I'll admit to having absolutely no familiarity with Nicaraguan food whatsoever prior to my meal at Managua on Sunday afternoon. But after passing Managua an untold number of times on my way down Bellaire Boulevard towards the culinary paradise that is Chinatown, I finally decided to make a destination out of it.
One thing you should know up front: In order to persuade my dining companion to come have lunch with me, I completely lied about Managua. "Sure, I've eaten there before!" I told him. (He's wary of being dragged to overly exotic restaurants merely to satisfy my impulsive -- and compulsive -- need for adventurous dining as often as possible.) "It's like Mexican food with more of a tropical twist!" I was speaking completely out of my ass.
It turns out that my quickly concocted lie was at least mostly true. The meal we enjoyed at Managua reminded me strongly of a lunch I'd once eaten in the Mexican jungle, prepared by Mayan villagers just outside of Coba and not far from the coast. The flavors were strongly similar and even the juices -- especially the sweet maracuya and tamarindo -- were the same.
Who said lying doesn't pay off sometimes?
Nicaraguan food isn't what I would call exotic. Much like Ethiopian food, it's extremely approachable with the right attitude and is comprised of ingredients and cooking methods that you're likely already familiar with. It's not the food itself that's tricky.
At Managua, named for the capital of the Central American country, the tricky part is the language barrier. Our waitress didn't speak a lick of English, and my Spanish is limited to taco truck phrases like "Para llevar, por favor." Complicating matters was the fact that half of what we ordered was either unavailable for reasons we didn't quite understand or that the waitress would make suggestions for substitutions that weren't on the menu and therefore meant absolutely zero to us. She could have been speaking Klingon for all we knew. The ordering process, all told, took about 10 minutes. Some of the 10 most gesture-filled minutes of my life.
When the food (some of which we didn't even realize we'd ordered) finally arrived, we tore into it.
Appetizers were a blood sausage called morcilla, which is eaten throughout Central and Latin America, and the famously salty Nicaraguan cheese cuajada, served with unsalted, fried plantains. The morcilla had no casing and took on an amorphous form that echoed the homemade quality of the cuajada. If you like cuajada -- and the very dry, very salty cheese is definitely an acquired taste -- Managua sells their homemade cheese to take home with you as well.
I loved the dense, inky morcilla and the way it paired with the light tang of the vinegary cabbage that was served alongside nearly every plate at lunch. I was less thrilled with the cheese, which our waitress had fervently recommended, but understood the allure.
A giant bowl of seafood soup arrived shortly afterwards, served with a small plate of rice and fat, thick corn tortilla. Along with the cabbage, these corn tortillas were the other omnipresent side item; make your own taco at any time! (Although I feel like that would have been frowned upon.)
The saffron-colored seafood soup was gravid with octopus, squid, shrimp, mussels and a whole crab. Tiny yellow bubbles of pure butter coated the top of the broth with a fatty sheen, tasting for all the world like an expertly concocted seafood chowder that would have been equally at home in an old-school seaside restaurant like Gaido's. "I don't want to eat anything else but this," I enthused over the hot, rich broth.
"Too bad," my friend responded with a laugh. "I'm pretty sure we still have entrees coming."
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He was right. A plate filled with fried fish and papas fritas soon clattered down in front of him, while my dish -- a traditional Sunday afternoon meal called baho -- stood before me defiantly, a veritable tower of meat, yuca, plantain and cabbage...always more cabbage.
From what I read later, baho (also spelled vaho, bajo and vajo) is typically made the day before -- on a Saturday -- and steamed overnight to be ready for lunch on Sunday afternoon. The perfect meal to relax and enjoy your "day of rest" by. The meat used in baho is simply beef brisket, marinated and seasoned much the same way (albeit with different spices) as we prepare a brisket for smoking in Texas.
The dish reminded me so much of brisket, in fact, that I took the fattier pieces to go at the end of our meal (no room for dessert...this time) and trotted over to my parents' house with them. My father, the brisket-master, needed to inspect and taste this dish for himself. He wasn't a fan of the yuca and plantains -- yuca is another acquired taste, it seems -- but pronounced the beef brisket in the baho "pretty damn good." I agreed.
I'm looking forward to exploring more of the menu at Managua -- especially dishes like the churrasco platter and desserts like buñuelos -- but I'll be following my own advice the next time I dine there: Take a Spanish-speaker with you, and order adventurously.