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There's something grounding about a plate of food we know we can't possibly finish. Perhaps it's that atavistic feeling of abundance and generosity it engenders. Perhaps it's simply knowing we won't be able to run or bend over for a few hours afterward. The familial appeal of Oye! Managua's chancho con tajadas maduras y queso frito ($9.50) — the Nicaraguan equivalent of a British fry-up — was immediate: Walnut-sized chunks of pork, marinated in achiote and spices, were braised and then given a final crusting in the fryer. Also showing evidence of fryer time were the half-dozen ripe plantains draped across the plate and the dense, chewy rectangle of pressed, marinated cheese perched on top. And while Brits would look askance at the lack of baked beans on the all-star platter, Nicaraguans round out the meal with a mound of fresh cabbage slaw dressed in lime juice.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
3385 Mission (at 30th St.), 821-2702. Wed.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
2338 Mission (at 19th St.), 695-9933. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
3780 Mission (at Highland), 824-4584. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun.
Needless to say, the meal wasn't hard to tuck into, though I cried uncle halfway through. Depending on how much fat each chunk contains, the pork ranged from firm, if not stringy, to the most succulent piece of meat I'd popped in my mouth all week. I spooned a little of the pickled onion relish — called chileros — from a jar on the table onto the pork; dazzled by the flashing acidity and pointed heat of the condiment, I stopped paying attention to the fat. The considerable sugars in the plantains crisped in the fryer, so deeply caramelized that the fruit looked like it had been dusted with cocoa powder. The salty cheese (known in Nicaragua only as queso para freir; it resembles Indian paneer) was so dense it squeaked when I bit in, yet it tasted better than any mozzarella stick TGI Friday's could produce.
Oye! Managua is in the middle of the Mission's Nicaraguan restaurant sector, by default the culinary center of Northern California's Nicoya community. San Jose, Oakland, and Redwood City have an isolated business or two, so in comparison, the five restaurants and two bakeries scattered along Mission between 19th Street and Highland Avenue constitute a dense restaurant row. Oye! Managua and Las Tinajas, generally considered the best of the bunch, serve food so homey, so hearty, that even your grandmother might find solace in cerdo asado and gallo pinto.
Oye! Managua's owners, Enrique Baca and Maria Elena Noguera, ran the Red Balloon (Mission and 23rd streets, under newer management) for almost a quarter century before retiring to their home country; they soon unretired, however, and opened Oye! Managua a few blocks away from their old place. Go for lunch on a weekend, and you'll see the restaurant at its most festive. Septuagenarians in leopard-print dresses or scarves and fedoras sit at the bar, entertaining the waiters and other acolytes around them. Groups of men in their 20s hunch over platters of grilled steak or fried pork. The crowd noise is sporadically blanketed over by bursts of cumbia or Boney M from the jukebox. The wood-paneled walls are covered in Technicolor seaside paintings of the Nicaraguan coast, but the decorations newcomers marvel over on their first visit are the painted dolphins and swordfish that swim up the walls and circle the ceiling.
Oye! Managua is the place to go for the chancho frito, or for vegetarians, ripe plantains with a mound of gallo pinto ($11). The gallo pinto, rice stir-fried with red beans until the grains are separate and even a little crisp, is as much a staple as bread and butter is farther north. The sopa de res ($9), a milky beef broth containing hunks of meat and vegetables so big they never soften up, merited little attention, and the restaurant's indio viejo ($12), a beef stew thickened with cornmeal, was so cheesy (literally) that it begged for chips, a Bud Light, and a Warriors game. But the grilled chicken — served either by itself or smothered in a salsa jalapeña, onions and deseeded peppers sautéed with sour cream — was so juicy it bespoke brining, and came with all the standard sides plus puffy, pale-gold unripe plantain chips I couldn't stop eating.
Las Tinajas, between 19th and 20th streets, isn't the place for a Saturday night date. It's open only during the day, for one. Even more unromantically, before making my way to a table, I had to pass down the cafeteria line, looking over a steam table stocked with gallons of pinto gallo and mondongo (tripe soup), enough plantain chips for a fraternity Super Bowl party, and an ostrich nest of cabbage slaw. Most of my food came out of the aluminum tubs, but a couple of dishes required a quick word into the intercom system and a plastic number card. All the desserts, from rum cake covered in custard to starchy, thumb-sized yuca fritters ($2.85), were squashed into plastic cups. After paying, my companions and I picked a table in the cavernous, pale-pink room, and then a server came out to remove our plastic trays.
Romantic, no. But much, much better than the atmosphere boded. Las Tinajas was the restaurant one of my dining companions, who grew up in Nicaragua, insisted was San Francisco's best. Even on a midweek midafternoon, the room was half-filled with young families, retired couples, and large lunch parties of workers, the outsiders following the lead of the Nicaraguan in the office.
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