You know that little place, right around the corner? The one that serves just that dish you were craving? The one that serves food you just know comes from a parent or grandparent’s tried-and-true recipe? You know the place, your go-to joint, always reliable, where you don’t have to dress up and you don’t have to spend a fortune? Well, “La Esquina,” literally, “the corner,” is just THAT place, serving up authentic South American yummies with home-style flare and flavors that impress.
La Esquina Latin Grill, right on “the corner” at 50 Hamilton Avenue in Stamford, is a labor of love for the young and extremely talented co-owner and head chef, Robert Monegro. Chef Robert grew up in Stamford with his Guatemalan mother and Dominican father, both chefs. He decided that after learning all he could by growing up in the kitchen of his parents’ restaurant, Flamboyant in Stamford, he would put his own mark on the culinary map of Fairfield County. And he is doing just that.
La Esquina is casual, very, and that’s a wonderful thing. Patrons enter into a large, inviting dining area with a view of the spotless, open kitchen at the back. Wooden chairs, about 20 tables of varying sizes and simple yet charming decorations, greet you and welcome you. Again, this is a neighborhood joint, not an over-priced 5th Avenue Latin-fusion wannabe. This IS Latin cooking...plain, simple and delicious. We came in for an early lunch and, though there were only two other tables occupied when we arrived, all of the tables were full by the time we left with others standing in line to take out. Here are some of the dishes we conquered...
One of our favorites was the LOMO SALTADO, a popular Peruvian inspired stir-fry of sauteed beef, tender onions and tomatoes, served over a bed of thick-cut potato wedges and rice. The beef was tender and tasty, having been marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and spices. Satisfying and full of flavor, this LOMO was muy bueno.
Another great choice was the PERNIL DOMINICANO. Here, sweet, slow-roasted pulled pork was paired with pickled red onion, great for contrast and a party in your mouth, and served over rice and beans. A refreshing, citrus salad brightens the dish further and completes the flavor profile of sweet, tangy, and savory with just a touch of heat in the salsa verde.
Possibly closest to Chef Robert’s heart, and cooked with love until fall-apart tender, was the POLLO GUISADO. This braised chicken stew, a staple in just about every Dominican home, was, for Robert, the epitome of comfort food. And we understand why. This classic dish contains large sections of tender chicken and potato stewed in chicken stock and tomato with adobo spices and plenty of sofrito (a sauce of garlic, onion, cilantro, peppers and tomatoes, pulverized and reduced.)
We sampled the EMPANADAS, in our case, filled with tender and juicy pulled chicken, which were tasty but a touch bland. Not my favorite choice on any given day, this classic South American option was just ok. With the many other wonderful offerings from Chef Robert, I would pass on this on my next visit, and there will be MANY “nexts!”
My favorite dish at LA ESQUINA was Chef Robert’s PLATANO RELLENO - a special take on the classic of sweet plantains and sour cream. Inspired by his mom’s Guatemalan Good Friday go-to dish, the chef sautes plantains for hours and then mashes them into a tortilla. Then, he combines black beans with cinnamon and sugar and wraps that mixture into the plantain/tortilla shell. Next, it is baked in the oven and served with a side of sour cream. One word - scrumptious. We weren’t sure if this was a dessert or a side dish for our meal but it definitely works as either so pick your poison.
As a side to our meal we chose the LA ESQUINA SALAD, simple and refreshing with mixed greens, tomatoes, carrots, avocado and a perky pico de gallo. We also tried the home-made LIME CHIPS which were particularly tangy with PLENTY of citrus flavor, and accompanied by a side of nicely textured and well seasoned guacamole.
Chef Robert’s menu includes plenty of non-Latin options such as chicken or steak sandwiches and beef or veggie burgers so every palate should find its “jam.” LA ESQUINA is open for breakfast as well, offering both Latin as well as American options so patrons can choose between a typical egg/bacon/pancake-style meal or go with some HUEVOS RANCHEROS, PUPUSAS (a Salvadoran corn tortilla stuffed with cheese and/or pork), or AREPAS COLOMBIANAS. Sounds good! I think I will have to stop by for breakfast, next time around. After-all, LA ESQUINA is right around the corner. Venga!