The first Rincon Criollo fell victim to Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries, who seized the popular Havana restaurant shortly after they came to power in Cuba. But the second incarnation of the restaurant, opened in the 1970s in Corona, Queens, by the same family who ran the original in Havana, has fared much better.
In New York City’s small and mostly upscale Cuban restaurant scene, that kind of street cred is hard to top. But if that story doesn’t impress you, just open Rincon Criollo’s menu. You’ll find plenty of Cuban classics, like picadillo (ground meat sautéed with onions, garlic and other seasonings), ropa vieja (shredded flank steak in a tomato-based sauce), vaca frita (flank steak simmered and shredded, then panfried) and lechon asado (a roast pork dish usually eaten by Cubans on Christmas Eve).
There are also a handful of specialties that are harder to find in these northern parts: tasajo (dried beef shredded and cooked with tomatoes and spices), boliche (roast beef stuffed with ham or sausage and simmered in a tomato-based sauce) and Cuban tamales, which are made from freshly ground corn, with bits of seasoned meat mixed throughout the dough.
Thankfully, at Rincon Criollo street cred doesn’t translate into attitude. On a recent evening, the restaurant’s dining room was warm and inviting. Rudy Acosta, whose grandfather founded the original restaurant six decades ago in Havana, happily guided the Cuban-food novices in our group through the substantial menu.
We started with a round of Estrella Damm (Spain’s lighter, snappier answer to Budweiser), which the meat eaters in our group paired with the croquettes de jamon (finger-size, deep-fried hunks of ham and cheese) that were pronounced tasty, if unremarkable.
The real action began with the arrival of the main dishes. Pargo rojo, a whole red snapper swimming in a light garlic sauce, was delicately seasoned with salt and cayenne. The dish was unabashedly fishy in the best possible way—the taste of the fish, rather than its seasoning, was front and center. (Full disclosure: Your humble reviewer, a vegetarian, owes the “meaty” portions of this review to the careful descriptions provided by her carnivorous dining companions.)
The pechuga enrollada (flattened and grilled chicken cutlets with sautéed onions) was lean and also lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, but it left our meat eaters underwhelmed.
Meanwhile, the vegetarians, who had assembled an ample smorgasbord from the many hearty side dishes on the menu, loaded their plates with rice and black beans, maduros (fried sweet plantains), tostones (twice-fried green plantains), yuca con mojo (boiled cassava with garlic sauce) and slices of fresh avocado topped with a few drips of olive oil and a twist of salt.
The maduros were lightly fried, soft and sweet—without crossing over into cloying territory. The flattened tostones were crispy but surprisingly non-oily. (Ask for a small bowl of garlic sauce for dipping your tostones—you won’t regret it.) Tender, thick slices of yuca—potato-like, but more dense and glutinous with a subtle rooty flavor—were partially submerged in a light garlic sauce. The deeply flavorful black beans, tossed with rice, were the perfect carb vehicle to tie the side dishes together.
But the hit of the meal was Rincon Criollo’s Tuesday special, the ropa vieja (shredded flank steak slowly simmered in a tangy, tomato-based sauce) with judias (stewed Great Northern beans) and rice. By all accounts, the beef was exceptionally tender and well-seasoned, like a far zestier version of American pulled pork. For its part, the creamy judias, studded with large pieces of sausage and soft hunks of potato, held its own alongside the ropa vieja—no easy task.
The food was filling, but not unduly greasy or heavy. Still, dessert was out of the question—though we’d been eyeing the casco de guayaba con queso (sweet pink guava with soft, tangy white cheese) and the mamey shake (made from a papaya-like tropical fruit rumored to taste like pumpkin pie). Not to worry—we’ll be back.
Rincon Criollo, 40-09 Junction Blvd., Corona, Queens, 718-639-8158, www.rincon-criollo.com