Although the Twin Cities is home to at least a half- dozen restaurants specializing in Ecuadorian cuisine, for some reason none of them shows up on compilations of interesting ethnic dining spots, and few people know the food they feature.
Granted, about the only indigenous food item featured in Ecuadorian travelogues is cuy*—a small, guinea pig–like critter typically served roasted or braised. And yet not a single one of the local Ecuadorian restaurants lists cuy on its menu. What they do offer are some wonderful and tasty dishes at very affordable prices. In my opinion, several of these places deserve more attention than they’ve received.
For a great introduction to this varied genre, I highly recommend Chimborazo in Northeast Minneapolis. This small, welcoming storefront may be plain Jane when it comes to décor—think oilcloth-covered tables and a smattering of colorful wall-hung weavings—but the food is lovingly prepared and the real deal. One of the starters not to miss is the exemplary empanadas de carne—crispy turnovers filled with seasoned ground beef. The non-meat alternative, filled with cheese and sprinkled with powdered sugar, is also top-notch. Another great starter is the yuca frita, a serving of addictive, lightly fried cassava wedges tossed with garlic, red peppers, and a citrus wash. Pushover that I am for almost anything showcasing plantains, I’d also recommend the twice-fried green plantain patties. They’re served with queso fresco and, for added kick, a cup of aji criollo—a spicy Ecuadorian hot sauce of cilantro, jalapeno peppers, and cumin. It’s a great additive for just about anything on the menu.
We barely made a dent in the baker’s dozen of entrees. A standout was the flavorful roasted, crisp-skinned pork sided with onion and tomato salsa. It comes with a traditional hominy mush called mote that looks and tastes pretty bland, plus a couple of the ubiquitous Ecuadorian patties called llapingachos. These thick mashed potato pancakes, also offered as an appetizer, are stuffed with farmer’s cheese, griddled, set on top of a hard-cooked fried egg, and served with a mild peanut sauce. The version here would be better with a crisper exterior, though. An order of fish or shrimp encocado is a good bet, if for nothing else than the superb combination of coconut sauce and rice. Also worth trying is the pleasantly surprising Milanesa de pollo, a thinly pounded and lightly breaded chicken breast that would give a good northern Italian restaurant a run for its money. Our only real criticism of a tasty grilled flank steak served with a full complement of Ecuadorian trimmings was that it would be easier to enjoy if served with a sharp steak knife.
By all means, leave room for dessert. The tres leches cake was one of the lightest and best-conceived versions I’ve had in these parts. As for the scrumptious candied figs served with white cheese slices, you’d best grab your share early or they might vanish before your eyes. They’re that good.
Toss in a beer and wine license, free parking in the back, and cheerful service, and you have all the fundamentals for a most excellent dining experience. 2851 Central Ave., Mpls., 612-788-1328, chimborazorestaurant.com
Just a few blocks down Central Avenue is another Ecuadorian-focused spot called La Colonia. In terms of comfort and décor, La Colonia’s collection of overstuffed booths, tables, and colorful paintings is roughly on par with Chimborazo. The major difference is a more extensive menu that includes a smattering of Colombian dishes tending toward grilled steaks topped with fried eggs and sided with all manner of goodies, including corn cakes, avocado, plantains, and rice. For pure carnivore power, nothing tops the picada “La Colonia”—a platter heaped with delicious slices of grilled beef, pork loin, Colombian sausage, bacon-y pork nubbins labeled “cracklings,” and both sweet and fried green plantain. Although some of the meat was a bit dry, that quibble was easily cured with liberal doses of the kitchen’s terrific homemade habanero hot sauce.
Both the spicy meat and creamy cheese empanadas were excellent. Also thoroughly enjoyable was an order of fried ripe plantains that was topped, pizza-style, with gooey, melted queso. The llapingachos here were served with a mix-and-match assortment of pickled onions, egg, tomato, lettuce, peanut sauce, and smoky sausage that could be used to enhance the textural and flavor dimensions of the latkes. I’d skip the nondescript fried calamari—it’s OK, but not worth the calories. The other item I’d bypass is the seco de pollo, a traditional chicken stew that offered a miserly pair of braised chicken legs in a runny, nondescript sauce. To sate your sweet tooth, there’s a so-so tres leches and an assortment of fruity shakes, including an option made with tomate de árbol—“wine tree tomato” juice, a tangy, slightly sweet mixture with a decidedly controversial taste. 2205 Central Ave. NE, Mpls., 612-706-4146, lacoloniarestaurant.com
*Cuy can be sampled at Chino Latino, pending availability. A two-person serving is $45 and must be ordered at least 48 hours in advance.