The fight against rats is full of surprises, and one of the biggest of all occurs every week at Salinas, an Ecuadoran restaurant at 499 Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. In this pleasant setting, patrons -- people just as likely as the rest of us to spend part of their paycheck fighting vermin -- tuck into a heaping plate of what looks dangerously close to roasted rat.
It's not actually rat; it's guinea pig, the national dish of Ecuador. But to most New Yorkers' eyes, it looks like our favorite public-health risk. In a flourish that does nothing whatsoever to combat that impression, cuy (rhymes with Roy, especially in Paul Simon songs) is served whole-in-body, pointy ears, cloven paws, razorlike tiny teeth, and all. Carving it is like a gruesome ER sequence, and I can't remember another time I wondered whether the meat I was eating was a boy or a girl -- though, thankfully, there was no evidence either way.
Carlos Guaman, the restaurant's proprietor, buys the skinned animals from Los Paisanos, a butcher shop in Queens, the borough that's home to most of the city's residents of Ecuadoran heritage. The rodents are flown in weekly from Ecuador, marinated in garlic and peppers for a day, and served as a special Friday through Sunday for $30 a plate. "Generally, we serve around 35 a weekend, usually to Ecuadoran people, but some Japanese and Americans like it, too," says Guaman. "Here, people have them as pets, so they don't think of them as food. In Ecuador, they raise them on farms to eat. But even then, running around, they look like pudgy rats."
Nevertheless, they've been a popular element of Andean cuisine since the days of the Incas. Named after the noise they make (Waiter, I'll have a cut of your finest moo), they're high in protein and easy to raise. In addition, some believe them to have special healing powers. On the plate, they're dark and gamey, with flesh that's chewier than Bubblicious. The closest comparison, in terms of flavor, is to duck meat. But in presentation cuy is so thoroughly un-ducklike that it's difficult to mistake it for, or even compare it to, any other species. "People who order it know that they want it," says Guaman. "It wouldn't be a party without cuy."
Let that serve as an inspiration to a city full of rodent-haters: If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.