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Chiquintad meets Spa City

Rolando's Restaurante is Ecuadorian — sort of.

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NUEVO LATINO: A Rolando's server delivers handmade tamales, Camarones Bohemios and Pollo Chuchaqui.
  • NUEVO LATINO: A Rolando's server delivers handmade tamales, Camarones Bohemios and Pollo Chuchaqui.

Given the longtime presence of Spanish-speaking communities in Arkansas, you'd think those cultures and foodways would have been represented on our restaurant menus with a bit more nuance a bit sooner. It's entirely possible, though — especially if you grew up in Arkansas in the 1970s or '80s — to have imagined all food from south of the Rio Grande as some monolithic slab of refried beans, sour cream, melty cheese and reddish rice. And, for those most benighted among us, it took the advent of the street taco era, among other culinary developments, to teach us just how many shapes Latin American foods can take: a plate of grilled cactus leaves in lieu of an eat-'til-you-keel-over basket of tortilla chips; black beans and mango sitting in for a brownish pool of lard-infused pintos; and in place of those anglicized Tex-Mex condiments — chopped iceberg, diced Romas, shredded cheddar — pickled red onions, lime and tufts of cilantro.

Count Rolando's Restaurante among those spots opening eyes and taste buds to Latin American foods, specifically, those that chef Rolando Cuzco grew up with in his native Chiquintad near Cuenca, Ecuador. At the restaurant's three locations in Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Fort Smith, Cuzco; his wife, Sherri; and their son, Trey Overton, have built and sustained a menu over the last 17 years that nods to the Ozarks, the Ouachitas and the Ecuadorian Andes in the same breath.

"Some people hear that Rolando's from Ecuador," Overton said, "and so the idea gets out that this is Ecuadorian food, but it's really not." It's "Nuevo Latino," he said, "a combination of things from Cuba, Argentina, Ecuador, San Salvador. There are some Ecuadorian-inspired dishes here, like our soups, and our chicken dishes." The Argentinian sauce, the shrimp, chicken and tortilla soups, the tamales, the salsa (which was once made with black-eyed peas instead of black beans), the Caribbean rum cake and the beloved "Rolando's Bananas" are all made from scratch.

"You know, you can go anywhere in town and find Tex-Mex restaurants. And as soon as they come in here and just glance at the menu, they realize, 'OK, this is a little bit different.' "

Overton is now the general manager of the Hot Springs location of Rolando's on Bathhouse Row (Central Ave.) in Hot Springs, but as is the case with most family-owned restaurants, he remembers being recruited to help around the dish pit and the bus tubs since he was much younger. He's made the trip to Ecuador seven or eight times with Cuzco, who became his stepfather after his mother's and Cuzco's business partnership took a romantic turn. Cuzco's got "a lot of family down there," Overton told us, "so he goes down there for a couple of months at a time. He does a lot with the community down there, with the Catholic Church."

I asked Overton how, or whether, the menu has shifted over the years to accommodate Arkansas tastes. "Most of what we have on the menu has been here since day one," Overton said. There are some additions on the horizon, though, for folks looking for fajitas, sopapillas, taco salads, cheesecake or are — as Arkansans are geared to be — in search of beef. "We always said we would never serve beef, because they don't really eat beef in Ecuador. They have cows, but they're primarily used for milk. Mainly chicken and a lot of pork."

On a chilly Saturday afternoon, nearly every table on the patio was occupied. A trio of Josefina's Handmade Tamales with chicken, pork and chili cheese arrived in folded corn husks atop black beans, encircled by decorative swirls of jalapeno and mole sauces. Encircled, too, were all the patrons — the upstairs patio has the distinction of being situated cliffside in the mountain valley. A winding staircase leads visitors up to a cavernous grove, surrounded by ivy and — at the rear tables — soundtracked by a tiny trickle of water coming down the mountainside. It's a postcard for Hot Springs National Park, and despite the bite in the air, most diners had opted for eating al fresco in lieu of the adjacent "Speakeasy" dining room to take in the lush scenery. Christmas lights were wrapped around the trees and the small stage where live music is played, and tall pines towered overhead on the top of the rock face.

AL FRESCO: Even on a chilly Saturday afternooon, the cliffside patio at Rolando's was a perfect spot to enjoy the camarones.
  • AL FRESCO: Even on a chilly Saturday afternooon, the cliffside patio at Rolando's was a perfect spot to enjoy the camarones.

A plate of the spot's "Camarones Bohemios," large tail-on shrimp sauteed in a lime and tequila sauce with sweet peppers and onions and seasoned with cilantro and parsley, came on a bed of fluffy white rice, with black beans, crema, pickled red onion and lightly pickled cucumbers.

In anticipation of warmer months to come, we ordered a pomegranate-mango margarita, a peachy pink affair served in a large beer mug, rimmed with salt and lime. We opted, too, for the "Pollo Chuchaqui," at Overton's recommendation, and it wasn't hard to see why the dish was a favorite for regulars. Rolando's seems to pay particular attention to the way chicken is tenderized and seared, and the result is splendid; two chicken tenderloins pounded thin enough to pass as breasts, grilled and topped with a lime and wine sauce with Roma tomatoes, celery (for those who don't enjoy celery, don't worry — it's inconspicuous) and onion. Those dishes, Overton told us, are probably the most quintessentially Ecuadorian. "If you go down to Ecuador, a lot of dishes that they serve are gonna be a chicken dish, with a breast and side items. We just kind of put a different style of sauce on 'em."

On the list for a return visit: "We have people that drive all around for our tilapia dish," Overton said. That's "Pescado de Mesias," grilled and topped with a tequila and caper sauce. And, of course, the rum cake with toasted pecans. "We actually got that recipe from the Grand Cayman Islands," Overton said. "We took a vacation there when I was younger — 10, 12. It was actually a town called Hell, and they had these little slices of rum cake. And T-shirts that said, 'I've been to Hell and back,' stuff like that."

When you visit the Hot Springs location, don't miss the paintings on the walls and the silhouettes carved into the facade above the exposed brick — all original works by Rolando Cuzco.


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