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Exploring Latin American cuisine on Long Island

Mixed dishes at La Gran Amazonia in Patchouge,

As we were driving through Patchogue, a sharp-eyed friend spotted the sign: "La Gran Amazonia Ecuadorian Food." I screeched to a halt. "I’ve never had Ecuadorian food before!" I exclaimed, executing a hard right into the parking lot. My friend, clutching the armrest, replied, "How different could it be?"

By "how different," I assumed he meant "how different from other Latin American cuisines." Well, Latin America is a big place. Extending from the United States–Mexico border in the north to the tip of Chile in the south and into the Caribbean in the west, it’s almost twice the area of Europe. Its many distinct cuisines are related, for sure, all of them the product of the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas. Columbus and his successors "discovered" foods cultivated and used by the first inhabitants of Mesoamerica and the Andes yet unknown in the Old World, including corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, chocolate, squash and most beans.

The Iberians took these foods back to Europe and, in return, introduced to the New World pork, beef, citrus, onions, garlic, rice and wheat. According to Maricel Presilla, chef, historian and author of "Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America," they also brought such techniques as marinating meat and sofrito, the mixture of aromatic vegetables—most critically, onions and garlic—that, sautéed in oil or lard, is the flavor base of most Latin American dishes.

Another important element of the Latin American culinary fabric, Presilla said, is the cooking of Africa; its ingredients and traditions crossed the Atlantic with the ships that conveyed slaves to work the plantations. Plantains and bananas (first cultivated in Asia) were among the African foods that entered the Latin American kitchen, and certainly that is evident in Ecuador.

That was made abundantly clear at La Gran Amazonia, which Angel Quiroga and Rosa Jara opened in 2020. I’ve had empanadas (filled turnovers) made from wheat-flour dough and cornmeal dough, but never from mashed green plantains. The plump half-moons, one filled with ground beef, the other with mild cheese, had a slightly purple cast and an appealingly pebbly crust.

Mashed plantains figure in many Ecuadorian dishes and tostones (fried plantain slices) garnished the bandera Ecuadoriana, a meal that comprised two more dishes entirely new to me: seco de chivo, a savory goat stew, and guatita, tripe braised with peanuts and potatoes, a welcome alternative to trippa alla Romana for tripe-a-zoids like me. The national fish soup, encebollado, is made only on weekends. The owners’ son, Jhonaton, suggested I order the most authentic, made with tuna, and I’ve never had anything like it—suave and faintly oniony, thick with flakes of tuna and chunks of starchy yuca (pronounced "yoo-ka" and a.k.a. cassava or manioc), a tuber that is another major player in the Latin American kitchen.

Neither Jhonaton nor I could think of another Ecuadorian restaurant on Long Island, though there are a few delis. It’s Mexico that is the wellspring of most Latin American restaurants here—even though immigrants from El Salvador, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and the Dominican Republic are more numerous than those from Mexico—and even though many of those non-Mexican immigrants own Mexican restaurants.

Given the current taco explosion, it’s easy to forget this casual street food is just a facet of one of the world’s most sophisticated cuisines. A place to explore the depth and breadth of Mexican cooking is at the two-year-old Coche Comedor in Amagansett. It’s part of the Honest Man Restaurant Group, which also runs Nick & Toni’s and Rowdy Hall, both in East Hampton, Townline Barbecue in Sagaponack and the taqueria La Fondita, which shares Coche’s parking lot.

At Nick & Toni’s one-acre farm, Coche chef Juan Juarez is cultivating his own tomatillos and jicama, pasilla and ají amarillo chili peppers, cilantro and epazote and more—just as his father and grandfather did in his hometown of Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla—and his pantry is piled high with disks of grainy Mexican chocolate, shards of delicate canela (cinnamon), pink hibis- cus flowers, dried leaves of the herb hoja santa stacked like so many layers of phyllo dough, and boxes upon boxes of the fresh and dried chilies—among them, ancho, árbol, costeño amarillo, chipotle, guajillo, jalapeño, morita, mulato, pasilla, serrano and tlacololero—that have been cultivated in Mexico from about 4,000 BC.

Tamale dish at Coche Comedor in Amagenset, NY
Cocktel de Marsico being prepared by check Jose
Coktel De Marsico at Coche Comedor in Amagenset,
Left: Tamale at Coche Comedor in Amagensett. Top: Chef Juan Juarez at Coche Comedor. Bottom: Seafood cocktail at Coche Comedor. Photo credit: Noah Fecks

Joseph Realmuto, partner and executive chef of the Honest Man Group and a passionate fan of Mexican food, spent a year traveling and researching before creating the restaurant’s core recipes, but he knew that he lacked the palate to finalize them. "Once we wrote the recipes, Juan and his team went in and ‘de-gringo-ed,’ " he joked. Said Juarez, "Mexican food is complex but delicate. A salsa verde needs garlic, but too much garlic, and you kill the flavor. You have to have that taste that you learn from your mother and grandmother."

