On a high ridge in West Harlem, a steady wind from the bluffs of the Jersey Palisades reflects the swirling dynamics of the Sugar Hill area of Hamilton Heights, whose identity has been in steady flux since the days when Harlem was in vogue and Duke Ellington dispensed subway directions. One of the more recent cultures to pass through this historic area was that of the Ecuadoreans. And while most have moved east to Queens or north to the Bronx, and beyond into Westchester, the impression they left on the neighborhood remains alive and vital at Ecuatoriana Restaurant, on Amsterdam Avenue between West 143rd and 144th Streets.
Under a forest-green awning two storefronts long, behind the bold striped flags of yellow, blue and red in the windows, lies a well-lit, high-ceilinged space of two rooms conjoined by a brick archway. Ceiling fans turn the aromas drifting from a small kitchen into the rooms and beyond the bar, where men sip beer and watch a flat-screen TV showing a soccer match from a sunny place. Latin rhythms jangle from a jukebox.
Both rooms are equally populated and low-key in the last moments before the crowds of Ecuadoreans, other Latinos and various local admirers fill the simple tables during Sunday’s regular afternoon feast.
This is not what the co-owner, Marcelo Vera, had in mind as his American dream. As an immigrant from Ecuador, he worked nearly 20 years in an Italian restaurant in the West Village. With his visions of opening his own Italian place gradually becoming more and more remote, he was contacted by a cousin who owned Ecuatoriana with an Ecuadorean chef and restaurateur named Maria Bueno. The transition took place smoothly and Mr. Vera found himself in 2009 at the helm of one of the last places to find authentic Ecuadorean food in West Harlem.
While Ms. Bueno stays busy in the kitchen, Mr. Vera, fit and handsome, works the room, armed with a quick smile as he welcomes guests, delivers plates and chats amiably with patrons, both familiar and new.
Matt Burch, 22, who is majoring in both Spanish and Latin American and Caribbean studies at SUNY New Paltz — and is fresh from a year studying abroad in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and a Pacific port town — sought out Ecuatoriana specifically for one of its signature dishes.
“Ceviche is my favorite Ecuadorean food,” he said. “Guayaquil is famous for it, and I’ve been searching all around the city for the best ceviche. What I’ve had here is the best I’ve ever found. Anywhere.”
Beyond ceviche, the favored dishes at Ecuatoriana include the Ecuadorean flagship dish Bandera — literally, “flag” — a plate piled with roast meats, salads, rice, tripe and seafood. There are also various soups, including sopa di mariscos, which includes a huge helping of mussels, shrimp, clams and calamari.
But Ecuatoriana is more than its menu.
Enma J. Arias immigrated to the United States from Ecuador as a 24-year-old in 1983. It was a tough transition, but she adapted to America, found love with a fellow Ecuadorean and had a family of her own. “In the U.S. I always tell my children: ‘Do not forget where your parents come from,’ ” she said. “ ‘Yes. You guys are Americans, but also Ecuadoreans.’ ”
The family visits Ecuatoriana Restaurant for all special occasions. “It reminds us of our beloved country,” she said.
Published on NY Times Post: Ecuatoriana Restaurant Is a Link to Ecuador in Harlem