Finding Small Town Ecuador In Small Town U.S.A.

An Ecuadorian restaurant is a great addition to Center Moriches.

Marco Quizhpi and  Sonia Peralta of El Sabor del Pueblo in Center Moriches.

Marco Quizhpi and Sonia Peralta of El Sabor del Pueblo in Center Moriches.

I remember when the first Italian pizzeria came to town and we were all talking about going for “a movie and a pizza pie” instead of bowling and a burger, or even an ice cream soda at the local diner on Saturday night.

Now we watch the movie at home and make giant crocks of  microwave popcorn, or have pizza delivered. Bowling alleys are fewer and further between and we’re as likely to go out locally for Chinese, Indian, fish and chips, Mexican, Greek or German food as multiple alternative choices—even another specialty restaurant in the next village. The fact is, we no longer regard international cuisine as “exotic.” Not even raw fish.

The fact is, we no longer regard international cuisine as “exotic.” Not even raw fish.

Though the spicy aromas seeping through the front door of a new restaurant hint of something “foreign” to our home kitchens, we still smell the familiar processes of baking, braising, roasting, frying and grilling. The seasonings may be strange, but there is allure in the spit of grease and sizzle, the promise of cooking food. Plus, there’s something new to look forward to: the scrutiny of a foreign menu, interpretation, new flavors, stimulating new topics of conversation! Guessing at the spices, identifying the unique peripheral ingredients by name:”Is that ancho pepper?” And meats “Is this goat?” “This better not be hamster!” (A popular crispy critter in South America.) We figure out which food item goes with what (like rice and beans, chicken stew and rice), and mix and match sauces.We’re subtly bewitched.

When El Sabor del Pueblo opened at 430 Main St. in Center Moriches, announcing Comida Tipica Hispana, i.e., typical Spanish food, we all figured pretty quickly that a Hispanic restaurant had come to town, but the next logical question was, from what country? When the narrow storefront first opened about three years ago, across from the Chase Bank drive-through, the menu was limited. Not all the pans in the cafeteria glass-enclosed hot bar were filled. The menu was geared to small Spanish families, mostly women and children that had followed their migrant worker husbands to Long Island.They sat at the few tables for four set along the east wall, or Latino farm workers came for take out. One thing the tiny restaurant had going for it right away was delivery service. Another was generosity. Whatever you ordered from their early menu, the $10 plate brimmed with well cooked family style food. No frills, just earthy country cooking.

el sabor pueblo  04  joan bernstein

The dishes are representative of “little towns in a little country,” says smiling co-owner Marco Quizhpi, a native of Ecuador, who does the cooking, while his wife, Sonia Peralta, runs the front of the house. A picture of their daughter, who sometimes lends a hand, graces the counter behind the register. I did takeout tastings both times I visited. This involved pointing at the steaming pans, while a server placed my selections in a large styrofoam tray. I have to say I avoided the  beans and salads, to focus on the dishes that took more expertise. That was a mistake, since the variety of bean dishes and fresh salads are  quite special.

I pointed at roasted pork with crispy skin, goat stew, roasted chicken, white corn and rice. At home, I ate one item at a time, testing flavors and quality against other experiences. The pork was succulent, a liberal piece of crunchy brown skin covered the juicy  meat with thin layer of succulent fat. The vegetables in the goat stew complemented the distinct flavor of the goat. Goat can be quite gristly. This goat meat had been picked over by hand, to eliminate most of the chewy cartilage. There were no distracting stringy bits. The chicken was actually baked, with a layer of spices hinting at ancho pepper rubbed on the skin. I’m not a fan of the large-kernel starchy white corn, but as a critic, I have to say it was properly cooked; and rice is rice.

I returned recently. The interior is still on the dark side, but it’s not glum. It’s cozy. The wood is polished to a soft glow. The hot food case gleams. There is a colorful glossy tri-fold menu in Spanish and English that describes a variety of fresh salads ($2.50 to $5),  platters of beef, chicken, pork, goat, tripe and fish, with selected sides: soups and cocktails ($10-$13); house specialties: onion steak with rice salad, avocado, and French fries  or rice with chicken, shrimp, steak, peppers and peas $15.) Kids also have $8 options. Prices have gone up somewhat, but that’s only to be expected as the menu expands. You can wash everything down with unusual canned American or Spanish drinks, but the fruit shakes are ravishing. Furthermore, Pueblo caters.

On my second round, I was gratified to meet the owners, lovely hard-working people who bring credit to Center Moriches with their business. Since I was looking for consistency, I ordered almost the same menu items I had previously: baked chicken with spicy crispy skin; roasted pork, again with crunchy brown skin and a potato cake that, alone, will bring me back; onion steak, memorable potted potatoes and sweet plantain. If anything, the food was even better, and additional dishes like tripe, fried blue snapper, cow feet soup, catfish soup, pork and chicken kebobs will bring in the curious, who will soon become regulars. I’m sorry I waited so long to return.

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Joan Bernstein lives in Manorville on land that has belonged to her family for over 100 years, but she grew up on the water in Center Moriches. As a youngster, clamming, crabbing off the dock, snapper fishing and power boating kept her busy when she didn't have her nose in a book. She has bred pedigree Tonkinese cats for the past 40 years. "Eat locally" is her byword whether she's at home or in Russia.