Sandwiched between Honduras and Costa Rica, halfway between the southern tip of Mexico and the northernmost point of Colombia in South America, Nicaragua is smack-dab in the middle of Central America. However, to find a restaurant in the L.A. area that specializes in the cuisine of Nicaragua, diners have to venture far, far away from the smack-dab middle of anywhere. The city of Azusa is best known for its slogan “A to Z in the USA,” for being one of the stops on “track five” (along with Anaheim and Cucamonga) on the late comedian Jack Benny’s imaginary train, and nowadays as the eastern point on the 210 freeway where rush hour traffic to and from L.A. begins and ends. Luckily for Claremont residents, Azusa is only nine miles away, and the 15 minute journey is almost always (shockingly) traffic free.
Descending down the Azusa list from A to Z, at E is El Gallo Pinto, a humble Nicaraguan and Mexican restaurant tucked away in the corner of a mini mall that also features a 7-Eleven, a barber shop, and a local Azusa dentist. The interior is festively decorated with assorted parrot models sharing space with streamers, vibrantly colored lampshades, various maps and drawings of Nicaragua, somewhat rickety wooden chairs and booths, and a constant soundtrack of what I’m guessing is the 70s greatest hits from Managua. It’s a cheerful atmosphere with a relaxed vibe, bright and tropical without approaching Jimmy Buffet territory. Possibly the only Nicaraguan restaurant in L.A., the restaurant is constantly filled with Nicaraguan couples and families enjoying a taste of home.
The restaurant itself is also clearly a family affair, run by longtime owner Jose Cabrales, who I’m told is a former real estate agent. The service isn’t exactly from the Laura Cunningham/French Laundry school of hospitality, but there is plenty of heart, and when asked to better describe the very confusing menu translations, the sole waiter did his very best. It’s not easy, after all, to be the single waiter at any somewhat busy restaurant, especially when there are big groups of diners who have no idea what anything on the menu is (us), five-year-olds throwing desserts around, and quiet couples who are far more interested in reading the Nicaraguan newspaper than talking to each other.
The cuisine of Nicaragua is soul-satisfying, hearty, and often served in banquet-sized portions, ensuring many more meals to come. Every meal features either boring white rice and beans or the namesake dish of the restaurant (and Nicaragua’s national dish), gallo pinto, which consists of those same rice and beans mixed into a rust-colored mound the size of a baseball. Most meals also come with sweet plantains which, in their Nicaraguan form, actually do taste like bananas. It is also very wise to order some fried plantains to share as these are the Nicaraguan tortilla chip equivalent and are perfect for dipping in the somewhat spicy onion and chile concoction that stands in for salsa.
The menu is divided into two parts: Nicaraguan cooking and Mexican cooking. Sure you can get your burritos or even beef tongue in salsa, but if you’ve come all this way, then take advantage of the Nicaraguan half. The two sections of the menu are each split in half again, one side in Spanish, and one side with the befuddling English translations. Indio viejo, translated as ”old indian stew,” turns out to be an exceptional rustic beef stew, the color of adobe clay from the achiote, oranges, and tomatoes. Achiote also marinades the pork in chancho frito, creating a dish similar to a plate of Mexican al pastor pork, with a perfect blend of crunch on the outside and moist, tender, and stringy meat on the inside. We also sampled the chancho en caldillo, helpfully translated as “pork in sauce.” That sauce happens to be a light tomato sauce, studded with green and red bell peppers and olives, similar to a pork cacciatore.
Presentations are far from artistic. This food is meant to be enjoyed and to fortify you for hours to come. The ten or so decent-sized cubes of pork sit on one side of the plate, the rice or gallo pinto taking over the other half with a ribbon of sweet plantains decorating the plate’s perimeter.
The most impressive presentation comes in the form of baho, available only on weekends. Nearly every table had an order of this massive concoction of braised beef, green plantains (very similar, in taste and mushy consistency, to yams), and yucca, which doesn’t taste all that yucky. Topped with a very generous mound of the shredded cabbage and tomatoes, the serving is practically one foot by one foot in girth. None of the flavors involved are particularly exciting, but everything tastes good together or separately and ultimately proves to be the type of food you just keep eating and eating without realizing it.
Also available exclusively on weekends is mondongo, the Nicaraguan version of the Mexican hangover-cure soup menudo. If you don’t mind the spongy nature of tripe or just feel like going all Anthony Bourdain for a meal, then this is a very enjoyable dish, though the broth was quite bland. I wasn’t hungover while consuming it, so I can’t attest to its supposedly magical Sunday morning healing powers.
There are all sorts of other basic sounding, buDisct ultimately very fulfilling dishes such as chicharron with yucca (fried pork rinds), nacatamales filled with olives and chicken, and the always-exciting queso frito, that cholesterol-spiking “fried cheese.” Desserts aren’t the reason to come here, but ardent followers of flan or trs leches cake will enjoy a sweet finish. Nicaraguans love corn, so why not have corn in dessert? The sweet corn tamales doused in syrup or sweet corn tortillas definitely satisfy. Kids always also love the buuelos, sweet beignets stuffed with cheese.
A visit to El Gallo Pinto is not complete without sampling one of the restaurant’s exotic non-alcoholic drinks. There is a top-notch horchata, tamarind juice, or cacao, which is like a bitter chocolate milk on ice. On a hot day, the lone Nicaraguan cerveza Toa hits the spot, nearly as light as a Nattie Light, but with some actual character and a sweeter taste.
Azusa may or may not have everything from A to Z in the USA, but it indeed has E well-covered with the excellent El Gallo Pinto, a terrific introduction to the wholesome cooking of Nicaragua.
El Gallo Pinto 5559 N. Azusa Ave., Azusa, CA (at western end of minimall) (626) 815-9907 Open Daily 11:30 to 8:30 p.m., until 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturdays Recommended Dishes: Baho, chancho frito, Indio Viejo, sweet plantains, gallo pinto, horchata and cacao to drink Food: **1/2 Service: ** Atmosphere: ** Overall: ** Prices: plates between $7.99 and $12.99; sides, drinks, and desserts $1.50 to $3