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Rincon Criollo -- Havana in Queens

  • b

   If you'd been on the jet set beaches just outside Havana in 1955, from what I hear you would probably have stopped by a trendy little beachside restaurant named Rincon Criollo. It was run by three young brothers. I've seen their photos. They look barely out of their teens. He has a haunted, outsider look in his eyes. He must be pleasant to these rich vacationers, but he is not one of them. Or maybe that look is of someone observing everything that goes on in the restaurant. If a waiter gets an order wrong on the other side of the restaurant, the owner will know before the customer does.
       Then the Communists arrived and threw the brothers out. Now, 50 years later, two very old brothers run a restaurant in Corona, Queens, the heart of the Latin section, called Rincon Criollo. If you look hard at the photos, you will recognize them. Visiting Cubans have said that the restaurant looks like a shrine to pre-Castro Cuba. And it does, with all those mementoes on the walls. The food is a shrine to Cuban cuisine.

I've been going there for years, and I've been there three times over the past few months. Here are my journal entries for each time.

There is a different rice and beans every day of the week. Today, it was green beans -- not the green beans I was expecting, but green kidney beans -- stewed with rich smoky ham and sausage in a garlicky broth reminiscent of a Caldo Gallego. I ordered oxtail -- fatty, impossibly rich meat cooked for hours in wine and bay leaves -- the best slow-cooked meat ever. I finished, said goodbye to Cuba, and stepped out into the sultry Queens night.

A nice walk along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, thronged with people, an alien world where most people feel closer to Bogota or Buenos Aires than they do to Manhattan. Then back to Rincon Criollo. They have a Tuesday special of ropa vieja I wanted to try. It means old clothes, but it is not. It is shredded beef, looks like chopped barbecue, cooked for hours in a tomato sauce. Alongside was the bean of the day, white beans in a thick stew with potatoes and ham. On the way back I  got off the train in the Indian neighborhood and had a malai ice cream perfumed with rosewater as I watched people in Indian costume buy vegetables at the sidewalk stalls

I went back to Rincon Criollo, that Cuban restaurant in Queens, where I had Picadillo, chopped beef stewed with diced olives, capers and peppers. The bean of the day was garbanzo, cooked with sausage in a thin but flavorful broth

Rincon Criollo 40-09 Junction Boulevard (twenty feet from Roosevelt Av, and Junction Blvd station of #7 train) (718) 639-8158

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  1. I should add.... I always order the daily specials, and the bean of the day as a side dish. I'd never order, say, a pork chop or a grilled steak. The specials are long simmered in capers, olives, tomatoes, bay leaf, etc. Yum! They are (from memory)
    Monday Picadillo
    Tue Ropa Vieja
    Wed Oxtail stewed
    Thu Stewed steak
    Fri Bacalao
    Sun Lechon or stewed chicken

    I dont remember Sat and I'm guessing on Thu and Fri I like the Picadillo least, but its still good enough that I'd want to take the chefs from all the Colombian places that serve it (as carne molida) and say, See? This is how it should be done!!

    3 Replies
    1. re: Brian S

      Brian you had me at one. Can't wait to go. Thanks for a great report.

      1. re: Brian S

        Great posts, Brian. I'll have to go back to Rincon Criollo soon. My wife loves their smoked chicken. It's too smoky, if that's possible, for me though.

        For a real restaurant, you can't go wrong with Rincon, but if you're just looking for excellent food without the ambiance, The Broadway Sandwich Shop #6 is another option for authentic Cuban food. My favorites are the Lechon Asada and the Bistec a Lo Broadway. The lechon is always moist and garlicky. The steak is pounded thin and grilled with plenty of onions. The tostones are the best I've had in New York. They also do an outstanding flan. If you want something quick or to go, they make a great Cuban sandwich.

        The atmosphere is reminiscent of the old Jackson Diner. This used to be an old fashioned diner/coffee shop, complete with counter and stools, a couple of booths, and formica tables. It does have its charm, but it's not where I'd take a date or my parents.

        Broadway Sandwich Shop, 96-01 Roosevelt Ave at the corner of Juction Blvd.

        1. re: Brian S

          Called on Saturday for the specials (I think they actually have two each day):
          Arroz con Pollo
          Carne Guisada

        2. Good report, Brian. All the great chefs and recipes are out of Cuba these days. It seems communism does not encourage good chow.

          1. terrific, Brian.

            there used to be more places like this but they are fading away - now I need to find a reason to be in Queens.

            1. b
              babar ganesh

              interesting post. i have been past this place and not stopped in, and now i shall.

