Relatively speaking, there's not a lot of South American food being served in the Twin Cities, and much of what Minnesotans do know of Andean cuisine tends to involve hang-ups about eating guinea pig. But for a less culturally conflicting—and far tastier—dining experience, Chimborazo and Cocina Latina showcase the culinary traditions of the state's burgeoning Ecuadorian population.
Chimborazo, which opened last spring on Central Avenue, just north of the street's bustling commercial stretch, is named after the highest peak in Ecuador. The nondescript, nearly windowless building, which was most recently Charly's Polleria, looks like an old-school 3.2 bar that's been spiffed up with a few Ecuadorian photos and hand-woven cloths. A giant television is perched in one corner; fortunately, it's rarely turned on. The other night when I visited, a couple of guys with glossy, jet-black ponytails played soothing flute-and-guitar folk music, which added to the restaurant's relaxed vibe. With just a handful of tables and fewer staff, Chimborazo feels more like someone's home than a restaurant.
Across town, Cocina Latina, which replaced Taco Blass's 38th and Nicollet storefront earlier this fall, has a similar ambiance: unflattering lighting, comfy booths, a small staff, and schmaltzy Spanish ballads on the stereo. Here the televisions alternate between amateur-looking music videos and soccer matches.
At both restaurants the Ecuadorian dishes reflect the country's coastal and mountainous regions, so the menus include both seafood and meat, along with such Latin staples as beans, rice, plantains, yucca, and hominy. One of the country's signature appetizers is llapingachos, which resemble cheese-filled mashed-potato pancakes and are accompanied at Chimborazo with a fried egg and tasty peanut sauce. The patacones are another treat: They're green plantains that have been squashed into thin disks and fried until they taste like potato chips with far more body and soul. At Cocina I tried a few other Latin snacks, including the mild but satisfying empanadas and cheese-filled arepas, corn cakes whose fried crust revealed a doughy, gnocchi-like texture and a nice hit of cumin. Ecuadorian food, in general, tends to be starch-heavy fare; one entrée I ate at Cocina came with potatoes, ripe plantains, and cassava root.
Cocina has the broader menu of the two restaurants, also offering Mexican mainstays such as burritos, enchiladas, and some mediocre pork tacos (the meat was a little dry but did have a nice charred flavor). Cocina also offers several budget-priced steaks. I tried the flank steak smothered in an onion sauce, which was somewhat chewy, but not a bad option at 13 bucks. The most interesting dish I tried at Cocina was the Bandera, which the menu poetically describes as a "tricolor of taste," and includes shrimp ceviche, goat stew, and beef tripe stew, topped with a handful of crunchy corn nuts. The dish covered a broad range of flavors: mild shrimp; musty goat simmered in tomato and cinnamon, with a somewhat plasticky mouthfeel; and rubbery bits of cow stomach in a sauce reminiscent of split-pea soup.
I preferred the entrées at Chimborazo, where owner Marcos Pinguil, a native Ecuadorian who came to Minnesota a decade ago, focuses on the indigenous foods he was taught to make by his mother and grandmother. One of my favorite dishes was the stewed chicken, which was so tender it approached mushiness and had spices infused practically into its bones. Also good: hearty portions of roasted, shredded pork served with mote, or hominy, and slices of dense, steak-y, halibut in a mild coconut sauce.
Soups are an important part of Ecuadorian cuisine, and the caldo de bolas de verde at Chimborazo is an excellent one. Its beef-and-peanut broth makes for a light, slightly sweet backdrop to a meat-and-vegetable-filled dumpling made from mashed plantain. I also liked the catfish soup, again made with a peanut-based broth, which was enhanced with silky, chewy hunks of yucca and bits of fresh cilantro.
Both restaurants offer a traditional Latin dessert of canned figs in syrup served with rich, salty hunks of mild cheese—it's a perfect union of opposites. And for those looking for an even greater sugar fix, Cocina and Chimborazo both offer an impressive selection of imported sodas and South American-style milkshakes.
Bright pink bottles of strawberry-flavored Fioravanti have been sold in Ecuador for more than a century, though today they're produced by Coca-Cola, of course. Inca Kola is a popular Peruvian soda that tastes of pineapple mixed with bubble gum, which is partially owned by Coca-Cola as well. The most intriguing choice we made was Pony Malta, another sweet beverage our server described with the adjectives "oatmeal" and "beer," which didn't quite make sense until we'd had our first few sips of the malty, molasses-like carbonated drink.
The milkshakes at both restaurants are whipped to the drinkable consistency of Orange Julius and feature hard-to-find tropical fruits such as the citrusy lulo (or naranjilla) or tomato de arbol (also known as tamarillo or "tree tomato"), which has a sweet-tart tang of passion fruit mixed with tomato, and an earthiness that reminded me a bit of ground cherries. It's as puzzling to the taste buds as it is addictive.
While the weather is still frigid, though, stick with the morocho caliente, a hot beverage Cocina serves in tall malt glasses. It tastes like liquid rice pudding, all sugary and cinnamon-tinged. When our straw poked a heaping pile of corn kernels in the bottom of the glass, it wasn't at all what we had expected—but that was precisely what we liked about it.