That said, Coche’s menu is no more slavish to tradition than is any modern restaurant in, say, Mexico City. The elements are authentic, but the dishes are imaginative—vogueish birria tacos are done, not with beef, but with lamb shank, which Juarez braises with halved heads of garlic, onion, carrots, fennel, epazote, avocado leaves, Mexican oregano and guajillo, morita and árbol chilies.

Juarez is justly proud of his mole ("moh- leh"), most associated with Puebla and Oaxaca. (Its name derives from the indigenous Nahuatl word "molli," which means "sauce" or "concoction.") He makes three of them, but the hauntingly complex Oaxacan mole negro is the most elaborate, containing more than 25 ingredients, including tomatoes, nuts, raisins, plantains, pumpkin seeds and unsweetened chocolate, for depth of flavor.

Served with most dishes is a little warmer filled with steaming-hot tortillas, handmade by Sofia Torres. Masa de maiz (corn dough), with its distinctive fresh, earthy flavor, is a cornerstone of the Latin kitchen. It’s made by treating dried field corn with an alkaline solution to help dissolve the outer hull, making the corn more digestible. Nowhere is masa more important than in Mexico, where corn’s wild ancestor was first domesticated about 9,000 years ago.

Handmade tortillas, warm and sweet-smelling, may be the most famous expression of masa, but you must also embrace the pupusa, the masa patty that is a specialty of El Salvador. Unlike the relatively austere tortilla, a pupusa is stuffed with a filling that may include cheese, beans, pork, squash blossoms and/ or the buds of the flowering loroco vine, then griddled until the filling fairly heaves out, barely contained by the char-crisped masa. At El Tazumal in Glen Cove, three come on a plate, with the usual accompaniment of curtido, a lightly pickled cabbage relish.

According to the most recent United States Census information, Salvadorans are the most numerous immigrant group on Long Island—not just from Latin America, from anywhere— numbering around 100,000. (If you’re in a taqueria and see pupusas on the menu, the owners are likely Salvadoran.)

El Tazumal, named for a Mayan archeological site in El Salvador, opened in Glen Cove in 1986, and since then, its well-seasoned griddle has probably launched close to a million pupusas. After owners Felipe and Blanca Villatoro escaped their war-torn country in the 1970s, Felipe found work at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, where he rose to supervisor of the dining room. There were a handful of Salvadoran restaurants in Hempstead and Mineola at the time, but none on the North Shore. Felipe knew that many of the nearby country clubs were staffed by Salvadorans who lived on the premises, and he counted on them and others from his home country to patronize his new restaurant. For the first 10 years, the clientele was almost entirely Salvadoran, but now, he said, there’s a good mix of customers from Peru, Colombia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, as well as non-Latino Americans.

El Tazumal is a true family affair, with son Henry and grandson Edward both working at the restaurant along with Felipe and Blanca. Their other son, Edward, is a chef at Waterzooi in Port Washington but is also a student of Salvadoran cooking. "Compared to Mexican," he said, "it’s plain. There aren’t a lot of chilies—you’ll never have a spicy dish." A huge seller here is sopa de gallina (hen soup), thick with carrots, potatoes and yuca, as well as the chicken’s neck, heart, gizzard and feet. Legs and breast meat are removed after poaching, then smeared with mustard, broiled to crispness and served with rice and salad. "In El Salvador," Edward said, "that would be two meals—lunch and dinner. But here we serve them as one two-course meal."

Chicken is the main event at Pollos El Paisa. Named for the mountainous Paisa region of northwestern Colombia, it was opened in Westbury by Francisco Toro and his son Steven in 2004 and is one of a number of Colombian restaurants on Long Island specializing in rotisserie chicken. "In Colombia," Steven said, "there’s a rotisserie chicken place on every corner—like pizzerias here." Before they embark on their two-hour slow turn on the spit, Pollos el Paisa’s pollos are marinated for about 24 hours in a purée that includes onion, garlic and peppers. The hearty chicken soup is long on giblets—the last time I was there I found six hearts in my bowl—and juicy, flavorful dark meat. The poached breast, shredded, has a place of honor as the garnish on ajiaco. This Colombian chunky stew, a Sunday special at the restaurant, features a wheel of cross-cut corn on the cob and three kinds of potatoes—white, red and the tiny yellow ones called papas criollos.

