Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"Nicaraguan Feast" at El Gallo Pinto

Last January, I set up a 12-course sampler dinner at El Gallo Pinto in Azusa and my oh my, was it delicious. We started off with their Mondongo Soup, which owner, Jose, makes himself every weekend. This particular dish is a Nicaraguan specialty and apparently, Nicaraguans will drive for miles to for this soup because it reminds them of home.

The Mondongo Soup is a hearty tripe soup with chayote, corn, yuca and other ingredients and after doing some research online, I found out that many Nicarguans value it because they feel that the soup has healing powers. I actually really enjoyed this soup and considering that it was a cold evening, it really hit the spot. The broth was rich and flavorful and just really warmed me inside and out. The only thing that put me off a bit was that the tripe. It could have been cut in smaller chunks. They were just too big to eat in one bite.

Following the Mondongo Soup came the Nactamale, which is basically a tamale that is steamed in banana leaves with about 14 different ingredients including capers, olives, raisins, rice, potatoes, onion, mint, marinated pork, jalapenos, etc. According to the owner, the banana leaves are more than just simple wrappers, they actually are important in adding flavor to the tamale. The Nactamale had a lot of different "tastes". There was sweet from the raisins, a little salty from the olives, a kick from the japalenos. It felt like an adventure eating it because you never got the same bite twice.

Following the Nactamale, came an appetizer platter that included fried marinated pork, green and ripe plantains as well as gallo pinto. Gallo Pinto is a mixture of fried rice with onion and sweet pepper and beans boiled with garlic and is a definite must have anytime you come visit El Gallo Pinto, this dish's namesake. Also with the appetizer platter came the Vigoron, which is yuca, cabbage, tomatoes and deep fried marinated pork. There's really nothing fancy about these dishes, but for being basically fried foods, they were good.

Mincemeat, the dish that followed wasn't anything to write home about. Basically, this dish is chopped boiled beef with bell peppers and onions. I had it before and wasn't too impressed with it the second time around. It still had the same problem. It's actually a pretty bland dish, even when you squeeze lime on it. It didn't really come to life until you mixed the Nicaraguan salsa with it and considering that the Nicaraguan salsa is a mixture of sour orange juice, onions and peppers, you can see why it added a lot of great flavor.

On to the chicken that was covered with an olive, caper and a tomato-based sauce. A very tasty dish which had a nice hit of saltiness from the capers and olives; yet, wasn't overwhelmed by them. Then then there was the whole boneless tilapia fish cooked with onions and bell peppers with a tomato-based sauce flavored with vinegar and bay leaf. The sauce was wonderful. I liked the acidity of the tomatoes mixed with the sour flavor of the vinegar.

Still we press on to the home stretch where we end with the fried green banana chips, the shrimp in special sauce and two desserts, the bunelos and the rum cake. I can't for the life of me remember what was in the sauce for the shrimp, but it was quite good. I remember it being a little spicy, but than I could be wrong. I'll have to go back and try it again.

As for the desserts, I really liked both of them. The bunelos are deep fried pastries stuffed with yuca and cheese with caramel sauce poured over them. You can never go wrong with caramel sauce plus with yuca and the cheese not being really sweet, the caramel made this dish seem more like dessert.

The rum cake was also really good. I honestly don't remember if I tasted any rum, but I just liked how moist the cake was and how the sauce just permeated its pores. Yummy!

Overall, there are definite things I'd try again and others I'd skip over, but in general, I'd say it was a pretty good meal and when you add that it's a family-owned, family-run restaurant where the owners really take care of their customers, I'm always very happy to dine there and recommend El Gallo Pinto to anyone who's interested in trying Nicaraguan Cuisine.

To see pics, go to:

El Gallo Pinto
5559 N Azusa Ave
Azusa, CA
(626) 815-9907

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