While Taco Bell is busy trying to convince the world that its beef products really do contain actual meat, those who are unwilling to trust fast-food corporations might want to branch out and visit the smaller food establishments around the USC campus.
Restaurante Rincon Nicaraguense, a tiny Nicaraguan restaurant squeezed into an obscure strip mall along Vermont Avenue only a quarter of a mile from campus, is just one of many hole-in-the-wall eateries in Los Angeles.
The restaurant, owned by a middle-aged couple, opened to little fanfare earlier this year, and remains a shy, quiet little establishment visited mostly by local residents.
Nothing is fancy or commercialized about Restaurante Rincon Nicaraguense. Except for a Nicaraguan flag and some odd trinkets, such as the Muñecas de Nicaragua (handmade Nicaraguan dolls), the small mom-and-pop store is modest and bare, very much like a canteen.
The “pop” of the shop is a gruff, bespectacled man who operates the kitchen. The “mom” is a short, friendly lady who is more than willing to explain Nicaraguan cuisine walk you through the menu.
That menu, though, is relatively simple and straightforward. Nicaraguan cuisine is a melting pot of cultures: native Central American influenced by techniques and ingredients brought over by Spanish colonists and African slaves.
One famous Nicaraguan dish is the baho, a steaming banana leaf packet stuffed with beef brisket, plantains and yucca. Because of the time it takes to prepare the dish, it is traditionally served on Sunday afternoons. Restaurante Rincon Nicaraguense only serves the dish on Saturdays and Sundays.
The meaty, starchy item, available for $10, has to be steamed low and slow over a large pot, and is really a community-style meal that tastes best when shared with a group. It is a Nicaraguan-style meat-and-potato treat well worth a weekend’s trip with a group of friends.
Otherwise, stick to the side dish staples. The carne asada meal ($10), or broiled steak, paled in comparison to the side dishes that came along with it. The meat smelled wonderful broiling on top of the grill, but turned out to be a tough, sinewy disappointment when served.
The gallo pinto, however, a fried rice dish with red beans, was flavorful and a joy to eat, every bite rich with garlic spices.
The slab of queso frito (fried cheese) that comes on top looks a lot like bland tofu, until you sink your teeth into its firm, crispy flesh and pull off a creamy, mellow-flavored chunk.
Even the condiments are more deserving than the main course. The ensalada de relleno, a cabbage and tomato salad, is roughly and unevenly chopped, but tangy and refreshing, a perfect complement when mixed with the smoky rice and beans.
The chilero, an onion salsa, is spicy and pungent, teasing more juices onto the tongue. It certainly made digesting the carne asada a bit less painful.
But the stars of the carne asada meal were the tajadas, elongated fried plantain chips that are typically sold in plastic bags on Nicaraguan public buses.
At Restaurante Rincon Nicaraguense, you can see the whole process of the chips being made. You can watch the owner thinly slice fresh, unripe plantains upon your order, hear the sizzle and sputter of hot oil as he tosses the pieces into the deep fryer and then salivate when he serves them to you hot, golden and crunchy.
Plantains are a major staple in Nicaragua, and they cook them well here.
The empanadas de maduro ($3), a mound of pureed plantain that has been stuffed with cheese and then fried, is another must-try. The traditional Nicaraguan snack is a plump, brown nugget with a crispy, caramelized exterior, but the insides offer a sweet and creamy shell from the plantains and oozes sharp and gooey cheese in the center.
Many of dishes at Restaurante Rincon Nicaraguense are fried and rich in starch. But the fact that you can see the owners prepare your dishes from scratch with fresh ingredients in the open kitchen is reassuring and heartening.
Restaurante Rincon Nicaraguense is not necessarily 100 percent tasty or healthy food, but it is certainly a place you want to root for and share with others. At the very least, you won’t find any mystery meat in your dishes, and that’s more than you can say about Taco Bell.
Rincon Nicaraguense is located on 2703 south Vermont Ave.