Nicaragua's Best Food, a Tasting Tour
Might as well admit it: you won’t be eating gourmet meals very often in Nicaragua. But this booming country abounds in culinary specialities that take your taste buds to the ends of the world.
Pan de coco, plantains, rice, red beans and cheese ... The staples of Nicaraguan cuisine are simple yet disorienting.
Let’s set off to discover Nicaragua’s best foods and the right places to try them.
Important note: many cities in Nicaragua have no street names. To find a place, the locals refer to a strategic point in the city and then tell you the way to get there.
Tajada, Tostones and Nactamales: PACIFIC COAST SPECIALITIES
If you’re spending your next vacation in Nicaragua, you will certainly be spending most of your time on the West Coast, between Masaya, Granada, Ometepe Island and San Juan del Sur. There you’ll run into the Nicaraguan national dish: gallo pinto, a blend of fried rice and red beans cooked in broth with spices. Nicaraguans eat this every day, at lunch and dinner, but especially at breakfast, with eggs scrambled or sunnyside-up and corn tortillas. Gourmets may even add maduros, super-soft pan-fried bananas. If you’d like to try making them yourself, here’s a tip: the darker the banan skin, the better it is!
And since Nicaraguans like to change up their pleasures, plantains are also served in the form of tajadas, fried like French fries, at cocktail time or with a meal. Restaurants often serve them with guacamole or curtido, a blend of tomatoes, onions, chilli pepper, garlic and lemon juice. Finally, tostones, twice-fried plantains, are Nicaragauans’ favourite appetiser bar none, topped off with melted cheese. As these are not the lightest starters around, obviously you’ll have to content yourself with that for your lunch, consumed in the crushing heat!
In terms of actual dishes, Nicaragua has two specialities for you to try if you’re really splurging: nacatamales and vigorón. Delicious nacatamales is an XXL dish consisting of a corn dough stuffed with pork or chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic and onions. It’s all presented in a wide banana leaf folded into a little package that serves as a container for steaming.
Finally, serious eaters will enjoy an abundant vigorón (fried pork), also wrapped in a banana leaf.
WHERE TO EAT ON NICARAGUA’S WEST COAST
Whilst the country’s capital, Managua, is not all that interesting, the surrounding area is worth a visit. A half-hour’s drive away is the Masaya volcano, still very active, and Laguna de Apoyo, an ancient volcano crater that has become a beautiful lagoon.
To keep from dying of heat or thirst on the shore of this large lake, restore yourself at La Abuela, a typical restaurant where you can sip Toña and Victoria (domestic beers), stretched out in a deck chair, accompanied by tostones or tajadas. The restaurant also makes an excellent vigorón that you can devour as you enjoy the scenery and the many parrots flying over the lagoon.
A bit farther on, stop in Granada, an old colonial town with colourful houses and churches. Gourmets will appreciate Calle la Calzada, the main street, filled with bars and restaurants specialising in local dishes. If you’re staying a few days, take a boat tour of Las Isletas, a set of 300 small volcanic islands. For a Flor de Caña (local rum), good tostones or a churrasco (grilled meats seasoned with butter and garlic), take a seat outdoors at The Road House.
On Ometepe, the island with two volcanoes, have a lunch break or snack at Hacienda Merida, a hotel located on the lake shore offering a superb view of the volcanoes, Concepcion (active) and Maderas. The banana pancakes deserve special mention: super-light and plenty of them.
Note: the road there is more like a rocky road than a concrete one. Getting there by bicycle could be very difficult. You’d be better off renting a scooter or car to avoid bumps and bruises. For a relaxing gourmet experience, book a room at Finca del Sol. Here you’ll sleep in eco-friendly cabins and will enjoy excellent vegetarian breakfasts featuring produce grown in the restaurant’s own garden.
Finally, treat yourself to a bit of relaxation at Ojo de agua, a natural pool located smack in the middle of the island. Its restaurant features tostones, Toñas and other little gourmet delights to enjoy between dips.
Farther west, San Juan del Sur, surf capital, is the perfect place for partying all night long. In terms of restaurants, you won’t be able to resist those lining the pretty beach of San Juan del Sur. For an enjoyable lunch, head for Vivian, specialising in octopus à la plancha and ceviche. For a lively evening, you’ll want to head for Iguana Bar, where things get going upstairs at dusk.
If you need a break from tostones and gallo pinto, stop off at Republika, a little place taken over a few years back by a young Frenchman, where the salads are huge and well prepared. And for an excellent breakfast, just cross the street and enter the Barrio Cafe, a restaurant that joyfully blends colourful Nicaraguan style and more Western-style dishes. French toast, fish tartare, avocado toast ... You choose!
CARIBBEAN FOOD ON CORN ISLAND
Finally, a visit to Nicaragua wouldn't be complete without a stop at the Corn Islands (Big and Little). These paradisiacal islands located in the Caribbean will be a dream destination for those who want to get away from it all – literally and figuratively – in a postcard-perfect setting. If you have to choose, go for a few days on Little Corn Island, where you’ll feel you’re in another world. No roads, no cars, very few places with WiFi, perfect spots for diving and snorkelling, and of course, great little places where you can eat well!
As soon as you arrive, get yourself to The Lighthouse, a little hotel with eight cabins providing an impressive view of the island. If you don’t have a chance to stay there, you can always come for a lavish breakfast with burritos, gallo pinto, pan de coco (coconut buns) or pancakes, as you like. On Tuesday evenings, The Lighthouse is the place to be with its tacos night, when the house features truly delicious chicken, fish or lobster tacos. You can also come any night of the week to savour their renowned lobster tails served with absolutely divine mashed potatoes.
During the day, go hanging around Yemaya, a bar/hotel/restaurant situated right on the island’s loveliest beach. Here you’ll enjoy an excellent fresh-fruit cocktail (passion fruit, pineapple, guava, etc.) comfortably settled in one of the chaises longues. The place is surrounded by palm trees, and you can also order fresh coconut water. If you’re feeling a bit peckish, let yourself be tempted by some perfectly seasoned fish tacos.