Z: How often does one have the opportunity to dine at a new restaurant, enjoy a tasty meal, and leave feeling like you've spent a couple of sweet and heartwarming hours with your loving family? That was our memorable experience at Equelecua, a vegan restaurant specializing in flavorful Cuban dishes.
R: Opened June 2015, Equelecua (pronounced Ekel a KWA) is a cozy little café located in Airport Plaza, a business center featuring a number of restaurants in the Florence-Manchester area of Inglewood. The moment we entered, the inviting aroma of home cooking began to stir our curiosity about what we might soon be eating.
Z: A splash of color greets the eye with brightly colored placemats on the dark wooden tables and red chairs. One cinnabar-colored wall features a large Cuban flag hung high above the table. The opposite wall has an array of wooden knickknack shelves holding all manner of fascinating small objects.
R: From the entrance we could see the outdoor patio covered with a large tent offering shade for enjoyable summer dining. The menu, laminated in firm plastic, adds another touch of color to the scene. Its blue-sky background and wind-tossed palm leaves hint of dining along the Cuban waters with cooling ocean breezes rustling the palms.
Z: On the wall was a small blackboard listing special dishes not yet on the menu. Amber, one of our servers, greeted us and answered our many questions. We chose some items from the blackboard and some from the menu and began our Cuban feast with the Cuban Sampler. Served piping hot from the fryer were four Yuca fingers, three large, round yellow plantains called Tostones, and four sweet plantains called Maduros.
R: In a tiny cup for dipping was a compellingly delicious Mojo, a traditional Cuban sauce with lots of fresh, organic garlic, olive oil, and sour orange juice. Joining us that evening was our friend, Chuck, who loves to accompany us on our adventurous dining explorations. He didn't want to talk with a mouthful but, instead, kept nodding and uttering sounds of delight. Because our mouths were also full, we nodded back.
Z: Our second appetizer was the Alitos, aka Hot Wings, which were actually vegan chicken-style drumsticks, tossed in a delicious, juicy and spicy Agave Fire Sauce. These were fun, chewy, and finger-lickin' delicious.
R: Next came the Tamal Cuban con Fricasé de Pollo a la carte. Although it looked like a typical tamale wrapped in a corn husk, its texture was uniquely different. Once unwrapped, it was not the typical firm, grainy texture one comes to expect of Mexican tamales. This tamal had a soft, silky, and creamy texture and was filled with soft, butter-textured, well-seasoned vegan chicken. We found this style of tamale unique and very compelling in flavor and texture. Most likely we'll order it on our next visit.
Z: We were curious about the a la carte Papa Relleno and were amazed to see a softball-sized, perfectly round sphere, crisply fried to a gorgeous golden brown hue. Inside were soft, flavorful mashed potatoes stuffed with Picadillo, a Sloppy-Joe-like mixture enhanced with sweet and sour flavors from a combination of pimiento-stuffed green olives and raisins.
R: I still can't figure out how Chef Julio could have made the Papa Relleno so perfectly round. He emerged from the kitchen from time to time to see how we liked his cooking and smiled enthusiastically when we offered our thumbs up.
Z: Ordering a la carte gave us the opportunity to taste many items and still have room for more. But we went full bore with the Ropa Vieja, a tasty Cuban sofrito heaping with imitation beef strips in a deliciously savory sauté of onions, garlic, and red and green bell peppers. A generous cup of well-seasoned black beans and a mound of white rice filled the dish and completed our dinner.
R: Within a few minutes, Chef Julio emerged from the kitchen again to see if everyone was enjoying his specialties. With a giant smile, he nodded and disappeared, while we attacked this homey, tasty platter with generous portions. No one can possibly leave this lovable café hungry, especially when Chef Julio takes pride in his home-style cooking.
Z: Desserts are not made at the restaurant but are certainly a delicious part of the offerings. We decided to order a piece of the Pina Colada Cherry Cheesecake and one Pineapple Rum Cupcake and share them. The cheesecake, made with a base of cashews, was frozen, giving it an unexpected crumbly texture as it was thawing, yet it was pleasantly sweet and satisfying. The cupcake was my favorite--it was moist with a definitive rum flavor and a generous measure of raisins.
R: Throughout our meal we were enjoying the exciting recorded sounds of great Cuban music featuring skilled percussion and the wonderful melodies typical of old Latin jazz.
Z: Owner Carolina Lafaurie was on hand to share her family's pride, her Colombian grandfather who lived to be 107 years old. He used to make flan for the family, and when he retired he spent many hours playing dominoes with friends in the summer. Making good use of the patio at the back of the restaurant, Carolina carries on the tradition with the set of dominoes she inherited from her grandfather. Handy with hammer and nails she made the tables.
R: While the present menu offers plenty of choices, it will soon be expanded to include Camarones Enchiladas, Shrimp in Sofrito; and Fricasé de Pollo, a chicken in sofrito. On weekends, diners can enjoy Congri y Paella, where beans and rice are cooked together.
Z: We noticed we were the last diners chatting with Carolina and servers Amber and Jonathan. Chef Julio came out to say goodbye and we shared hugs. In his limited English he explained that Equelecua means "It's good--everything is OK--just right." And it was!
R: One can definitely find good value at this little restaurant where Side Dishes are $4, Cuban Sampler $10, Dinners range from $12 to $14, A la Carte are $8 to $12, Sodas and Beverages are $3 to $5. Parking is in the spacious lot, The restaurant boasts free wi-fi and a comfortable patio for summer dining.
1120 W. Florence, Unit C, Inglewood, CA 90301
Reviewed June 2016