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For Authentic Tacos and Guatemalan, Two Northeast Ohio Shops Worth Your Time

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I went to El Rinconcito Chapin in search of pupusas, but left a newly minted fan of garnachas.

About eight months ago, Engel Godinez left his job in the kitchens of the Hard Rock Rocksino to open his own restaurant, a small place on Pearl Road in Old Brooklyn. I had heard that El Rinconcito served authentic foods from Godinez's home country of Guatemala. Given that I would travel to Central American just to eat pupusas, lunch was planned.

Set inside a tidy little awninged storefront, the Latin eatery has only a handful of tables, which is a good thing given how slowly dishes can come out of the kitchen. But that appears to be because Godinez is a bit of a perfectionist, unwilling to pluck the dobladitas ($5) from the hot oil until they are perfectly crisp. These tasty little turnovers are filled with shredded chicken, topped with cabbage slaw and served with housemade salsa. Likewise, Godinez doesn't slide the corny pupusas ($2) off the griddle until there's nice coloring on the exterior. Filling choices include melty cheese and beans or pork.

PHOTO BY DOUG TRATTNER
  • Photo by Doug Trattner

Other street food-style starters include chuchitos ($1.50), Guatemalan tamales steamed and served in dried corn husks. These moist and fragrant bundles contain a small amount of chicken filling and are paired with a thin tomato-based sauce. I say skip the tacos that utilize commercial corn tortillas and head straight for those amazing garnachas ($8). An order nets you a half dozen stacks, each built atop a small, dense and sturdy tortilla base that can be picked up and eaten out of hand. On top of each is a dollop of bright salsa, spoonful of seasoned ground beef, raw red onion and a sprinkling of salty cheese.

In addition to the ubiquitous platters of grilled steak or fried tilapia with rice and beans, El Rinconcito offers some interesting larger plates that are worth exploring. Jocon ($11.50) is a chicken-based dish where the meat is stewed in a green mole-like sauce made with cilantro, tomatillos, pumpkin and sesame seeds; pepian ($10.50) is chicken cooked in a spicy tomato sauce; and arroz a la cazuela ($9) is like a Guatemalan version of paella with rice, shrimp and vegetables.

It's always a good idea to phone ahead to make sure El Rinconcito is up and running. In recent weeks Godinez has endured water leaks, a busted window and an accompanying hand injury, poor fellow.

Is there any other two-dollar item worth crossing town for except a taco? Heck, I've driven to Painesville for the incomparable satisfaction that comes from excellent Mexican street food, so the notion of traveling to Bedford Heights for lunch is NBD. Las Americas is not new, but newish ownership appears to have propelled this shadowy treasure into the mainstream.

Las Americas is anything but conventional – in terms of layout, service and setting. In the front portion of the cramped shop, which is located in an unexceptional strip mall, is the open kitchen and counter, where one places his or her order. The rear of the property is partitioned into two semi-open spaces, one for shopping and one for dining. On the left, a tiny one-aisle Latin foods market is crammed with tortillas, tostadas, rice, beans, salsas, hot sauces, dried chiles, herbs and spices. On the right is the "dining room" outfitted with a handful of booths and tables, but few customers elect to dine in; most grab their Styrofoam containers of food and hit the road.

The main draws here seem to be the tacos, burritos and quesadillas, which are the ideal marriage of flavor, freshness and value. Burritos ($6) are stuffed to the breaking point with chicken, steak or al pastor (pork), rice, beans, cheese and onions. Quesadillas ($5.50) are filled with the same choices, griddled on a flattop until hot and melted, and served with rice, sour cream and salsa. The tacos here, though, are where it's at. Fresh, hot and steamy corn tortillas are doubled up, overloaded with al pastor, carnitas, chicken or steak, diced white onion and fresh cilantro. They're $1.89 each and come with a side of the most amazing salsa – a smoky, blisteringly spicy red sauce that improves everything it graces.

Entrees are equally generous in size and value. An order of arroz con pollo ($8.99) contained about a half pound of seasoned and sautéed white meat chicken, a heaping mound of fluffy rice, a side salad with tomato and ripe avocado, and a fat stack of warm tortillas. Others large dishes include sautéed shrimp in a spicy tomato-based sauce, whole deep-fried fish, and grilled steak and shrimp with bell peppers. Mains range from $9 to $12.

Know going in that Las Americas is a cash-only operation and that the joint can get pretty congested at peak lunch hours. Place your order, browse the shelves, grab a seat in the dining room, and you'll be living large in no time.

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