Tasty Ecuadorean fare a bargain

Leave diets at home if you're going to La Cazuela, a find in Upper Fells Point

Sunday Gourmet

March 21, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Everybody wants to find that little hole-in-the-wall that serves enormous portions of good ethnic food at rock-bottom prices. La Cazuela, a new Ecuadorean restaurant in Upper Fells Point, would be my latest candidate -- except that it's not a hole-in-the-wall.

It could be. Owners Enrique Tapia and his wife, Marina Valverde, started with a vacant storefront on a rundown block of Eastern just off Broadway, and they clearly didn't have the money for big-budget decorating. But they created a fresh, cheerful little restaurant. The warm gold walls are hung with pictures of Ecuador and a big mirror, and the tables are covered in checked cloths with glass tops. The TV over the bar plays Latino soap operas. (There's a bar but no liquor license as yet. You can BYOB or order an Ecuadorean soda or various juices.)

As can usually be counted on in a small, family-run restaurant -- especially when only two tables are taken -- the service was right on: friendly, attentive, knowledgeable, well-paced, and the water glasses kept getting filled. I can't imagine how the family would handle a full house, though, so go on an off night or at an off time, or be prepared to wait.

The food is Ecuadorean home cooking. It's filling and highly seasoned, pure comfort food. The Atkins diet might as well not exist; many of the dinners are accompanied by both rice and french fries, and one comes with three rolls. Steaks aren't luxury cuts by any means, but their highly seasoned marinades are good, so the beef is flavorful and tender. A typical dish is churrasco. The delicious but paper-thin piece of steak is flanked by two fried eggs, rice, crisp fries, decent tomatoes and avocado.

In fact, diets in general might as well not exist. Did I mention the complimentary fried plantains with seasoned mayonnaise for dipping that are brought to the table when you sit down?

What would be dinner anywhere else is an appetizer here. A skewer of marinated beef cubes, chunks of sausage, green pepper and onion are slathered in a wonderfully garlicky sauce. Sauteed ripe plantains come on the side. Cost? $5.

Keep an eye out for the specials. One night they included fine tamales -- shredded pork, peas and cornmeal wrapped in corn husks. There was also a fat, juicy piece of boneless pork loin, snowy white all through, seared with just a suggestion of garlic. Rice came with it, of course, but also fresh broccoli combined with -- this worked better than it sounds -- frozen peas and carrots.

Some dishes need no modification to appeal to American tastes. Others are debatable. A thick, heartwarming fish soup of tuna, yuca and onions is a satisfying meal in itself. My friend loved it, but I thought it tasted too fishy. An appetizer like mote pillo, fat pearls of hominy cooked with eggs and green onions, would work better as a side dish to share with your entrees (in case rice and french fries weren't enough starch). The large pile of seasoned hominy, which I liked a lot (hey, I'm from the South), is a little repetitive as a first course.

Traditional seafood dishes from the Ecuadorean coast include camarones al ajillo. The plump little shrimp swim in a lake of liquid that's a cross between a soup and a smooth, thick sauce made of pureed tomatoes and green peppers. It has a great flavor, but too much garlic for me. Three rolls come with the dish; you're meant to do some serious dunking.

During the week, a flounder fillet is likely to be substituted for the whole fish, as it was the night we were there. The fillet benefits from the being in the hands of a good cook, but fried fish is fried fish, even with a slice of lime, rice and french fries. Some of the other ethnic dishes are simply more interesting.

The pineapple pie and the orange pie weren't available on a week night for dessert. Flan lovers will enjoy the three-milks pie (made with whole, evaporated, and sweetened condensed milks) drizzled with caramel and topped with a pouf of whipped cream. I preferred the super-sweet figs in heavy syrup served with a slice of salty Ecuadorean cheese. The coffee was strong enough to take the enamel off your teeth but wasn't at all bitter.

What a nice little restaurant La Cazuela is. True, some things work better than others, at least for American tastes; but other dishes would be bargains at twice the price. And the staff cares about the customer. When I didn't finish my enormous entree our waiter asked anxiously if everything was all right and added the kitchen would be glad to cook me something else if it wasn't. When was the last time you heard that in a restaurant?

La Cazuela

Food: ***

Service: ****

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1718 Eastern Ave., Upper Fells Point

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$8; main courses, $9-$15

Call: 410-522-9485

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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