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Take the black-bean challenge

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No matter who's at the top of your black-bean list, if you try the family recipe at Rincon Criollo, downtown, you may never go back. Since they opened in 2000, owners Reynold and Linda Acosta have relied on his father's recipe (which dates back to roots in New York and Cuba) to keep the people coming back.

And that's just for starters. The the cooks round out the lunch fare with two set daily specials -- a traditional Cuban dish, and a chicken dish -- served cafeteria-style: Monday, carne asada or chicken in red sauce; Tuesday, roast pork or barbecued chicken; Wednesday, ropa vieja or Caribbean chicken breast. Priced at $5.95, the specials are served with black beans and rice and plantains or yuca. Sometimes red beans are offered, and they're as finely honed as the standard. Acosta says Thursday and Friday are the busiest, reserved for vaca frita and picadillo, respectively. Fans line up to the door.

There are added bonuses to this unique enterprise: For the same $5.95, they daily serve excellent fake-meat specials with the same side options -- sirloin tips, chicken nuggets and the like -- and vegetarian sandwiches. The vegetarian Cuban ($4.79) is a wonder at fooling the palate. The Acostas favor meatless dishes in their own dining room, so there's realistic taste-testing going on. Still, the meats tend to be flavored and cooked to perfection.

The hours are easy to remember: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays; closed Saturday and Sunday. In the early morning, grab a breakfast sandwich (2.99) and a cafe con leche ($1.75).

Best of all, the Acostas are full of heart and, with their crew, give the place a welcoming vibe.


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