Nicaraguan cooking is best summarized thusly: "This is good. Let's make it great." Consider, for example, empanadas de maduro — cheese-filled sweet-plantain patties, which sound nice but aren't good enough in their simplest form. So Nicaraguans immerse the half-moons in hot oil until the cheese melts and the crust caramelizes. Fried sweet plantain packed with cheese? Behold: Good is now great.
There's also a ball that looks a lot like a potato. But it's not a potato. It's a breaded golden tortilla thronged with succulent meat bits and soft white rice like a massive Italian arancini. This nica enchilada, too, is battered and fried in oil.
Those who fear grease should avoid the lard-laden world known as the fritanga, a Nicaraguan cafeteria. In these neighborhood spots, the food is homespun, prices are affordable, and the folks behind the counter often possess a hearty sense of humor.
Recently, I dove into this pinguid world with a few things in mind. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was still hurting from Friday night's binge, which means I longed for pork fat, oil, and anything fried. I embarked on a voyage of three consecutive meals at Miami's top fritangas. The objective was simple: to consume as much fried cheese and frescos de cacao — blended drinks made with toasted cacao, rice, cinnamon, and milk — as possible. Three portions of the Nicaraguan grilled beef known as carne asada, meat so flavorful it makes Argentine steak seem like cat food, would also be ideal.
Was there a higher purpose? No. But three meals of comida nica would be a fine way to approach both corpulence and glee.
Pinolandia, a Little Havana take-out restaurant that's open 24 hours a day, features a tiny market and juice shop in the back. The petite store peddles leather flip-flops, toilet paper, chicharrón, mango juice, and Snickers — all in a 20-square-foot space. There is, apparently, nothing incongruous about these items.
Stand in the crowded area by the restaurant entrance, where a single-file line curls into a U shape before the hot-food wells, and listen to Alexis y Fido's Rompe la Cintura boom from an overhead speaker. If you're lucky, you might see a man wheel in boxes of green cabbage printed with the words "God Loves You." Preaching and hip-shaking are normal at Pinolandia. Dance. Just don't get in the way of that cabbage.
Meat here is cooked on a scorching grill. Brace yourself: Your hair might smell like smoke. Your clothes might reek of beef. Order the carne asada, two strips of grilled meat seasoned with sour orange juice, spices, and onions. Pair it with fried sweet plantains, fried chunks of squeaky cheese, and gallo pinto — Nicaragua's prized rice-and-bean concoction. Or choose from the restaurant's daily specials: stewed pork, tongue, fried fish, mixed rices, and a cheese soup colored more vibrantly than Cheez-Its. Before reaching the register, find the corner reserved for all things fried. Select from beef taquitos, the aforementioned rice ball of deliciousness, and more fried cheese. Sip fresh juices from the refresquería located inside the market. Because, hydration.
Food: Carne asada, gallo pinto, fried sweet plantains, fried cheese, one fried taco stuffed with beef, one enchilada, a plastic baggie's worth of cabbage salad, one fresco de cacao, and one mango juice.
Emotional state: Buoyant! Joyous feelings have been stimulated by reggaeton music and homiletic cabbage.
Pinolandia might have the best Nicaraguan grilled beef around, but nearby Yambo Restaurant has immense nacatamales. Plantain leaves cocoon a corn masa filling with sliced potatoes, peppers, beef, pork, raisins, onions, cilantro, tomatoes, and rice. There's also a huge piece of pork rind on top — another touch of awesome.
The spot, which is open all hours, is decorated with an abundance of knickknacks. A sign reads, "Hoy no se fía, mañana si" ("No open tabs today; tomorrow there will be"). There's restaurant seating inside, but Yambo's patio, near the oversize colorful rooster and surrounded by walls cluttered with wooden signs, is the supreme spot to consume baho, a dish of yuca, plantains, and beef steamed in banana leaves. Want beer to wash it down? Fine, but there are rules. Beer is sold only with food, and there's a limit of three. Ask for three. At Yambo, gluttony ends not at the steamer or fryer, but at the fridge.
Behind the counter, a 20-something fellow in a black T-shirt pours a gallon of white vinegar into a tub loaded with sliced cabbage and carrots. "You ready, mami?" he'll ask. You nod. Then douse the cheese-stuffed empanadas de maduro with the mystery sauce stored in giant wooden tubs atop the round cement tables.
Feel weak? Too full? Can you proceed no further? Time for jugo de chicha! It's a sweet fermented drink like kombucha, but nica. Carry on.
Food: Two nacatamales, baho, one empanada de maduro, one jugo de chicha, and one tamarind juice.
Emotional state: Delirious — a state of euphoria induced by fried sweet-plantain empanadas.
Drive through Sweetwater, a community once inhabited by a troupe of retired Russian circus midgets, which is now known as Little Managua. Take in the sights. Then head south to West Kendall. Visit Fritanga Montelimar, the spot featured on Andrew Zimmern's show Bizarre Foods America. Inside the modest cafeteria, the TV set is always on. Watch La Voz Kids, a spectacle that involves Paulina Rubio wearing a blue cowboy hat and judging child talent. Hear a 9-year-old girl from New Jersey sing Selena's Como la Flor. Order Fritanga Montelimar's fresco de cacao. Speckled with brown bits and perfumed by cinnamon, it's the best version in town.
Want sopa de gallina, Nicaraguan hen soup? Stop by Montelimar early. By 3 p.m., they might be out of some specials. Try the pollo asado, grilled chicken breast smothered in fresh salsa with sliced onions and tomatoes. Taste more gallo pinto and, yes, fried sweet plantains. For dessert, sample the honey-and-cheese empanada. You've journeyed far. You deserve a treat.
Fritanga Montelimar feels like the top stop — its fresco de cacao, flawless seasonings, and delicious gallo pinto woo those stricken with even the most horrific of ailments. (As in one too many suds.)
Finish your fresco. Nibble on sweets. Revel in your victorious pursuit of fritangas. Hangover or not, this escapade has ended in utter satisfaction.
Food: Grilled chicken, gallo pinto, fried sweet plantains, honey-and-cheese empanada, fresco de cacao, and jugo de cebada (barley juice).
Emotional state: Contented — hangover cured effectively and delectably.