**This is a translation of Los percebes del Delfín Mágico son el gran secreto de Salango.
In Salango, the sea, the land, and Alfredo Pincay have secrets. More than 25 years ago, Pincay baptized the restaurant that he opened in this small Ecuadorian Pacific fishing community as El Delfín Mágico. The American archeologist Presley Nortan had loaned him eight thousand sucres (at today’s rates in US dollars, thirty-two cents) to close his bread shop and serve food to the researchers and explorers who shoveled secrets from the land, searching for traces of pre-Colombian civilizations. The secret kept by the sea has the appearance of a sea monster’s claw. It is a crustacean known as percebes (goose barnacles) and in Salango no one knew that in other parts of the world —especially in Spain—, it is considered a delicacy, until a Galician taught Alfredo Pincay how to prepare, cure, and most importantly, how to preserve the barnacles. The latter is the secret that the owner of El Delfín Mágico refuses to reveal.
El Delfín Mágico is a restaurant with a relaxed pace —involuntary slow food. Its only handicap is the long wait for service, and the best plan —my personal recommendation— is to go during the week, away from holiday periods, when it is nearly empty. El Delfín Mágico has occupied the Pincay family home: when it opened, there were four tables for fifteen people in the entry way. Today it takes up the entire first floor, with seating for eighty, and a small patio with hammocks looking onto the town’s main square has just been inaugurated. It has a consistent menu, upon which the presence of the spondylus conch, in permanent off-season since the end of 2009, is missed. The scallops in peanut sauce help to overcome the nostalgia, however.
There are battered prawns which –without exaggeration– are delicious down to the antennae. Salango’s flagship restaurant does not use pepper, cumin or annatto. “Everything is cooked in water seasoned with herbs and garlic” says Alfredo. There are eight types of fish on the menu that he picks –along with everything else – directly from the day’s catch. “I was a fisherman” —explains the man who opened El Défin at the age of 28— “and I know what is good and what’s not”. He sits down at the adjoining table: “dorado, for example, should always be properly bled, because, since it’s a ferocious animal, when it bites the hook it lets out a toxin”. If it is not bled, the meat leaves an aftertaste, a stinging sensation at the back of the throat. Alfredo carefully selects his ingredients from the area fishing boats and markets, his wife cooks, and his children manage the restaurant’s image and marketing. El Delfín Mágico is the Pincay family’s livelihood and life.
The house specialty is the percebes, which I always order as an appetizer. They arrive in handfuls, with long toes and nails like stained glass. Other restaurants also serve the dish, but it isn’t done to perfection: it tends to be over boiled, which fills the barnacles with water and leaves them too rubbery. At El Delfín Mágico, a proper firmness is maintained. The crustacean is cooked, but lightly, served with vinaigrette, and –like all that is worthwhile in life– eaten by hand. The ritual is fun: once the initial aesthetic resistance has been overcome, you pick up a piece, twist the skin —wrinkled and course, like that of a prehistoric dinosaur— at the base of the colored carapace, which looks like a nail-shaped mosaic, and break it. A tubular lavender extremity is revealed. You dip it in vinaigrette before placing it in your mouth: eroticism at the dining table.
The percebe at El Delfín Mágico appears fresh, although it has been bought several days prior. This is the secret that Alfredo Pincay refuses to reveal. His food is very good, but the restaurant’s outstanding dish is these crustaceans, which grow upon the rocks like locks of hair stolen from Medusa. “It’s about how I store them”, Alfredo tells me. I ask him to tell me how he stores them and he informs me that the Galician who taught him the method is still one of his customers. I don’t know if perhaps the topic was somehow changed mid-conversation, so I insist with certain discretion: I flank him with comments carrying veiled questions, and —while he never loses the warmth so characteristic of the people of Ecuador’s coastal villages— it is clear that he is passing over this area of my curiosity. So I ask directly. He sighs, smiles a half-smile somewhere between embarrassment and slyness, shakes his head in a brief gesture which does not displace the ashen curls falling over his forehead, and gives me his definitive answer, “Eso no se dice”. House secret. We fall into silence, as though Luca Prodan’s angel were passing over us: best not to speak of certain things.
Why do we eat a crustacean that looks like a prehistoric monster with such delight?