This week was not the first time I visited El Encuentro Centro Americano Restaurante, located in the Staples shopping plaza on Lafayette Avenue. And, it won't be the last.
El Encuentro is not by any means a fancy place to take your parents to if you're looking to show off. The decor is simple. The food is simple and satisfying. And, it comes in generous portions. Knowing Spanish can help, because there are not readily available menus listings what's to eat. But, it doesn't really matter. Just go with the flow, point to a few things that look good. Chances are, you'll land on something nice.
That's what I did on my most recent visit. It was about 5:30 p.m. on a weeknight, and folks were getting their dinners, mostly to go. While most customers appeared to be of the Latino persuasion, there also were plenty of other ethnicities that have apparently found El Encuentro their go-to spot for Central American fare.
Many meals can be prepared fresh, but there also is a section with pre-made foods and a pretty young woman prepared to dish them out. Eyeing a simple, hearty meal, I ordered the chicken, black beans and salad, each of which she gave of very generously.
On the package she wrote "6," indicating the price. Here, there does seem to always be a set cost for certain things. It's like your friendly neighborhood dining spot.
I went to the register where another woman informed me that there was a $10 minimum for credit cards. Nevermind that technically that's illegal (as I found out long, long ago when I worked at a gas station and my boss said if someone wanted to pay for $1 of gas with a credit card, we had to allow it), everyone seems to do it. Fine, then. I'll order one more thing. Let's see here ...
"Tacos?" I asked. She nodded in the affirmative that she was going to put in an order for three "tacos" and that would fulfill the minimum.
What came out, however, I was not expecting. These looked more like those "Tacquitos" you can get at 7-Eleven. But, unlike there, here they were made with fresh tortillas. Then, chicken was placed inside, rolled up and fried. Once finished, they bathed them in some kind of tomato sauce, then put salad on top of the whole thing.
It was a surprise, to be sure. And, while I enjoyed that, what I really liked most of all was what I intentionally ordered in the first place. There, simplicity reigned. The thigh meat was likely boiled, then bathed in a saffron-dominant sauce. Its taste was of dark meat chicken and saffron, that's pretty much it. The salad had a light, cream based sauce. The beans were, well, beans. This was a utilitarian meal, and I loved it.
On my previous trip to El Encuentro Centro Americano Restaurante, I chose to dine in. As I ate my chicken, beans and rice, a couple of groups of people also ate, chatted and watched as soccer played on a television. This place gave us the vibe of extreme comfort and familiarity, though I was mostly unfamiliar with what was being spoken by those inside. Yet, I felt right at home. Whether eating in or taking out, you, too will likely leave with a similar impression.