Ecuador is perhaps best known for its Galápagos Islands, but the food's not bad, either. Chef Rosa Rosas prepares some of the best in the Valley at Mi Cocina, Mi Pais, a restaurant tucked away in a northwest Phoenix strip mall.
Tapestries on the mango-colored walls are decorated with flamingos, parrots and turtles, reminders that you're in a restaurant paying homage to a land most of us only learned about in social studies class.
So it's not surprising that a newcomer is at a loss as to what to order. Rosas, or any of the Ecuadoran customers on hand -- there are often several -- will gladly help. To start, Rosas suggests the ceviche de concha (clam) and ceviche de pescado (fish). Both are loaded with juicy red onions, much to the delight of diner Amparo Chavez, who lunges toward her dark fishy cocktail the way a mother would a lost child. "I always call first so it can be waiting for me," the regular says.
Mi Cocina, Mi Pais Restaurant Lation
4221 West Bell Road
9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
On a recent visit, a dozen people pack the tiny place. Today, most order the carne asada plate, Ecuadoran style. Instead of the usual sides one associates with food from south of the border (tortillas, pinto beans, Spanish rice), the flat steak comes with lentils, white rice and patacones -- fried, pounded plantain chips.
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Another popular item is the pescado a la Huancavilca, a boneless, grilled rainbow trout fillet that is favored by nearby retirees living in the Sun Cities. Empanadas are practically national treasures in Latin America, and Rosas doesn't disappoint with her pork (chancho) and chicken filled meat pies.
And since there are no jalapeños, ask for the Aji del diablo, a pico de gallo with Aji peppers and some serious kick. To wash things down, and to relieve the pain, order the avena helado (an oat drink) and the chicha morada (made with blue corn).
For dessert, the torta de camote (sweet potato pie) stands out. Rosas sounds sad as she reports that the flan de coco is all gone. "It's the best."
After this meal, it's easy to believe her. A return trip is certainly in order.