              1. d
                Dan now in JH

                Thanks so much for this report Brian. Walked over to Rincon Criollo last night, and had a great meal. I waited for Tuesday, as it's ropa vieja night, and I'm a huge fan of the dish. It didn't disappoint... studded with peppers and onions, it was extremely juicy and flavourful. My wife tried the chicken Rincon Criollo, which turned out to be pounded chicken breast, cooked with onions and garlic. Simple, tasty, and perfectly prepared. Also tried the sweet plantains, plus terrific black beans and rice. Sangria was nice... not as sweet as many I've tried before, it was essentially cold, slightly sweetened red wine with an orange slice and a cherry. A cafe con leche and really nice, perfectly carmelized flan rounded out the meal. Yum... I'll be back regularly. Total with tip was $50 (w/ small carafe of sangria).

                1. I went back to Rincon Criollo tonight for the first time this year. It's as good as ever. I ordered the oxtail, the Wednesday special. Meltingly tender, it had been braised for hours in a rich sauce flavored with wine and tomatoes. The meat absorbed the flavor of the sauce, and I ate it with a spoon. Alongside was a bowl of round greenish beans floating in a soupy stew of Spanish sausage.

                  I think there's a trick to what to order. I'd never get something grilled or fried. It's got to have a sauce or sofrito. I stick to the daily specials, and some are much better than others. I like the oxtail the best, though Tuesday's ropa vieja is a close contender. Friday's bacalao ain't bad either.

                  As I was leaving, I saw a Newsday article on the wall. Written a few weeks ago, it was a news story, getting the brothers' reaction to Castro's illness. It also told about them. There were five brothers, orphans, alone in the world, growing up in 1930s Cuba. Desperately poor, in effect street urchins, they sold fruit in the streets to survive. Somewhere along the line, they learned how to cook. One day, they built a shack on the beach and sold cooked food. It was so good the word spread. Within a few years, they were running a beautiful beachside restaurant called Rincon Criollo, patronized by Havana's elite. When Castro came to power they were forced to flee to the US. Again they worked odd jobs to survive. One day they met an old friend from Cuba. He had a shop in Corona Queens. It's a good neighborhood, he told them, why not reopen your restaurant there? And so they did.

                  1. My family and I will have to make a return trip to Rincon Criollo in the near future. It's been a while, a couple of years I would say, since we've been there. At that time, we weren't too impressed with the food. The Caldo Gallego was much too salty. The fried plaintains were burnt. The garlic bread had been toasted so many times over that it crumbled apart in our hands. The pudin diplomatico my young niece ordered for desert was regular flan right out of the Goya box. The ropa vieja was swimming in organgy colored oil and the masitas de puerco were practially all fat, greasy, dried out and burnt as well. As you can see, not appealing at all. Last but not least, service was practically non-existent.

                    1. On a summery Sunday afternoon, I made my way to Rincon Criollo for the first time this year, and I am pleased to report it's as good as ever. Most of the tables were packed with large, noisy and very happy family groups. As always, I ordered the daily special. On Sunday it's fricasse de pollo (they also have lechon and arroz de pollo) It was delicious! Savory tender pieces of chicken that had been simmered along with green olives, black olives, tomato, bay leaf, with some potatoes thrown in too. The rich brown oily sauce at the bottom of the bowl was so good!

                      Rincon Criollo
                      40-09 Junction Blvd, Queens, NY 11368

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Brian S

                        I'm bringing this up again to make explicit something I've hinted at. If you order the daily special, you'll have a great meal. If you don't order the daily special but order something else, you run the risk of having a bad meal. Once I ordered ropa vieja on a Monday (it's a Tuesday special) and they did their best to whip something up but it paled by comparison with Tuesday's slow-simmered delight.

                        Just got back from there now. It's Friday so I got the bacalao. Salt cod, with a few potatoes thrown in, stewed slow and long with things that melted into a rich orange paste redolent of the taste of the sea. A rich, salty, satisfying meal on a damp and chilly day.

                        1. re: Brian S

                          Appreciate the reminder, Brian. Just one more instance of a home-style dish cooked to order that's far inferior to one cooked for hours long before it's served. :)

                      2. The Friday bacalao is delicious. The other Fri special arroz con pollo was eh... The rice was great while the chicken was rather bland and dry. The bacalao, however, was awesome.

                        1. Just to let everyone know, I've been To Rincon two times this year and it is still as good as ever. My whole spanish family loves this place and now some of my friends do as well....espcially my husband.

                          1. I just discovered this post, and am excited to give Rincon Criollo a try... another excellent read, Brian. What a great story. Thanks.

                            1. I just came back from an early dinner at Rincon Criollo. I had the Caldo Gallego, which was the highlight of my meal. The soup was hearty and filled with beans and chorizo. For my entree, I ordered the Friday special, (thanks for the tip, Brian), the bacalao, a sautéed codfish dish that was good, though a bit salty, and came with a choice of black or red beans and rice. We shared an order of tostones, perfectly prepared, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside and NOT greasy. For dessert, we all ordered their wonderful cafe con leche and shared an order of flan con coco. The service was friendly.

                              I love this unpretentious old school Cuban restaurant. I love it all the more after reading Brian's piece on its history. Victor's it is not...which I mean in a good way...not that there is anything wrong with Victor's.