Houston doesn't have a shortage of Latin American or Caribbean restaurants. A population of talented immigrants ensures that those offerings are pretty darn diverse. But strangely underrepresented is Central America's largest country, Nicaragua. The Cordúa family behind Américas and Churrascos is a Nicaraguan-American success story, but their food is modern pan-Latin. The only option for pure Nicaraguan food closer than El Paso is at South Houston's Fritanga Nicaraguense La Carreta. Fortunately for us, it's excellent.
And owner Eduardo Arauz is an able tour guide for diners not steeped in his native traditions. When I told him it was my first time at a Nicaraguan restaurant, he went through each page of the menu with me, dish by dish, describing the relative merits of each. For those not seeking frequent pats on the back from a stranger and recommendations that they should find a Nicaraguan man to marry, this may land less than favorably, but kindness is kindness and well-prepared, uncommonly flavorful food is just that.
When I couldn't decide between pork and beef for my carne asada plate, the restaurant's specialty, Arauz offered to give me a piece of each. And it wasn't just a matter of pity on a solo female diner; he said he often serves the dish that way when guests aren't equipped for the larger, more diverse parillada for two. He warned me that nothing is cooked until it's ordered, so there would be a wait. But it wasn't long and I passed the time with a giant styrofoam cup of cacao or tiste, a cold chocolate drink that reminded me of thinner, more natural-tasting Quik spiked with an ample dose of cinnamon.
And a much longer wait would have been well worth it. Toothsome lengths of beef and pork were marinated to tangy, earthy-spiced perfection that made the hot, lime-flavored salsa on the side all but unnecessary. I used it instead for a dip for the freshly fried plantain chips, or tajadas. The soft maduros (sweet plantains), though, with their crisp, caramelized edges, were stellar on their own. Queso frito, exactly what it sounds like, was milky and salty with a squeaky bounce as I bit in. Gallo pinto, toothsome red beans and rice, were subtle enough on their own to be a good foil to the likably sour, crunchy curtido. Did the plate need that many elements? Probably not, but having tasted them all, I would have been sad to subtract a single one, even when I ate my second half of the meal for dinner that night.
I also ordered a nacatamal, but Arauz insisted that I not overeat and bring it home for the next day. I followed his orders and boiled up the outsized Nicaraguan take on the tamal for dinner the next night. Though it's wrapped in a banana leaf with a base of masa and a stuffing of braised pork, the similarities to Mexican tamales end there. First of all, the masa is not only as soft as creamy polenta, but acidic in flavor. Logs of tender meat ran throughout, but on top, a bevy of vegetables and rice were placed unevenly — almost like a compost pile filled with softened peppers, onions, spinach and tomato — were put to delicious use.
"You're going to be addicted," Arauz had warned me before he brought my food. Maybe that's too strong a word, but I am already craving carne asada and maduros. When do I have time to drive to South Houston again?