Soul food, across all cultures, is often simple food, simply done, made with love. But there can come a time when love isn't enough.
Thony "Mango Man" Clarke started with a food cart and spun that off into the small downtown restaurant Cafe Costa Rica. Now he's launched a Latin soul food restaurant, El Rincon Tico, on the near east side. The question is, can Clarke keep the spirit of his soul food alive as more hands make and serve his food?
El Rincon Tico's menu overlaps somewhat with sister restaurant Café Costa Rica's, particularly with the appetizers - plantains, ceviche, empanadas - though new additions like a fish fry and breakfast items differentiate the two locales. However, details on the menu were often vague, and we needed to ask for clarification on some items, like whether or not the beans were vegetarian, what type of sauce came with the special, and what spices were used in the food. Our server didn't know, although the manager was able to fill most blanks.
The food relies heavily on two tableside Mango Man sauces for flavor: a monte verde jalapeño salsa and a tomato-based habanero salsa. They're both punchy, pleasing condiments in their own right, but the danger is that the food often can't stand on its own.
The thinly sliced fried sweet plantains are an easy crowd pleaser. If you've never had them, think of a caramelized love child of a banana and a sticky bun. As at Cafe Costa Rica, the empanadas are made to order with the customer's choice of filling, a nice touch, and come out hot. The cheese and pork combination was overly greasy, but the pork was fork-tender. I left wishing I could have just had a big plate of pork and beans, which isn't on the menu but maybe should be.
The black beans are one of the strongest items on the menu and perhaps the most easily overlooked. It was easy to discern onions and garlic, but no one on staff knew what the other flavorings were, though I thought the magic I tasted was pork. If there's any hope of finding soul in simple food here, it's in the beans.
To our surprise the "veggies" on the open-faced "veggie" papusa were in fact plantains, either an unannounced substitution or a misnomer.
The daily special tilapia fish fry with yucca fries, coconut rice and iceberg salad (iceberg is woefully ubiquitous on the menu) was starch overkill, and perhaps indicative of a larger trend on the menu of starches being used disproportionately on plates as filler. The two tilapia filets looked appetizing and golden but ate dry and chewy. Fortunately sauce seems to be something they can get right here. The yucca dipping sauce with this dish tastes like smooth thousand island and is apparently used on just about everything in Central America.
It's rare that I say something is inedible, but the ceviche was inedible. Ceviche is seafood or fish "cooked" in an acidic dressing, often with aromatics (e.g., onions). In El Rincon Tico's version, I fished out only six scant pieces of fish, indiscernible in the mound of onion and pepper. The bulk of the dish was the patacones (fried plantains), which were so hard I had to use my back molars to bite into one.
The dessert plantain is an interesting idea but, as rendered, could benefit from moderation. This Homer Simpsonesque creation is a whole sweet plantain, split, doused with sweetened condensed milk, chocolate syrup, whipped cream and Parmesan cheese. The Parmesan tasted out of place, but somehow not as wrong as consuming straight-up sweetened condensed milk, which defeated us after a few bites.
Atmosphere can be insignificant, as anyone who's frequented a hole in the wall with the best-whatever-you've-ever-had can vouch. El Rincon Tico could be one of those places if the food and service came up a few notches. Instead, the wood paneling, plastic trees, wire mesh chairs, strings of lights, and loud music are distracting, no disguise for the hit-or-miss food and mostly miss service. Another carelessness - the outdoor table blocks the handicap ramp. That at least should be easy to fix.