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Rico Chow delivers a winning Hispanic Asian fusion restaurant to Hodges Square

One of the many-splendored things we enjoy about living in New London is its distinct neighborhoods. For example, my wife Eileen and I live in the so-called Sixth District, which used to be one of the finer areas in town — until WE moved in. Property values have plummeted steadily since we bought our home here, and folks who live nearby like to say our house is haunted — by US!

In any event, one of the most intriguing parts of town, to me, centers around Hodges Square. It's a genuine mash-up, as the electronic music people say when describing the collision of various styles, rhythms and sounds. On a recent weekend twilight, at the small strip mall that serves as the Square's geographical and commercial center, it was busy.

Cars with Conn College bumper stickers wheeled into a liquor store. Residents chatted out front and compared Lotto tickets. In front of a bicycle shop, a customer, dressed in full Tour de France finery, appraised a Trek model with critical eyes. Families carried bags of food and necessities in and out of the Cheers Deli & Grocery, and up the street, uniformed Coast Guard Academy students walked into Mr. G's. Overhead, traffic on the Gold Star Bridge provided its omnipresent, ambient roar.

The flow and mix of citizenry, sights and sounds seems an ideal metaphor for the food inside Rico Chow, a self-described Hispanic Asian Fusion restaurant on the corner of Hodges Square strip center that was opened in April by David Santiago, his wife Angelys Vazquez and Gerardo DeJesus. The restaurant combines their masterly of familial Puerto Rican cuisine with Far Eastern culinary styles triggered by DeJesus's early affection for Chinese takeout — which blossomed into cooking gigs in Thai and Korean restaurants.

The two men met working at Pink Basil in Mystic and bonded over a desire to open their own place and explore their culinary vision. The result is Rico Chow, and recent visits indicate the restaurant not only provides a delicious and distinctive dining experience but a solid addition to a neighborhood that has struggled over the years.

The interior is simple: a room with dark-paneled wood walls free of décor save for colorful tapestries suspended from the ceiling. A few tables are spaced for security in our plagued times, and out front are umbrella'd picnic tables. It seems a lot of their business is takeout.

The menu is divided into quick bites, fried rice, soups and salads, "Rico Sweets," combinations, specialties and lo mein. Dishes range from Mofongo and Paella Fried Rice and Pork Short Rib to Beef Empanadas Egg Roll and Orange Chicken. A notice on the menu informs that certain dishes can be made to accommodate vegetarian preferences.

There is indeed a family/neighborhood vibe to Rico Chow. During a recent visit, a diverse stream of customers  the atmosphere and interaction between employees and a diverse stream of customers — some clearly regulars, others ducking in for the first time —w as familiar and cheerfully relaxed.

Here are some dishes we tried.

Veggie Potstickers ($6.95, also available with chicken or pork) — With crisp, diced bits — NOT soggy — of corn, carrots, celery, broccoli an noodles, a perfectly seared exterior and a umami-centric dipping sauce, these nuggets transcended an appetizer that seems almost a de rigueur mundanity on many menus.

Korean Style Loaded Fries ($8.95, choice of beef, chicken or shrimp) — I'm not one to casually throw around a "whoa!" But ... whoa! This is almost something you'd find at a ballpark, where food marketing people are highly paid to come up with combinations like this — that are meant to appeal to gluttony in the most fun way.

Here we have a solid foundation of French fries topped with spicy mayo, happily gloopy cheddar sauce, Asian barbecue sauce, scallions, crunchy and tangy carvings of kimchi, diced scallions and speckles of sesame seeds — all intermixed with, in my case, several plump, tails-on shrimp. A random bite, containing a who knows? mixture of the components, continually surprises and delights as the ingredients two-step across the tongue.

Green Bowl ($9, comes with choice of white or brown rice; fried rice of mofongo $3 extra) — My vegetarian wife Eileen loved this suave mixture of tofu, mixed steamed veggies and sesame seeds in a "Keto stir fry sauce." I'm not fluent in the nuances of the Keto diet, but for our purposes, there is a strong and pleasing ginger/garlic presence to the sauce that works very well. The vegetables were perfectly cooked and retained their moisture; the tofu emerged firm and with a nice chew. Excellent work.

Pastelon Stir Fry ($11.95) — This layered dish is the food equivalent of sitting beneath three or four different expensive pyrotechnic displays and just enjoying the spectacle of neon explosions. Or maybe it's just a happy gang fight in your mouth. There's a layer of spicy ground beef that provides a peppery snap, countered by delightful flavor splashes from fried plantain chunks. Slivers of cheddar cheese scallions dart about like tadpoles, with lettuce and onion adding crisp counterpoint. A heap of white rice serves as foundation, with a savory sauce sprinkled atop.

Oh: after devouring this, I looked up "Pastelon" and learn it's a Puerto Rican lasagna. Makes perfect sense.

Steam Bun Tacos ($10.75, choice of crispy chicken, pork or tofu) — I loved the idea of this, but it was my only clear disappointment. The steamed buns were fine — firm and moist simultaneously — but the lettuce seemed tired, and the slices of carrot and cucumber couldn't invigorate what seemed to be a frozen chicken nugget. Next time I'll try the pork.

Rico Chow is not only one of the most creative restaurants in New London, it's one where the owners seem cheerfully committed to doing all they can on behalf of not just the city but, in particular, Hodge's Square and the surrounding neighborhood.

If you go

Rico Chow

403 Williams St.

New London

(860) 442-2469. https://www.facebook.com/RicoChowCT

Cuisine: Clever and creative "Hispanic Asian Fusion"

Service: The idea is you're basically a regular the first time you enter; order at the counter and your food will brought to you

Atmosphere: Simple and casual

Prices: Reasonnable; nothing over $12.75 and you get a lot of food

Credit cards: Yes

Wheelchair access: Very negotioable with one doorway, no steps and spacious room inside

Reservations: N/A

Hours: 11 a.m.p p.m. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.

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