58 E. Old Country Rd., Mineola; 516-743-9365, nwsdy.li/elencanto
SERVICE: On its way to being professional, but consistently charming.
AMBIENCE: Simple and bright
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday to 10 p.m., Sunday to 8:30 p.m. Restroom not wheelchair accessible, small lot plus street parking.
We had just finished our entrees at El Encanto when our server warned us that the dining room’s lights were about to be turned off. It was the chef’s birthday, he explained. Presently the chef, Fernando Falcone, was lured out of the kitchen and another server emerged from behind the counter with an ice cream cake alight with candles. We all sang, the chef beamed, blew out the candles and repaired to the kitchen. The lights came back on.
You want a family-style restaurant? In this simple storefront just steps from the Nassau County government buildings in Mineola, you will find a warm welcome from owner Karina Castaneda, her daughter, Alexa Zuniga; her sister, Lucy Castaneda; and Castaneda’s son, Michael. And from Falcone, a value-priced menu of Peruvian standards.
One night, Lucy apprised us of a daily special in a singular — and singularly effective — fashion: she snapped a photo of the papa rellena (stuffed potato) in the kitchen, and then showed it to our table. We would like it, she said. (We did.)
Potatoes have a dominant role in the cooking of Peru; its indigenous people were the first to cultivate the tuber, between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago. Many Peruvian restaurants offer a profusion of varieties, including the infamous, and alliterative, purple Peruvian potato, but at El Encanto, it’s russets all the way. Our papa rellena was a fried torpedo of mashed potatoes formed around a savory beef filling. It was bested by the papa a la Huancaina, in which a golden sauce of aji amarillo peppers and fresh cheese is draped over slices of boiled potatoes, the suave sauce a perfect foil for the potatoes’ mealy clarity.
And then there are the papas fritas, the ubiquitous French fries that underlie or accompany most meat dishes. You can have them topped with sliced hot dogs in the salchipapas, a Peruvian specialty that I have never learned to love. I’d go instead for the lomo saltado, a sort of stir-fry of beef — here very tender — with onions and tomatoes, served over a big pile of fries. With a side of white rice.
One of my favorite Peruvian meat dishes, anticuchos (grilled beef hearts) is listed on El Encanto’s menu, but was not available on any of my visits, but rotisserie chicken was always in abundance: You can see the birds slowly turning in the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling rotisserie oven. On two of three occasions, these birds were properly juicy and burnished, though one night our chicken paled in comparison. For $17.99 you get a whole chicken with fries and a salad (forgettable) but I’d spend the extra $6 to get the combo No. 2, which also includes beans and a big bowl of yellow rice. Don’t forget to make copious use of the piquant green sauce, aji verde, made with aji amarillo chilies, jalapeños, cilantro, garlic and lime juice.
El Encanto serves a generous and respectable ceviche, citrus-cured white fish garnished with red onion, boiled field corn and seaweed. But, otherwise, I’d stay away from the seafood offerings. Budget prices and high-quality fish rarely go together, and the dry, tasteless shellfish undermined the kitchen’s chupe(shrimp chowder) and camarones al ajillo (shrimp with garlic).
Dessert presented the opportunity to try two distinctive Peruvian desserts. Picarones are doughnuts that tell a story of conquest: Their dough is made with mashed sweet potatoes and squash (foods native to the New World) blended with wheat flour, which the Spanish brought from Europe. Almost all crunch, they are drizzled with an aromatic sauce. Equally fascinating, but less tasty, was the torta helada, a layered affair of cake, strawberry Jell-O and a strawberry-Jell-O-flavored custard. A better bet is the dense, hearty flan. At my first meal at El Encanto there were delicious homemade alfajores (shortbread cookies sandwiching dulce de leche) but these were MIA on subsequent visits.
Missing menu items are one of a few kinks El Encanto has to work out. There are others: If you don’t request your meal in courses, it may all come out at once. Serving spoons may be teaspoons. The restroom is not wheelchair accessible and the hand-towel dispenser is installed so high that a child (or a 5-foot-1 adult) will have trouble drying her hands. I fear for the vestibule-less dining room as cold weather descends, but it will have to be cold indeed to defeat the warmth of El Encanto.