Tuesday, November 07, 2006

El Gallo Pinto in Azusa

A couple of weeks ago, I had the fortune to check out El Gallo Pinto, a Nicaraguan restaurant in Azusa. Amazingly enough, I have been driving past this restaurant for years and never knew about the treasure that has been near my hometown all this time. Of course, the fact that it's not very visible from the street and is hidden in a mini-mall probably contributed to why I hadn't really known about its existence until just recently.

Upon entering El Gallo Pinto, you'll notice that it's not a fancy place, but it's still very welcoming with its orange walls, brown booths and assorted paintings and photos hanging on the walls. The wait staff was also very friendly and quite willing to answer any questions about the food.

When ordering my drink, I asked for a typical Nicaraguan drink and was given Cacao. It was like a chocolate version of a Horchata and when asked about the ingredients, I was told that along with chocolate, there was also cinnamon and vanilla mixed in. I found it quite refreshing.

Since there wasn't an appetizer section in the menu, our group ordered 3 a la carte items to start off with. One was a pork and yucca dish topped with cabbage and tomatoes. I was actually surprised to see the cabbage. I've done other Central and South American dining before, but this was the first time that I saw cabbage so frequently used. We were also served small side
cabbage and tomato salads, which I think everyone gets with every meal and is also what topped the pork dish. The pork was tender and flavorful while the yucca was nice in that it wasn't overcooked and the combination of the two with the crunchy cabbage and acidity of the tomatoes worked well for me.

We also ordered fried green plantains and fried cheese. With those two items came what I personally refer to as Nicaraguan "salsa" which was made up of sour orange juice, onions and either green bell peppers or green chilies, I'm not quite sure. The flavor was citrusy-tangy-sweet and onion-y. I liked it. It was unusual. We were told to dip or top our plantains and/or cheese with this mixture, but our waitress also told us that she'd also pour
the sauce over other food items as well. The plantains were addicting and I actually liked the fact that they weren't ripe, which means that they weren't as sweet. The fried cheese seemed a little salty to me, but adding that "salsa" cut that down.

For my entrees, I wanted 3 a la carte items just because I wanted try some specific dishes that I read were typical Nicaraguan dishes. One was Vigoron , which actually was the same dish as the Pork and Yuca we shared as an appetizer, but chicharron was used instead. Still a good dish and I actually prefer the chicharron version.

I also ordered the gallo pinto, which is a staple rice dish that generally comes with every meal. Gallo pinto is a mixture of fried rice with onion and sweet pepper and beans boiled with garlic. This is a great rice dish and I prefer it to Mexican rice. I think it's the beans that are the draw and the fact that it's boiled in garlic. It adds a great flavor to the rice plus the beans adds some moisture to the dish. Generally, I don't care for Mexican rice because it always seems dry, but you definitely do not have that problem with the gallo pinto.

My last a la carte item was the nactamal. The owner told me that one of the great things about Nicaraguan food is that it isn't greasy, which I found to be true in everything I've had so far, but the nacatamal is a little different.

The nactamal is made up of a dough that is prepared with ground corn and butter. This is then filled up with small pieces of pork or chicken, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, onion, sweet pepper (all in slices). This mixture is packed in leaves of plantain trees (not edible), tightened with a small thread that makes it look like a tiny pillow. It is then cooked inside the leaves and boiled during five hours.

They must put a lot of butter in that dough because it was definitely true that the nacatamale had more of an oily taste to it than any tamale I've ever had. Even with all that, I really enjoyed it. Yes, it was oilier than I would have liked, but the fact that it was also buttery made a difference and also because of it being boiled, it was also a moist dish. Tamales can sometimes err on being too dry, which this nacatamal definitely was not.

Ordering a la carte meant a lot of food, so I ended up eating a bit of everything and boxed the rest for home. To end the meal, we had bunelos, which were yuca and cheese fritters drizzled with syrup. Yum! This was a delicious dessert and luckily, we only could get one each or else I would have had the whole plate.

Overall, I really enjoyed my meal at El Gallo Pinto and am very happy to know that it's a restaurant close to home. The food was great. The wait staff and the owner were very friendly and I enjoyed my experience so much that I'm going to be hosting a sampler dinner there in January as part of my "Feast Series." It's a restaurant that's a little hidden away, but it's worth finding and hopefully, some of you will venture out looking.

To see pics, go to:

El Gallo Pinto
5559 N Azusa Ave

Azusa, CA
626) 815-9907

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