Mr. Pio Pio
Ecuadorian comfort food for the soul
Overall rating on a scale of 1-10
Service 8 • Food 9 • Ambiance 7 • Price - $$
The fact that Latin American cuisine is sorely underrepresented in the Capital Region should be motivation enough for you to visit Mr. Pio Pio, but if you require more convincing read on. I predict you will be on your way there by the time you are finished reading this column. I just hope this small family-owned business is ready for the masses about to descend on them.
Dining companions Bill and Dean and I managed to get the last of the half-dozen tables available in the cozy Ecuadorian restaurant located at 160B Quail Street in Albany. The place was well lit, clean and the service was helpful and prompt. Good enough for me.
The menus were nicely integrated with helpful color photographs of many of the dishes. Ecuadorian food is characterized by its diversity, varying with regional altitude and agricultural conditions. Pork, chicken and beef are popular in the mountainous regions and are served with a variety of carbohydrate-rich foods like rice, corn and potatoes. In the coastal regions, fish dishes like ceviche and beans and plantains are ubiquitous.
Both of these major Ecuadorian regions are represented on the Mr. Pio Pio menu, which was broken out into categories of seafood, pork, beef and chicken. Side dishes included plantains, rice and beans, an avocado salad and fried yucca, or Tostones (the edible root of the cassava plant, similar to a potato, but starchier).
To ensure a diverse meal, we choose entrées from three of the four categories, as well as two appetizers: yucca fries and Colombian sausage. The piping hot and crispy yucca fries came with a duo of dipping sauces. The waiter explained that the one called “guacamole”, which was a more viscous version of the familiar Mexican dip, was made with bunches of cilantro and was essentially a medium-hot sauce. The other was tomato-based and definitely spicier, thanks to an abundance of chili peppers. Both sauces brought the mild yucca to life, making it delicious in its own right. But truth be told, I think I could have downed that guacamole sauce like a shot of Tequila if no one was looking.
The sausage came out shish kabob style, with a beautiful grilled and charred skin. The flavor, our waiter explained, was similar to Chorizo, but the meat was not smoked. The sausage was dense, but not fatty, and nicely seasoned with a profusion of herbs and peppers. The hot sauce served with it was (again) full of deliciously fresh and bright cilantro, but it had enough heat to make it a worthy complement to the sweet sausage.
I confess that I chose the Camarones al Pio Pio ($11.95) based on the tempting photo in the menu; the good news is that this method of choosing an entrée turned out to be fool-proof. Exceedingly fresh, plump and succulent shrimp were sautéed in a tomato-based sauce with cilantro, peppers and lettuce, an original but welcome addition that added to the lightness and texture of the dish. The entrée came with a bed of fluffy white rice and more of that amazing fried yucca. Every bite was a satisfying, flavor-intense, mouthful of pure comfort. It was also an incredible value; there was no skimping on the shrimp and every ingredient tasted as fresh as a trip to the local farmer’s market.
My dish was not to be outdone though. Bill’s Arroz con Pollo ($7.95) was a festival of color and flavor. A fairly common Latin dish, this one stood apart with tender, moist chicken thigh meat, red and green peppers, olives, scallions and no shortage of fresh herbs. The dish was packed with flavor and didn’t have to rely on hot and spicy flavors. Instead, the predominate flavor came from the peppers which were sweet and mild, flavoring the rice and providing a balanced counterpart to the chicken.
Dean’s plate of Bristec Criollo ($11.95) was not for the light eater. This Latin American favorite was made with chunks of tender beef marinated in a Creole style sauce of tomatoes, red and green peppers, onions, cumin, garlic, and you guessed it – cilantro. It was served with white rice and sweet grilled plantains, a welcome change of pace from beef’s usual sidekick, potatoes. Not a spicy dish, it was a success because it was so well seasoned and the meat was incredibly tender. And the plantains tasted like pure indulgence – warm, sweet and sticky. Like the other entrees, this homey stew-like dish was pure comfort food, not to mention a terrific bargain.
We saved room for dessert and were not disappointed with the homemade Flan ($3.95). The large caramel covered wedge of flan was cool, creamy and surprisingly light, despite being made with a dozen or so egg yolks. The thick caramel had a slight toasty flavor, a good balance to the sweet and delicate flan. It was the perfect ending to a satisfying meal of Latin American comfort food. All we needed now was a siesta.
The total cost for two appetizers, three entrees and one dessert (excluding tax and tip) was a mere $44.65.
Mr. Pio Pio is located at 160B Quail Street, Albany. Their hours are Monday-Thursday 11am-10pm, Friday & Saturday 11am-11pm and Sunday 11am-9pm. For more information call 463.2800.
Christina DeMers is a freelance marketing consultant, food blogger and amateur cook who lives in Troy, but eats just about anywhere.