Eating the Hand Grenade: El Rincon Criollo Reviewed
In a sane, just and rational world, all I would have to say is that El Rincon Criollo has fried mashed potato balls on its menu, and all of you would already be halfway to your cars.
We’re talking mashed potatoes, formed around a delicious core of spiced ground beef, dipped in batter that tastes something like crushed-up Cheez-Its and liquid joy, then dropped in the Fryolator. They are delicious in a way that makes you wonder at their legality.
I mean, to eat a fried mashed potato ball in this day and age? In this psychological climate of kale salads, yoga and green juice? Baby, that’s like taking your mortality in your hands, squishing it down into the shape of a hand grenade, deep-frying it and then eating it. It’s like being devoured by a lion or dying facedown in a mountain of cocaine—if you’re found dead with a half-eaten fried mashed potato ball next to you, no one is going to shake his head at the untimely tragedy. That, they will say, is a man who went out on his own terms. He was living his best life right till the very end.
But I get it. We don’t live in a world where a simple Puerto Rican carb bomb is enough to move the masses all on its own. Even if I tell you that the fried mashed potato ball is only the third best thing on the menu at El Rincon Criollo, that’s not enough. Because I’m asking you to do a couple of pretty crazy things here.
For starters, I’m asking you to go to Spring City (because that’s where El Rincon Criollo is now, since May of last year), and while there’s awesome Puerto Rican food at the end of the journey, for a lot of you, it’s kind of a schlep. I get that.
I’m asking you to find a place that’s hard to find even if you know Spring City—a small storefront mom-and-pop operation with two names (it’s also sometimes called the Latin Corner II) and zero visibility from any regularly traveled road.
I’m asking you to go to a restaurant where the excellence of the food is belied by its plainness, and judged (partly) by the amount of grease soaking through the sandwich paper. Where the hot sauce tastes like some kind of cross between a Chinese sweet-and-sour sauce and the strained liquid from the best salsa ever.
Let me tell you a couple quick stories. El Rincon Criollo began its life as a counter-service stand inside Zern’s—the (nearly) 100-year-old farmers’ market (and auction house, and professional wrestling venue) out in the hinterlands that’s most notable for being one of the only two places on earth where my father-in-law will shop for food. There was a second location in Pottstown, then another in Maryland. But then came a disagreement with the management at Zern’s, and El Rincon left, and also moved the Pottstown shop to Spring City. Those who know the place and love it like I do have been following owners Luis and Ivette Picon around for years, address to address. Because, yeah, it’s that good. Because it’s worth the trouble.
One time when I was there (at the Spring City shop), Luis got right into the middle of a disagreement between me and my wife over beef patties and plantains. We were standing side by side at the counter, looking over the menu, and I asked Laura what she wanted and she gave me one of those lines like, “Oh, just order whatever you want. I want everything, so it doesn’t matter.”
So I started running down the list, beginning with rice and beans with pork. When I asked for white rice, she said yellow. When I said one beef patty would be plenty, she scoffed and said we needed many.
“Do you just want to order?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “That’s okay. Go ahead.”
“An order of sweet plantains.”
She made a hissing sound, sucking air across her teeth.
“Man, you gotta just get her what she wants,” Luis said, leaning in toward me. “Just say, ‘Yes, dear.’ ‘Yes, honey.’ Don’t you know that?”
Laura said, “Listen to the man, Jay.”
“Yes, honey,” I said, and Luis laughed.
“I can give you half salty and half sweet if you want,” Luis offered. “With the plantains.”
I looked at Laura, and she shrugged. I looked at Luis, and he said, “No, man. I’m staying out of this,”
“You’re already in it, man. Too late now.”
We got them both.
There’s really nothing to the place inside. A few tables. A big TV for Luis’s mom to watch her shows on when she stays late to help out in the back. The kitchen is right on the other side of the counter, so you can see Luis mashing the plantains for the mofongo, filling the little cups full of hot sauce.
