Day 49: Nicaragua
On occasion, a restaurant feels like it’s transporting me to its native country. Other times, it transports me, but I have no idea where to. El Nido Restaurant in Los Angeles, CA may usually be a fine, pleasant place to eat a meal, but tonight, it is not. Tonight there’s something strange in the air. It starts, bizarrely enough, with Mr. Meatball and me passing the restaurant and deciding to go around the block to correct our mistake. He pulls into the alley to save time and we find that it’s barely wide enough for the car. Peering into the depths, we see nothing but darkness. After a good twenty seconds of driving, the pavement is replaced by dirt and we begin to wonder “Is this alley ever going to end?” Eventually, after a staggeringly long drive, we come to a wall and realize that we ought to get out of here before a gate comes down behind us and we’re attacked by deformed goblins that live in an underground nuclear reactor. But the car absolutely has no room to veer, much less turn around, so Mr. Meatball has to drive through the quarter mile alley in reverse, which is even more difficult than it sounds due to all the dirt we kicked up on our way in. There are no lights, it’s nearly impossible to see and there’s a fearful white cat running in frantic zig-zags, barely visible in the dusty red cloud behind us. Finally, after some careful maneuvering and light perspiration, we escape.
We meet Bex outside the restaurant, after calling her with some fairly precise directions, and wander in. It’s mostly empty, but for a man eating alone in the corner and three people who have finished their meal and are going through buckets of beer as they watch the World Series on a big TV. The place is decorated with strange tropical accessories, photos of Nicaragua and an out of place, stylized painting of a Parisian sunset. Also, probably due to this absurdly hot, late October day, the restaurant is uncomfortably warm. Where am I? Our server greets us to take our drink order and a few minutes later arrives with two enormous plastic goblets and a bottle of Negro Modelo. Meatball grabs his beer, Bex grabs her “cacao” and I take my watermelon and pineapple juice. The rim of my strange goblet looks like it’s been hacked to pieces by the world’s smallest machete murderer, but the beverage manages to be refreshing in the warm night, despite it’s excessive sweetness. Bex’s “cacao”, a cloudy, gray-brown iced beverage, tastes like a cross between horchata and Yoo-Hoo. We try to ask for advice on ordering, but wind up causing more language confusion than anything else, so we simply go after some dishes that say “Nicaraguan” before them.
Now we wait. For a long time. My beverage is depleted, my requests for water have gone unanswered and the service is…strange. It’s certainly not intentionally bad or vindictive in any way, but it seems like we’re just making her feel pressured by being here. The food taking its time isn’t a huge concern, since with the restaurant having a slow night, it probably means they’re making everything from scratch, which is fine by me. We passively keep our eye on the baseball game when all of a sudden a corner jukebox whirrs into full effect, blasting music at an absurdly high volume. The baseball game is’t at a commercial, no one has touched the machine since we’ve been here, and it just starts playing where we can barely hear our own voices. Then, after a minute or two, it stops. I signal our waitress to ask for more water and she says “Your food is coming. Two more minutes.”
Not long after, it all arrives. The hunk of thin, chewy, salty beef, grilled with a chimichurri sauce, is what I would imagine a partially-dried Central American beef jerky would taste like. The juicy, crispy-skinned fried fish with a tomato and pepper sauce is a big hit at the table, but the sauce’s surprisingly dark flavors don’t help me out of my uncomfortable, warm and sweaty state of being. I feel weighed down. The fritanga estilo Nicaragüense, a Nicaraguan combination plate, is an appropriately uncomposed pile of assorted meats, a rectangle of hard, salty, fried cheese, fried plantains, plantain chips, rice and pickled, spicy onions. All of a sudden the weight of all the food begins to feel daunting and my mood is being dragged down.I reach my fork toward one of the small chorizo sausages and place the herby, weirdly refreshing tube of meat in my mouth as the jukebox once again goes on the attack.
I’ve grown to like our Tourette afflicted jukebox, but even it can’t save me from the strange and darkly hypnotic mood coming over me. I try the crispy fried pork bits, but find them relentlessly dry and flavorless. A bite of a long strip of beef, however, shows me a little light. It’s soft and juicy on one side and totally crispy on the other, creating a textural adventure as my teeth move between crackly and buttery on their journey through this felled bovine. Following it with a bite of their onion and chicken stock infused, tender white rice proves to be a good decision.
But there’s one more thing left on the table. Sopa de sesos con creadilla de toro. The menu calls it “Nicaraguan bulls egg soup” and our waitress told us that it is cow brain. A writer on Chowhound says that their research indicates it may include testicles as well, which would mean that “bulls egg” suddenly makes sense. Long strings of cooked-through fresh herbs and sliced peppers wade through the opaque, bright yellow broth as a lift of the spoon reveals the main event: brain. The brain looks like cauliflower that was murdered, weighted down in a river and discovered three weeks later by the police. I gently plunge my spoon into the heavy liquid and watch as the little circles of fat glide over the metal rim and into the pool within, like passengers sliding out of airplanes in those animated videos about what to do if your plane crash lands over water.
I bring the broth to my lips, take a long, noisy sip and discover that it is…really good. The broth is actually quite light, yet has a density and richness that takes you through a whole range of reactions. But the amazing thing is just how soothing it is. I could swear that I taste some coconut milk, which would make sense considering Nicaragua’s proximity to the Caribbean. But lest we forget, there are still more components to this soup: the testicles and the brain. Looking for testicles in yellow broth is something I never pictured myself doing, and also sounds like the worst David Sedaris book ever. But I can’t seem to find them, so as a consolation prize, I grab a spoon full of brain, rest it on my tongue, then chew. At first, the texture and taste are exactly like a matzo ball, except that a matzo ball will eventually crumble in your mouth. This stuff is extremely soft, but will hold its shape until you slice through it with your teeth. Mr. Meatball points out that the matzo ball flavor eventually goes away, leaving an odd, bloody aftertaste. “It tastes like I have a cut in mouth. It tastes like iron.” At first I thought that sounded dramatic, but then I realize that having a cut in your mouth actually makes for a pretty subtle flavor. I’ve had cow brain before and the flavor is usually stronger, but when any meat is cooked in a soup, the flavors spread into the broth and are much more muted in the meat itself. So for those of you out there who want to try brain but are afraid of what will happen, try it in soup form. But be careful, as brain soup may be a gateway drug to all things offal. After my bite, Mr. Meatball stumbles upon a small diced piece of mysterious, dense meat. Is it a testicle? I pop it in my mouth, chew it, find the flavor pretty muted and decide that the evidence is inconclusive. But what the hell else would it be?
There’s still some food left on the table, but I don’t even know what to do with it. I don’t think I’m full, but I think I’m just done. Nothing is bad (except for the fried pork) and most of the food is really quite good. But I’ve lost my bearings. I’ve tried everything, I’m hot, I’m sinking lower and lower into my chair and I think I want to go home. If I were a restaurant critic I’d have to return to this place many times to get any grasp on what my thoughts should be. But I don’t have that luxury. Tomorrow is another cuisine and I must move on. Thank you, restaurant, for a truly unique experience. I only wish I understand what happened. After a dark alley, a scared cat and a bowl of brains, maybe Halloween is coming a few days early this year.
El Nido Restaurant
2112 S La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90016
Food Breakdown: 1 alcoholic beverages, 2 non-alcoholic beverages, 4 entrees
Distance From My House: 3.7 miles