Flavors from the Ecuadorean Andes and a Friendly Wave to Mexico, at Leticias


For several miles along Roosevelt Avenue between Citi Field and Woodside, Queens, it is hard to walk more than a block or two without running into a taco. Around the 103rd Street stop on the No. 7 train, though, the taco density goes off the charts. In a small oblong park beside the elevated tracks, dozens of vendors sell freshly folded quesadillas, Oaxacan tlayudas, hunks of roasted pork, cups of warm atole, and tacos with a great multitude of fillings.

The park, officially National Plaza although everybody calls it Corona Plaza, exercises a magnetic effect, and not just on people who eat there. A few steps away, an Ecuadorean restaurant named Leticias has a taco section on its menu. Tacos are not typically an Ecuadorean thing, but the fillings inside this restaurant’s tacos are very much Ecuadorean things.

Leticias makes tacos with hornado — soft, fat-basted lumps of marinated and roasted pork shoulder pulled apart while it is still steaming. The meat is topped with pickled onions and a crunchy handful of tostados, the corn nuts that are a faithful companion to hornado.


Other tacos are stuffed with guatita, a stew of chopped tripe and potatoes simmered to softness in peanut sauce; its flavor, soothing with an organ-meat tang, somehow reminded me of home even though I did not by any means grow up in a tripe-eating house.

There are also tacos with tender, soy-darkened lomo saltado, the Chinese-influenced Peruvian beef stir-fry whose popularity has spilled over into Ecuador; a few of the French fries the dish is normally served with make their way inside the tortillas. And there are fries in the tacos made with sliced Ecuadorean churrasco, a thin steak fried with onions, peppers and tomatoes that unite to form something like a sauce.

Galo Fernando Cando, the owner and chef of Leticias, buys corn tortillas — small ones, two to a taco — from Tortilleria Nixtamal, on the other side of Corona Plaza.

He sees his Ecuadorean tacos as a friendly hello to the large Mexican community that lives in Corona alongside immigrants from Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking countries. Together they make Corona the most heavily Latin American neighborhood in Queens, according to a 2013 report from the city. And no part of the city has more residents who were born in Ecuador, as you might guess from all the hornado vendors on the sidewalks and in the storefronts of Roosevelt Avenue.

Mr. Cando named the restaurant for his mother, Rosa Leticia. Like his father, she is from the town of Déleg, in the Ecuadorean Sierra, and she cooks in the pork-loving style of the highlands. The couple moved to Queens before Mr. Cando was born. When he was ready to open his restaurant, in 2016, he brought many of her recipes to the tollbooth-size box of a kitchen that is built against one wall of the dining room, about halfway to the back, facing the bar.


A graphic designer before he was a chef, Mr. Cando put together the menu, a spiral-bound book generously illustrated with color photographs. It works well, at least on me; when I ordered the salchipapas, I was strongly influenced by its picture, which shows French fries sharing a plate with fried lengths of hot dog. The flat ends of the hot dogs have been scored along the bottom to give them short appendages, which makes them look like the ghosts that Pac-Man chases, or like four-legged octopuses.

The painted murals inside are his work, too. The woman depicted by the door is his grandmother. The gentleman in the back is nobody in particular; he was chosen for his Ecuadorean straw hat, shaped like the one Mr. Cando’s grandfather wore. More straw hats hang on the wall, with several carved wooden platters that have the head of a pig and a body like the back of a flatbread truck.


Suspended by wires from the ceiling is an imitation-neon sign whose pink script reads, “All you need is encebollado.” Encebollado is a fish soup that is widely and avidly consumed throughout Ecuador, where a long tradition holds that your need for it grows more acute when you’re hung over. You also need encebollado if you are a Queens restaurateur hoping to attract Ecuadorean expats. Mr. Cando’s version is full-bodied from its long-boiled fish bone broth. In the center of the soup, under the pickled onions it is named for, is a thick lump of fresh albacore that breaks into big, curved flakes. Yuca, simmered to the point of disintegration, thickens the soup. Leticias sells a lot of encebollado.

On busy days it seems to sell a lot of everything. Like many restaurants in the Covid era, Leticias can get backed up when orders for takeout customers and seated diners collide. One night a bowl of seco de pollo arrived after a very long time; the broth was warm but the chicken in it was cold.

To help pass the time there are fresh juices, batidos made from fruits including tomate de arbòl, and, as of a few weeks ago, cocktails. These range from pretty straightforward affairs like the mojito or the canelazo, an Andean hot toddy, all the way to three-ring circuses like the Hank, a ginger-and-Jameson mix that arrives with a toasted marshmallow and is supposed to be set on fire at the table. This doesn’t always work. It will still taste good.


But there is more to eat: bite-size lengths of fried pork rib, crunchy and juicy; tall and fluffy potato cakes called llapingachos; and ceviche de chicharrón — fried pork skins marinated in lime. For somebody who has eaten only ceviche made from seafood, the first encounter with ceviche de chicharrón can be like falling into an alternative timeline. Leticias sprinkles some dry, crisp pork skin and a confetti of red peppers over the top so there is something to crunch on, and then surrounds the whole thing with a low curved wall of ripe avocado. It is the most beautiful dish on the menu.

Neither this nor the much less fascinating shrimp ceviche is notably spicy. Few things at Leticias are, with the important exception of the ají, a housemade hot sauce. There are probably as many recipes for ají as there are Ecuadorean cooks; Mr. Cando makes a bright green ají from, among other things, cilantro and serrano peppers. It can be applied to just about everything, but particularly good results are achieved with the hornado and churrasco.

The chaulafan at Leticias substitutes bits of steak for the usual pork, but you have to be paying attention to notice the change in this riot of fried rice that contains shrimp, chicken, beef, peppers, scallions, possibly some peas, certainly fried egg, conceivably a carrot or two. Served on its own with fried plantains and avocado, it is formidable.

Following the logic that led him to the lomo saltado tacos, Mr. Cando also rolls chaulafan and avocado inside a flour tortilla with guacamole and a huge slug of sour cream to make a burrito. It is a singular item, a kind of edible monument to Corona, and if you finish one it may be a long time before you can stand.

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.


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