Jennifer, Alex and, GiGi run the place. Nestor takes care of the front of the house and is also responsible for the decor in the cozy modern dining room, which features at least a half dozen stuffed alpacas, which have become the restaurant’s de facto mascot.
Bolon mixto—a golden deep fried orb of plantain filled with mozzarella and chicharrón— hailing from Guayaquil in the Costa, or Pacific Coastal region, is a great way to start off. It is a revelation: The golden mantled crust yielding to an interior studded with bits of fried pork and filaments of mozzarella. The secret, Nestor says, is that it’s made fresh and fried twice. It takes about 15 minutes to prepare, but is well worth the wait. Yapingachos, a specialty of the country’s mountainous Sierra region, here filled with mozzarella are also excellent.
While you’re waiting for your bolon, munch on tostado, crunchy salty kernels of pan fried corn that are a popular snack in the Sierra region. Should you choose to order Ecuador’s national dish encebollado—a ruddy, fortifying stew of generous hunks of tuna, yucca, and tomatoes topped with pickled onions from which it gets its name—save some of the kernels. They make for an excellent add-in as does a generous squeeze of fresh lime. Back home the dish is a popular hangover cure, says Dutan. “I’ve tested that a couple of times. It does work it makes you full the day after when you’re super hungry. It immediately cures it,” he says.
Mariscos mixtos, also a renowned hangover cure, a ceviche comprised of octopus, shrimp, and bass cooked in lime is excellent and has been a family favorite for decades. It’s served Costa style, with tostones, thick planks of fried plantains, that can be used to make an Ecuadorean seafood bruschetta of sorts.
“I would refuse to like fight about that because it doesn’t make any sense. At one time we were all one country. People like to fight about it,” Dutan says with a laugh when asked whether ceviche was invented in Peru or Ecuador. His Mom may be responsible for the mariscos mixtos, but he and his half sister GiGi take the credit for ceviche vegetariano, a surprisingly delicious combination of quinoa, garbanzo beans, and cherry tomatoes.
Many of the restaurant’s best dishes, including seco de chivo a dish from the Costa region, are found on the Tradicionales section of the menu. It’s a rich earthy goat stew cooked with Cerveza Pilsener—an Ecuadorean beer—and passion fruit pulp, which tempers the goat’s muskiness. “People eat it over there at 7 a.m.,” Dutan says. “It’s not a breakfast dish, but it’s a hearty dish that will keep you full during almost the whole day.”
Dutan who lives in Flushing these days grew up splitting his time between Ecuador and Queens, and his passion for his heritage shows in Rincón Melania’s décor. Several large tapestries featuring indigenous women known as Otavaleñas wearing traditional hats line the dining room. A wall of photos, including one of people enjoying almuerzo—or midday meal—in his cousin’s hometown of Azoguez lines one wall. “Almuerzo is really popular here Monday through Friday, so I wanted to express that,” Dutan says. The photo on the bottom featuring folkloric dancers in native dress may look like it was taken in Ecuador, but Dutan confirms that is was shot in Queens. “That was our grand opening,” he says proudly.
35-19 Queens Boulevard, Long Island City