Comfort Food: At home on the Nicaraguan strip

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.

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.

And when I tasted Las Tinajas' plato tipico, I could see my friend's point: The ripe plantains were even more custardy than Oye Managua's, the cheese fatter and more delicately fried. A celadon purée of vinegar and chiles joined the jar of chileros on the table, and I ended up smothering the piquant green paste on everything I ate.

Sometimes the cafeteria aspect seemed to reassert itself. The baho ($10.95) — short ribs partially cured and then steamed, accompanied by yuca and plantains — didn't fall apart, as we'd hoped. And I couldn't warm to the vigorón ($6.75), a common street-food dish: At Las Tinacas, it consisted of a pile of boiled yuca chunks big enough to choke a Rottweiler topped with large sheets of pork rind and the house cabbage slaw.

Then there was the antojitos “Las Tinajas” combination plate ($18.95): Not only was it one of the most expensive things on the menu, it also might possibly have been the biggest, presented on a platter large enough to serve a 15-pound roast turkey. Of course it included gallo pinto, fried cheese, fried plantains both ripe and starchy, and a heap of cabbage slaw threaded through with julienned carrots. Peeking out from underneath the mound of side dishes were two eight-ounce steaks: carne asada (beef), pounded thin and quickly grilled, and lomito de cerdo asado, a pork loin marinated, flame-marked, and as tender as if it had been braised.

While corn tortillas are a part of the daily fare of Nicaragua, they are little in evidence at either restaurant. Neither restaurant serves a nacatamal worth taking home, either. The massive Nicaraguan tamal, a meal in a banana-leaf packet, is either a special-occasion food or a breakfast treat, depending on whether you're making it yourself or buying it off a street vendor. Finding a good one means wandering down to Adelita's Cakes at the farthest end of the Nicaraguan strip, a dim little bakery whose commitment to birthday frivolity seems to resemble Tim Burton's.

In the late morning, not long after the shop opened, I joined the line for nacatamales, which were neatly tied with string and fresh from the steamer. I opened mine in the car, picking off the string and unfolding the wrapper gingerly to keep from burning my fingertips. A square of cornmeal porridge emerged. Chunks of meat and potatoes stuck out of the steaming mass, whose top was stained red from the tomato slices laid on top before cooking. The tomatoes gave the cornmeal a lovely flavor, as did the fat that had melted off the chunks of heavily marinated, long-cooked pork. Unlike the smaller, cakier Mexican tamales most of us are accustomed to, a nacatamal is eaten with a spoon. Each bite delivers a small gift: an olive, a salty caper, or a soft, fat raisin. It is perhaps the most grandmotherly thing I've eaten in weeks.

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