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Bolivian expats in Queens number only a fraction of those from neighboring countries. That is reflected in the small number (perhaps three?) restaurants in the borough specializing in Bolivian cuisine compared to that of Peru or Ecuador. Elizabeth Murphy, a friend of mine of Bolivian (on her mother’s side) descent had been rhapsodizing about her native delicacies for years. When I learned of El Picante in East Elmhurst, I asked her to guide me through an exploration of the joys of Bolivian food.
The first thing that caught my attention at El Picante was a handwritten sign the said “cuy” in the window. This was not one of the dishes Elizabeth had extolled, but it was definitely on my food bucket list. More about that later.
The menu here is only a vague approximation of what’s on the menu here, so to speak. It is different from both the online menu on their website, and the takeout menu they hand out. It seemed that only some of the items listed are available on any given day. I was grateful to have someone along that was able to negotiate some off menu items for us.
Salteñas were one of the items most touted by Elizabeth. They are the Bolivian version of empanadas, those meat filled pastries served, in one form or another, throughout South America. Chicken and beef salteñas were on the menu, but only chicken were available. The filling was a slightly sweet mélange of chicken, onion, hard-boiled egg, olives, and a few less readily identifiable ingredients. The pastry shell was a shiny crescent flattened at the bottom with a braided edge. Elizabeth observed that there should have been more juice in the filling, and, even without any basis for comparison, I concur.
We were out of luck on another menu item that Elizabeth had talked up, humintas, the Bolivian answer to tamales. Instead she talked them into serving us chuños, an off-menu item. One of the signature dishes of Bolivia, these are potatoes that are traditionally made freeze-dried potatoes. The potatoes are frozen for several days and then thawed and turn black and wrinkly in the process. But looks aren’t everything. They are a bland but tasty comfort food served sautéed with egg and a side slab of a mozzarella-like cheese. If you want to spice them up, there’s always a bowl of green chili sauce on the table to lend some heat.
K’allu is an authentically Bolivian salad made of shredded red onion, queso fresco, chopped tomato and hominy. It has both a pleasant tartness, and the hominy gives it a heft that you could make a meal of. I didn’t realize when I ordered it, but it comes with most of the mains.
Many of the main dishes listed on the menu were unavailable, but we managed to snag some grilled beef (asado) with lima beans and maiz gigante. A very generous slice of beef was flavorfully marinated, pounded thin, and grilled. The beef reposed on a trio of larger-than-life corn on the cob, king-sized lima beans and additional k’allu, lending a pop art quality to the meal. The lima beans were soft and buttery, but the maize gigante was not particularly sweet.
Cuy (guinea pig, pronounced coo-ey) was no part of Elizabeth’s early or recent diet. When I explained to her that guinea pig is an Andean delicacy that I’ve always wanted to try, she recoiled in horror. I ordered it anyway. What arrived was a platter that could have fed a family. A whole spit-roasted house pet came on a tray-sized platter along with hominy, potatoes and yet more k’allu.
Squeaky was pretty tasty, I have to admit, if you can forget what you’re eating. The skin was extra crispy and the flesh succulent. It could easily pass for extra fatty duck stuffed with morcilla (Spanish blood sausage). It’s easy to appreciate its appeal if you can get past some obvious biases.
For food lovers who are intent on partaking of every diverse opportunity, here’s another notch to add to your belt. For everyone else, you can find a tasty interesting, modestly priced (except for the cuy) meal in no frills surroundings here.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
90-17 31 Ave. (90th-91st Sts.), East Elmhurst, Queens
Price Range: Appetizers: $2--12; Entrees: $8--16 (Cuy $45)
Setting: Small, no frills.
Service: Friendly, efficient, fair command of English.
Hours: Mon-Thu 11:30 am - 9 pm, Fri-Sat 11:30 am - 11:30 pm
Alcohol: Beer & Wine
Music: Recorded, karaoke sometimes.
Credit cards: yes
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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