When we came upon Yambo, I yahooed with excitement. It's a hopping, bopping, most colorful Nicaraguan joint that, despite the crowd lining up at an outdoor counter to get food, surely couldn't be known by too many outside the periphery of this funky neighborhood (SW First Street between Sixteenth and Seventeenth avenues). Apparently I had unearthed a relatively undiscovered gem, and as such was wearing the sort of smug smile that I imagine Lewis and Clark must have exhibited on numerous occasions during their overland expedition to the Pacific Ocean. I should have known better, as time and again such hopes have been dashed by a different discovery altogether: an old "Best Of" plaque hanging crookedly on one wall or another. Sure enough after dining al fresco, I checked out the indoor portion of Yambo and there it was: New Times's Best Nicaraguan Restaurant.
Yambo offers one of those "out-of-country" experiences that alone is worth the price of admission. Outdoors, under a red-and-white awning, are nine round tiled cement tables with curved tiled benches; half a dozen smaller square tables run up one side of a parking lot that fronts the restaurant. The rest of the surroundings are filled in by a religious shrine, a monument to Ruben Dario, wooden sculptures and masks, a wagon wheel, old license plates, and scads of other Nicaraguan knickknacks; multicolor fans whirl from the ceiling among hanging jugs, baskets, corn husks, and whatnot. There's so much going on visually that you hardly notice the phone booth, CD jukebox, kiddie horse ride, gumball dispensers, Mortal Kombat video game, or ATM (this isn't so much a restaurant as a very tiny village). Then there's the counter where you order and pick up food; it's backed by a kitchen and flanked on both sides by tropical-fruit juice stands that also sell sodas, Riunite wines, beers from Becks to Bud, espressos, and desserts.
There are roughly 30 tipico Nicaragüense snacks and main courses to choose from, some more familiar than others. Can't guarantee that gringos will go for the chicharrones (pork cracklings) or blood sausage, nor would I wholeheartedly steer you toward the lengua in tomato sauce, as many Americans have this thing about chewing chunks of cooked cow's tongue; even shredded beef in cornmeal might be a bit too alien for some. What I can attest to are the tacos de pollo, crackly fried corn tortillas rolled around savory ground chicken; fried knishlike potato balls brimming with chayote and cheese (pescazones); juicy, well-seasoned wedges of grilled pork (puerca asada); delectable beefsteak stewed in light tomato sauce with sautéed onions (bistek en salsa); and fried whole snapper. All cost less than $5 and come with shredded cabbage as well as various couplings of rice, red beans, plantains, yuca, and so forth. Large wooden bowls of salsa picante sit on just a few of the tables but are shared by everyone.
You may want to know beforehand that not a whole lot of English is spoken here, which leaves four options for those not fluent in Spanish: (1) Bring along someone who is. (2) Dine at Salon Cacique Nicarao, the name given Yambo's cozy indoor restaurant with table service and translated menus of the same food being served outside. (3) Borrow the salon's menu, take it to the outdoor counter, match the pictures with corresponding steam-table items, and then return the menu. (4) Point at foods and make nodding gestures suggesting what you want.
Strong espresso and café con leche go down nicely with rice pudding; flan; and manuelitas, thin vanilla pancakes (or thick crêpes) rolled around sugar, cinnamon, and potently pungent crumbles of white cheese. Same coffees hit the spot with a breakfast of eggs, sausage, rice, beans, and tortillas. Outdoor Yambo's is open 24-7. What else can you ask for?
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.