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El Chapincito
A flavorful vacation

dining out
(401) 273-2320
486 Broadway, Providence
Open Mon, Wed, Thur, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Tues, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri-Sun, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
No credit cards
Sidewalk access

One of the great things about going to a Latin-American restaurant in the dead of a winter is that it's like a mini-cruise to the Caribbean: heat in the food, warmth in the service, tropical flowers and birds in the decor. This certainly proved true at the Guatemalan café El Chapincito when we stopped in last week for a meal that put an out-of-season spring in our step and a lift in our spirits.

A modest spot on West Broadway, El Chapincito is dominated by a folk-art mural on one of the avocado-colored walls. It's a rural scene, with a dirt path between two fences, a mountain in the distance, and the lush green of the countryside stretching to it. On either side of the mural's painted frame, the artist has given us two giant quetzals, the colorful parrot-like birds that have become so precious to the people of Guatemala, or Chapin, as they call themselves.

The menu is covered with images of this bird, as well as other Guatemalan scenes. We actually started at the back of this four-page booklet, where the juices, shakes, and hot drinks are listed, because we knew from past experience that we'd find unusual flavors and excellent accompaniments to our food. The juices are often made with concentrated syrups, and although two of our favorites were listed -- the almondy rice drink orchata, and the deep plummy tamarindo -- Bill decided to try the maroñon ($1.50), made from ground cashews and tasting a bit like pineapple.

I was still shivering from the chilly night air and wanted a warm atol de elote (a corn drink half-way between porridge and tea) or even the atol de plantain. When our waitress told us they were out of those two, I ordered hot chocolate ($2), which came as a steaming bowl of fragrant liquid, made from chunks of concentrated, unsweetened bar-chocolate, melted in hot water, stirred into warm milk, and infused with cinnamon sticks. It was like a dessert alongside dinner!

But before our entrees, we also sampled appetizers: a potato-filled empanada ($2), delicately seasoned with sweet red peppers; a Guatemalan-style tamale, tamalito de chipilin ($1.75), masa harina mixed with a Guatemalan green called chipilin before steaming; and a humongous bowl of sopa de huevos ($5). The latter was almost too much for the two of us to finish, though the taste of chopped fresh cilantro, with tiny noodles and two whole eggs dropped into the chicken broth base, was so alluring that we returned to it again and again until it was gone.

Only then were we able to pay due respect to the heaping platters set before us. Bill had zeroed in on the Bandeja Chapina ($9), which included three thin pieces of broiled steak, several strips of marinated, roast pork, long slivers of fried plantains, black bean frijoles, rice with corn kernels mixed in, and a salad with sour cream dressing. He declared it the best meat platter he'd had at any of the Latin-American eateries we've visited. Plus, he loved the refried beans, the side of marinated jalapenos, for those who wanted more fire in their meal, and sour cream to dollop on the plantains.

Slightly thinned sour cream is, indeed, a ubiquitous garnish, served with the empanada and the tamalito and in the dressing on my salad, which was on a separate plate from my entree. There would have been no room for it on the platter of pepian chicken ($8) I had ordered. This was a giant portion, with green beans and large chunks of a firm-fleshed squash, called wisquil, according to our waitress.

The flavorful sauce was made with crushed pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, with just a whiff of fiery spice and an earthy flavor that was as irresistible as my hot chocolate. The chicken was, unfortunately, bony, dark-meat pieces, but the sauce made up for it. My platter also had those yummy frijoles and rice, and we were served a bowl of the other requisite accompaniment: warm hand-made tortillas, such a flavorful bread substitute for the meal.

We were so stuffed, we couldn't have spooned a mouthful of dessert, but that's OK, because what passes for dessert at El Chapincito is a side order of plantains or the sweet fruit drinks and shakes. The plantains, tortillas and frijoles are all served with the $5 breakfast platters of huevos rancheros (with salsa), or with ham, chorizo (a spicy sausage), tomatoes, onions, or longaniza (an even spicier sausage). Breakfasts with beef or pork are $1 more.

So if this winter's journeys don't take you beyond Rhode Island, make your adventures culinary ones. And put El Chapincito on your map.

Issue Date: February 14 - 20, 2003