Cafe Reviews

El Rinconcito: Mexico City Street Food in Sunnyslope

El Rinconcito del D.F. in Sunnyslope is less a restaurant and more a Mexico City street scene that's found its way indoors.

A hangout for the neighborhood's locals, it's a place where giant, creamy licuados and bottles of ice cold Sidral Mundet flow as easily as the conversations of families and friends, where servers hurry back and forth ladling bowlful after bowlful of steaming, rusty-red menudo from enormous steel pots to hungry men, and where the air is sometimes so thick with the aroma of just-made carnitas that even a thick slice of avocado seems to possess the flavor of the lusciously tender pork.

But El Rinconcito is not for everyone.

Its ideal customer is one who can accept a single row of fluorescent tube lighting and a few plants as acceptable dining décor in which to wolf down a huarache nearly hanging off its plate, piled with enough flavorful meat that its foundation of masa barely can be seen. Someone who isn't concerned that the sweat on her brow is the result of an unusually warm room full of diners packed together at family-style tables as much as it is from the slow burn of green salsa atop a street taco spilling over with moist and fatty bits of carne asada. And someone who doesn't mind that, on the weekends, if she's eating a chunky piece of succulent lamb from a fragrant bowl of consome, shimmering with oil, there's a good chance she'll see another one of its kind being rendered on a wood block several feet away.

Unlike Oaxaca Restaurant, its better-known neighbor, El Rinconcito can't claim a quirky home inside a bowling alley. But then, it doesn't seem to care. Like its name, which translates to "the corner of Distrito Federal" (the district that includes Mexico City), the 10-year-old family-owned restaurant seems to have been plucked straight from its urban setting. A well-worn, non-descript spot, El Rinconcito is no-frills at its finest, cash-only and dirt-cheap and home to some exceptional real-deal Mexican street food — including a few tough-to-find gems you may never have heard of.

The toughest decision at El Rinconcito isn't what to order, but what to top or fill it with, because most of the meats are stellar. This is a house of beef and pig, deftly prepared and mildly seasoned (the salsas are what provide the kick). And because the prices range from $1.25 street tacos to $8 huaraches, you can afford to try the familiar along with there's-a-first-time-for-everything.

If, when the friendly server stands ready for your order with pad in hand, you are still undecided, she most likely will point to the huaraches. The name literally means "sandal," due to its oblong-shaped masa base, and El Rinconcito's version is flat, a bit crispy, and darker in some areas from its delicate filling of black beans. Loaded with meat such as mildly spicy chorizo, smooth and fatty bits of grilled suadero (slow-cooked beef brisket), and long, paper-thin pieces of bistec (steak, by request only), the masa base also comes with salsa, onions, queso fresco, and cilantro. Unless you've brought along a friend to share it with, be prepared for a full belly.

Also popular with the regulars are the quesadillas. As it was with the huaraches, it's difficult for me to finish a single quesadilla on my own, but I have seen many a customer stop in after a hard morning's labor and order one of each, holding the quesadilla in one hand and fork to eat the huarache in the other.

They are gigantic. Large, golden half-moons of folded thick tortillas filled with ingredients like mushrooms, smooth and slightly sweet squash flower, and jet-black huitlacoche (corn smut) that tastes a little like mushrooms but with a slight tartness. Gooey cheese and onions usually accompany the star attractions. My favorite is the chicharron prensado. This filling, rarely seen in the Valley, is essentially the top layer of pork skin fried, pressed into a wheel, then shaved off and cooked in a sauce of reconstituted dried red chiles. The flavor of the rich pork meat is wonderfully smoky and sweet, and I prefer this version kicked up a notch with spicy green salsa.

Tacos and burritos come packed and stacked, sharing a selection of meaty fillings that seldom fall short of satisfying. Along with the delectable chorizo and suadero, there is lightly seasoned carne asada, stunningly tender carnitas, and an exceptional pastor. El Rinconcito's features small, tender chunks of rusty red pork with an earthy and smoky flavor as well as a nice balance of sweetness and saltiness.

Tacos come in two sizes: grande and street-size (called chicos). Piled with your choice of meat and large handfuls of cilantro and onions atop double housemade corn tortillas, two grandes will make you a meal while a few chicos allow for a mini-tour of the restaurant's carnivore-friendly wares.

If you are planning on having a tostada and are feeling adventurous, you could order the icon of Mexican tostadas, the tostada de pata. With a fried tortilla somewhere on the bottom and another perched precariously on top, this softball-size pile features pata (pork fingers), light gray, gelatinous cubes with a chewy and almost resilient texture, covered in huge wedges of avocado, lettuce, tomato, and a showering of crumbly Mexican cheese topped with a grid pattern of crema.

Sandwich lovers should skip the gordita (the same flavors can be had, and better, as a huarache) and move into two-handed tortas. My favorite selection is the pierna (roasted pork leg). The meat is thin and moist with a flavor like bacon, and, thanks to melted cheese, avocado, and lettuce, the whole thing tastes like the Mexican equivalent of a ham and cheese sandwich.

There is a very good pambazo, too. More or less a version of the French dip, its soft white bread is soaked in a smoky red chile sauce instead of au jus, and the roast beef is replaced with potatoes, chorizo, lettuce, crema, and cheese. A quick trip to the griddle after it has been stuffed tightens the ingredients into one monstrous, hot mass — one that, for the timid, will require a knife and fork. For those using their hands, expect red-orange stained fingers, the tip of the nose smeared with filling, and most likely, a soiled shirt.

The only dessert at El Rinconcito is gelatina de flor, a paperweight-like dome of clear gelatin with a single, brightly colored flower made of fondant trapped inside. A staff member makes these labor-intensive treats, injecting the gelatin with edible colorings to make the flower. If you have had one before, you know that they are known more for their looks than their whisper-sweet taste and are typically served on special occasions.

Having never tried a gelatina de flor, I considered this occasion special enough, and pointed to the crudely made posters advertising them on the wall, asking my server (in broken Spanish) if they were available. Beaming, she responded (in broken English) that they were. She quickly returned with a tray of the brightly colored flower bubbles, motioning for me to select my favorite.

And when did I know El Rinconcito was my kind of restaurant? The moment happened after my server placed my gelatina de flor down in front of me and started quietly singing a song in Spanish, clapping her hands while nearby diners looked on and smiled.

It wasn't my birthday, but it sure as hell felt like it.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld