At Ecuatoriana, a classic Ecuadorian diner in Harlem's Hamilton Heights, the ceviches are so voluminous, you can treat one as an entire meal, or as an appetizer shared among several friends. There's no better summer dish in town — low in calories, refreshingly cool, and gluten-free.
Of six varieties offered, most luxurious is ceviche mixto con concha negra (mixed ceviche with black clam, $18). The principal components are perfectly cleaned and deveined shrimp, chunks of corvina (a white-fleshed fish wildly popular in South America), octopus tenderized to within an inch of its young life, and concha negra, or black clam. Known to marine biologists by the alarming name of Anadara tuberculosa, this shellfish is traditionally found among the mangrove swamps around coastal Guayaquil, and reputed to be a powerful aphrodisiac. Schwing!
The swart bivalve deeply colors the ceviche, and you'll find yourself fishing in the black lagoon of your bowl for tart shreds of purple onion, chunks of ripe tomato, and fronds of cilantro – which jolt the soup like an electric current – in addition to the solid seagoing parts. As if that quantity of food were not enough, ceviches come with a side of polished white rice or crunchy corn nuts, which may be dumped into the soup to vary the aquatic terrain. Who could go back to tiny swatches of seafood napped in a teaspoonful of fruit juice after tasting this?
While most Ecuadorian restaurants in town tend to be tiny holes-in-the wall in Queens or Brooklyn with counter seating and perhaps a table or two, Ecuatoriana is gigantic, boasting a pair of high-ceilinged dining rooms clad in lacquered brick separated by a monumental arch. A dozen chandelier fans spin madly at all times, and a few Christmas ornaments calculated to put you in a party mood hang from the ceiling on long strings. The front room flaunts an actual lunch counter which functions as a juice bar, and a red neon lobster burns in the front window – even though there's no lobster anywhere on the menu. Other than neglecting the roast guinea pig known as cuy, every other classic Ecuadorian dish is found on the bill of fare.
The fried corvina platter is a rollicking good deal, enough for two to share.
If you've become fond of the corvina in the ceviches, you may want to try it fried. A platter of two foot-long filets, ever so lightly breaded and cooked to crispness, will set you back $13. Accompaniments include slices of ripe avocado; the fried, smashed, and fried-again woody plantains sometimes called tostones; and an undressed green salad that unfortunately contains discouraging quantities of fusilli. Still, the platter is a rollicking good deal, enough for two to share.
In fact, all the entrées at Ecuatoriana are big, which suggests you bring a crowd and pass the plates around. King of the big feeds is the bandeja paisa ($13), which translates to something like "national tray." It features a large chorizo split longitudinally and grilled, and a mass of top-round steak, sliced wafer-thin. This multiplies the caramelized surface area of the well-done meat. In a country where the cattle are muscular from climbing up and down the mountains and expensive, too, the thin-slicing is economical and makes for a tenderer chew.
Orbiting the steak and sausage like indistinct planets, find a llapingacho – a fat potato patty colored yellow with annatto and stuffed with cheese, an ingredient that's one of the few happy legacies of the Spanish Conquistadores. There's a sculpted mesa of rice with a carrot cross on top, as if constituting a high-altitude helicopter landing pad, a mess of white navy beans, a fried egg with a gooey yolk that threatens to inundate the rest of the platter, and that damn fusilli-bearing green salad again.
There are plenty of meal-size soups, too, served with rice or corn nuts at your request. The sopa de mariscos is a tomatoey tour-de-force containing a similar selection as the ceviche mixto, while the caldo de gallina is a tough old hen stewed with vegetables to total tenderness. On the weekends, an expanded roster of soups include the frankly weird caldo de bola – a vegetable soup sporting a brown globe in the middle. Inside the dumpling is a combo of ground meat and boiled egg, which spills out into the soup the minute you cut into it. There's a wonderful caldo de pata ("cow-foot soup," $10), too, which might remind you of the tonkotsu broth used in Japanese ramen; it's gooey and gluey and good for your complexion via the dissolved collagen.
The patches of digestive tissue are glove-like and not at all skanky.
Many of the most desirable and unusual dishes are weekends-only, but it doesn't hurt to request them on the other days of the week, when they may appear at random. I loved guatita ($11), a fricassee of honeycomb tripe and potatoes thickened with a turmeric-laced peanut sauce. The patches of digestive tissue are glove-like and not at all skanky, while the spuds are so overcooked they recede into the sauce. The recipe is considered the country's foremost hangover remedy.
In fact, a lion's share of the menu at Ecuatoriana incorporates potatoes in some form or other, reminding us that Ecuador and its surrounding Andean countries can boast over 3,000 varieties—a testament to the region's impressive biodiversity.
Photography: Paul Crispin Quitoriano