Dining » Dining Lead

El Rinconcito Chapin is Making the Most of Its New Home and Bigger Audience



The last time I was seated in this fishbowl of a dining room, in a building that had once been home to an Arby's, I was scarfing down a pair of chili cheese Coneys. But even a superlative chili sauce isn't enough to keep a business this big afloat, apparently, as the Coney Co. in Old Brooklyn didn't see the far end of two years.

But a loss for hot dog lovers proved to be a big win for ethnic food fans following the relocation of El Rinconcito Chapin. The Guatemalan eatery, owned by Engel Godinez, had briefly wowed diners at its original spot a couple of miles away on Pearl Road before rolling down the shutters in advance of the big move. Attracted by the promise of soul-satisfying pupusas, adventurous customers who expanded their comfort zones left as newly minted fans of a much broader, compelling cuisine. And if they happened to land on the garnachas, they likely became Rinconcito groupies for life.

It's not hyperbole to assert that Godinez' garnachas ($9) are one of the best things to eat in Cleveland right now. I ordered them as a flier at the old place, having never seen nor heard of them before, and they immediately climbed to the top of my mental food pyramid. That price nets a diner a half-dozen meaty stacks built atop a thick blini-sized corn tortilla. Each bite is a calculated composition of texture, combining plush, corny pancakes, savory shredded beef and crisp wheels of raw onion. Rather than get slapped together in a hasty, haphazard fashion, these tidy parcels are assembled with care, right down to the dollop of salsa and dusting of salty cheese.

The garnachas are just one item from a joyous section of antojitos, or street food style snacks. Taquitos Guatemaltecos ($7) are crisp cigar-shaped tubes filled with chopped chicken and garnished with crunchy shredded cabbage, mild salsa and a shower of grated queso fresco. Dobladitas ($6) are savory little turnovers similar to empanadas, but made with a plusher corn dough. And chuchitos ($1.50) are chubby Guatemalan-style tamales that are filled with chicken, steamed in corn husks till firm, and glazed with tomato sauce.

Fans of all of the above, plus starchy fried yucca and ripe plantain, should consider ordering the Chapin sampler ($13). This colorful arrangement of food, presented on a modern white platter, contains a pair of mini bean and cheese pupusas, crispy yucca fries, golden and gooey plantain, two dobladitas and one chuchito. In the center of the plate is a mound of escabeche, snappy pickled vegetables and hot peppers.

In addition to the snacks department, the menu ticks off "small plates" like pupusas, tacos, burritos, and chile rellenos. Order any of the meat tacos ($2) and you'll receive a pair of warm corn tortillas topped with a nice portion of flavorful meat, diced onion and fresh cilantro. Same goes for the fish or shrimp tacos ($3), except the zippy green salsa that accompanies the meat is replaced with a spicy aioli, which pairs great with the fish. Chile rellenos ($10.50) tend to be packed with cheese, but the more sophisticated version prepared here employs a filling of minced meat, veggies and cheese. The spicy poblano peppers are stuffed, battered and fried as usual and served with rice and beans.

I typically avoid grilled meat dishes at places like this because I'm usually disappointed by the leathery, overcooked food that arrives. Not so here, at least in the case of the churrasco ($14), a house specialty. A hefty portion of grilled skirt steak was well marinated, expertly charred and cooked not a hair past medium rare as requested. "Garnishing" the twin steaks was a split, griddled chorizo sausage that was juicy, snappy and aggressively seasoned. The meats were buried beneath a tangle of tender sauteed onions and sided by rice, beans and an unusual but tasty version of potato salad. The best part of the dish might be the fiery housemade salsa that arrives with it. Another hearty main dish, the jocon ($11), consists of a pair of thin chicken breasts that are sauteed until golden brown and then simmered in a tart, nutty tomatillo sauce. Most meat dishes include a basket of plush corn tortillas.

For dessert there's dulce de leche and silky homemade flan ($2.50) with a smoky, burnt-sugar cap. On weekends, diners will find breakfast items, specials like sopa de res, and limited-edition tamales that are snatched up well before noon.

Not only is the setting a major upgrade — bigger, brighter and laying claim to a parking lot — but the food seems to have improved as well. It's as though Godinez and his team are fully cognizant of the larger stage and broader audience and intend to make the most of it.

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