Sometimes it only takes the right dish for you to look at that unglamorous, out-of-the-way restaurant in a different light. Subpar ventilation, language barriers, the invading smells of a neighboring fast-food joint, the dirty mop resting against the wall next to your shoulderthese minor irritations become part of the charm when you’re engrossed in what’s on the plate.
Or what’s in the bowl. At Guayaquil de Mis Amores, a new Ecuadoran restaurant in Arlington, that transforming item is ceviche de camarón. This version of ceviche is served as a cold soup, made only with shrimp, onions, lemon, and water. The pinkish broth is what’s left of the liquid used to partially cook the shrimp, and the onions, which have been marinated in lemon juice, taste as sweet as the raspberry soda I wash it all down with. The dish is teeming with citrus; throw in a few toasted corn kernels for crunch, and it’s hard to imagine getting more satisfying relief from the heat. It costs less than most of the cocktails I ordered on a recent trip to New York.
Guayaquil splits the difference between the scruffy charisma of a hole in the wall and the practical allure of a family restaurant. There’s wine, but no wine list, and some Spanish-language show is always playing on an overhead television that doesn’t get very good reception. The dining room isn’t heavy on vibe, but there are some paintings on the walls, my favorite of which depicts a circus that seems to be underwater, in a valley, and floating in the air all at the same time. In the rear of the dining room sit two speakers that appear to belong to a PA, except the restaurant stages no live music. Sometimes the waitress brings a bowl of plantain chips for us to munch on while we look over the menu. Sometimes she doesn’t.
The waitress and I literally don’t speak the same language, but it’s never a problem. If there’s a question, she grabs chef Fidel Gonzales, who speaks perfect English. Guayaquil, which borrows its name from Ecuador’s largest city, has a two-page menu that, if you eliminated the items that are unavailable on any given day, could fit on an index card. The many times we order a dish we can’t get, Gonzales delivers the bad news.
And he’s good at it. Gonzales is a chummy guy, and he easily turns the kitchen’s inability to fulfill a request into a mark of his own principles. Guayaquil, which has been open just under two months, doesn’t see a lot of traffic. So Gonzales only makes soup on weekends, when the restaurant is busier and he knows he’ll be able to unload it while it’s still fresh.
We never try the caldo de gallina, a chicken-and-rice soup, but the sopa de queso is that rare cheese-rich mixture delicate enough to deserve its status as soupit’s not a dip in disguise. Encebollado is a hearty dish that, except for its use of yucca, is similar to many Salvadoran fish soups, loaded with enough fresh seafood to populate a small fish tank. One night, Gonzales has to admit he left his plantains out over the weekend, making them too sweet for him to feel comfortable making us bolón de verde con chicharrón, an appetizer. But later he emerges with a green, unripe plantain he has found, perfect for the dish, which requires the fruit to behave passively, rolled together with fried pork into a fist-size ball.
No one will ever be in danger of getting skinny eating a strict diet of Guayaquil’s entrees, and that’s their beauty. Pork here is deep-fried, sparked with a touch of citrus, and served with hominy, fried plantains, and toasted corn. Fish is prepared similarly, only it rides alongside a pile of rice and a scoop of the house salsaessentially the same lemon-drenched onions found in the ceviche. Citrus is what keeps these dishes tasting light, a distinction definitely missing from a plate of grilled beef and french fries presumably aimed at the less adventurous. Although the meat is a little tough, the chicken fricassee (also available with goat) emits a sweet, musky perfumethe lingering aroma of the beer, cilantro, and onions in which the meat has been stewed.
If you don’t know it’s there, Guayaquil can be easy to drive past. I missed the place several times, thinking it was some store selling God-knows-what before a reader steered me right. When we stop in late one night, the restaurant looks closed, but it’s not. We’re never given a good reason why the kitchen’s out of sausage, but the fried pork we choose as a substitute in the llapingacho works just fine. Like the ceviche, the dish is complicated and memorable; it’s a rich orange mush of potatoes, cheese, scallions, and cilantro covered in peanut sauce and salsa accompanied by a hard-fried egg perched neat as a hat atop a mound of rice. We don’t even notice that the staff has closed the place around us.
Guayaquil de Mis Amores, 3709 Columbia Pike, Arlington.
“We can’t believe that it’s finally happened,” says one reader, a librarian living in Cleveland Park. “I’ll never need to travel north of Van Ness again.” The event she’s referring to is the opening of Magruder’s Farmers Market, an all-produce version of the Magruder’s located a couple of miles up the street. The reader applauds, among other things, the peaches and grapefruits she bought, as well as the fresh-cut meats in the deli. We prefer the shrimp salad with its firm whole shrimp and crunchy scallions and celery. We did notice that while the new Magruder’s fills a void, its presence only complicates what was already a ridiculous parking problem in the area around the Uptown. So take the Metro.
Magruder’s Farmers Market, 3527 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 237-2531.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.