The mofongo is one of the two things at El Rincon better than the mashed potato balls (the hot sauce is the other), and I love it to an unhealthy degree. Luis makes it fresh—frying and salting and mashing the plantains to order with a wooden mortar and pestle, forming them into a chunky dome and then laying on the pork. Unlike at most other Puerto Rican restaurants I’ve been to, he doesn’t ladle on gravy (unless you order it sans meat, with just a garlic sauce) but lets the juice from the pork work its own magic. You need the hot sauce to go with it, sure (to cut the starch, to add a little sweetness and heat), but when it all comes together just right, it’s enough to make me smile for days. Just the memory of it has calories. It can sustain me when I’m too far away.
The Cuban sandwich is a masterpiece of immigrant compromise, with juicy roast pork, sliced ham, pickles and yellow mustard all mounted on a plain local hoagie roll soaked in butter and flattened hard on the grill until it goes crisp and soft at the same time. The yellow rice and beans with pork is amazing, smelling of homesick latitudes and the comfort of childhood tables; the roasted pork is rich and fatty, beautifully tender and only gently spiced, its essential warm and comforting piggyness (plus a whisper of garlic, a hint of cumin) enough.
There are pasteles at the counter, dusted with powdered sugar, and a chalkboard specials menu that I’ve never needed to order from because I’m fine with the green plantains, fried and salty and served with a little cup of garlic mojo, or the sweet ones that taste almost like candy from being caramelized on the grill, or the beef patties that are really Puerto Rican Hot Pockets filled with spiced ground beef that tastes like a poverty-struck picadillo stripped of its raisins, its strong spice, and left with just a wistful heat, a faint sweetness, garlic, salt.
Laura loves the food. My kids love the food—the girl demanding to hold the bags in the backseat when we get takeout just so she can swim in the smell of it and stick her face into their mouth like she’s huffing spray paint, and the boy raising up his little fists and trying to fight her when he thinks she’s taking more than her share. But you’re asking: Is this food—that mashed potato ball, some beans and rice, a cooling plate of mofongo with hot sauce—worth a drive to a far-flung suburb? It’s certainly not like Philly lacks Puerto Rican food. You head up into the Northeast and there’s a whole run of restaurants, a neighborhood within the neighborhood. And while I like Porky’s Point on North 5th in Franklinville (the barbecued pork sandwich is great) and the frituras at Freddy & Tony’s down the road in Fairhill, I like Rincon more. There’s something about the simplicity of it. The plainness.
One afternoon, I stopped in for a late lunch. The place was quiet. Luis and Ivette were there, and the TV was on, softly playing some Spanish crooner. I ordered simply—just a couple Cubans, sweet and green plantains, a beef patty for the road—and sat down to wait. I was the only customer, and in the kitchen, the two of them worked together in near silence, one of them humming along with the TV.
Eventually, my order was done, bagged up, the patty set aside and wrapped in paper for me to eat walking. Luis was as friendly as always, asking if I’d been in since the move, if he’d seen me recently. And then he asked me to do something.
“You know other people who like us?”
“Yeah,” I said. “A couple.”
“Then here, take these. Give them to your friends.” And he took a stack of flyers—like 20 or 30 of them, obviously vastly overestimating my likeability—and shoved them into the bag with my food.
“You give them to your friends,” he said. “Let them know we’re here now. Hey, you bring anybody in, you get a free meal. How’s that?”
I told Luis I’d try my best. That I’d do what I could to convince people that a little strip-mall Puerto Rican restaurant in Spring City was worth their time, their dollars, the trouble it might take to find. That an order of mofongo and mashed potato balls could change their whole day, that finding half a leftover pork sandwich in the fridge might be the best part of their week. I told him I’d give it a shot.
So, Luis, how do you think I did?
3 stars – Come from anywhere in the city
El Rincon Criollo [Foobooz]