But Colombian meat cookery is more than just chicken. For sheer value, I don’t think there’s a dish on Long Island that can compare with the bandeja paisa, which is the most popular dish at La Finca in Hicksville. Its topography is reminiscent of the Andes, with foothills comprising rice, beans, chicharrón and a grilled steak that are topped with maduros (fried sweet plantains), avocado and, at the summit, a fried egg and a plump little arepa, the round griddle cake that is Colombia’s contribution to masa gastronomy.

Chaufa Mixta at La Candela in Hicksville, NY.
Elvin and Elizabeth Paulino at La Candela in
Chupe served at La Candela in Hicksville, NY.
Left: Chinese-style fried rice with beef and chicken (chaufa mixta) at La Candela Restaurant in Hicksville. Top: Owners Elvin and Elizabeth Paulino at La Candela Restaurant. Bottom: Peruvian shrimp chowder, or chupe, at La Candela Restaurant. Photo credit: Noah Fecks

Long Island’s Latin American rotisserie chicken places that aren’t Colombian tend to be Peruvian, yet that was a direction Elvin and Elizabeth Paulino avoided when they opened La Candela Restaurant in Hicksville in 2007. Instead, the Paulinos decided to highlight other aspects of this Latin American cuisine that, along with Mexican, Maricel Presilla considers preeminent.

"These were the two areas where the great Native American empires had their seats—the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru. Like any imperial power, they conquered vast regions and cultures and absorbed them. That’s how their culinary legacies became so complex," she said, also noting that the Spanish arrived without women; all marriages were between Spanish men and native women. "So the Spanish captain marries the Inca princess and who does the cooking? The woman."

As in Mexico, the flavors of Peru rely in large part on chilies, three in particular: The russet-colored ají panca lends depth to anticuchos, the skewered grilled beef hearts that are a standard starter on Peruvian menus. The bright red ají rocoto brings heat to ceviches and the deceptively demure-looking pale coral sauce served with many grilled meats.

The mellow yellow ají amarillo bestows a golden hue on the Peruvian shrimp chupe (chowder), and the papas a la huancaína—boiled potato blanketed with a creamy sauce and garnished with quartered hard-cooked eggs—is an elegant take on the potato from the country that first cultivated it.

Corn made its way to Peru from Mexico, though it’s the whole kernels and not masa dough that are more common. Cancha, deep-fried and salted kernels, give peanuts and chips a run for their money as champion bar snacks. Cross-cut cobs float in most chupes; purple corn is steeped in water, then flavored with cinnamon and apple for chicha morada, the Peruvian national drink. (Well, it’s the national soft drink; Peru’s national cocktail is unquestionably the pisco sour, made with local brandy.) And no serving of ceviche at La Candela is complete without a round of sweet potato and a pile of mote (hominy), which picks up the spicy-tart marinade that bathes the fish and/or shrimp.

I can date my desire to visit Peru to the day when someone told me that ceviche was only eaten there at lunch; by dinnertime, the fish is considered too old to be served raw. It’s not surprising that the Peruvians are piscatory connoisseurs when you consider that the country’s coastline is 1,500 miles long, about the distance from Bangor, Maine, to Miami, Florida. Another jewel of the seafood kitchen is jalea, a melange of fried seafood that, but for its traditional garnish of red onions and mote, could be mistaken for fritto misto. "Here we use calamari, sea bass, mussels and yuca," Elvin said. "In Peru there would be more stuff."

One of the most intriguing sections of the Peruvian menu is "Chifa," a fusion of Cantonese and Peruvian cuisines that blossomed from the Chinese immigration to Peru around the turn of the 20th century. The popular dish lomo saltado (sautéed strips of beef) can be clearly traced to beef stir-fry, just as anyone served arroz chaufa could not fail to recognize fried rice. It’s an eloquent reminder that Latin American cooking, the product of Europe, Africa and the Americas, can accommodate Asia, too.

Restaurant information

COCHE COMEDOR: 74A Montauk Hwy., Amagansett; 631-267-5706, cochecomedor.com

EL TAZUMAL: 6 Glen St., Glen Cove; 516-674-9465, eltazumal.com

LA CANDELA RESTAURANT: 495 S. Broadway, Hicksville; 516-470-0805, lacandelany.com

LA GRAN AMAZONIA: 219 E Main St., Patchogue; 631-627-8141

LA FINCA: 170 S. Broadway, Hicksville; 516-935-0951

POLLOS EL PAISA: 989 Old Country Rd., Westbury; 516-338-5858, polloselpaisali.com

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