Lively, hearty Cuban food is what Rincon Criollo has been feeding diners in Corona, Queens, since 1976. Now, the restaurant has opened a branch in Huntington Station. And that means a Latin alternative to eateries at the nearby Walt Whitman Shops.
In a setting as handsome as it is homey, you'll find heavy wood furnishings, red checkered cloths and friendly service. To start, consider chorizo Espanol, mildly spicy sliced sausage. The tamal Cubano may look beige, but is anything but boring. The Cuban cousin of the Mexican tamale, made with corn and roasted pork, is moist, light and highly seasoned. In comparison, ham croquettes seem a bit dull. Salty yet satisfying are crisp frituras de bacalao, or codfish fritters.
Most dishes are served in casseroles that lend themselves to family-style eating. Something you might want to hoard for yourself is ropa vieja, softly stewed shreds of beef in a rich and mellow tomato sauce. A red wine tomato sauce blankets oxtail stew, the bones loaded with tender meat. It's a dish that tastes like home -- even if you never grew up eating it.
Not on the menu, but always available, is a first-rate Cuban sandwich. Another off-menu dish, roasted chicken, is infused with the flavor of its marinade, although it's not a dish for the salt-sensitive. The same holds true of chicken cutlets broiled in garlic sauce, the thinly sliced breasts surprisingly tender and flavorful. Lechon asado, or roast pork, comes in savory juices; some pieces are moister than others. If you want to repel vampires, try the camarones ajillo, shrimp in a white wine, butter and garlic sauce, emphasis on the garlic.
Top side dishes: Fried sweet or green plantains. And rice and beans cooked together with bacon. A waiter advises ordering cut-up avocado. It's an inspired suggestion that works with virtually everything.
To drink with your meal: A potent sangria. Or a tropical fruit shake in the flavor called mamey, which tastes a little like raspberry with a hint of chocolate.
Finish with custardy, silky flan de leche topped with caramel sauce. And it doesn't end there. With the check comes a little glass of creme de cacao topped with evaporated milk. Stir it with a cherry-topped toothpick and drink to good eating, Cuban-style.