Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Nicaragua: Taska Kiko
One of the benefits of writing a blog and allowing people to know about your quest for great food in the world is that, every once in a while, your friends will do their best to accommodate your desires. Knowing my desires, my friends decided to wait an extra day for me to arrive in Managua before going out to eat at Taska Kiko. I am forever grateful.
I've heard different stories about Managua. Some say it's dangerous. Others say it's the safest capital in Central America. Whatever the case may actually be, everyone seems to discourage my interest in visiting the casino. It's literally across the street.
Brent weighs in.
Maybe I could get shot. Or kidnapped. Perhaps besieged by angry Sandinistas. It's only across the street, I think to myself. I can make it.
Don't get me wrong, our hotel is on Carretera a. Masaya - one of Managua's busiest thoroughfares. There's people everywhere. Not to mention some street vendors selling food a block away. Let my people free!
In other cities, we would walk. Not here. Our movements are timed and shuttled in Don Roberto's HiAce minivan. For our dinner tonight, we pile back into the van and off we go. I'm expecting a bit of a ride even though they said the restaurant was close. Just a couple of short blocks from Carretera a. Masaya, in a residential neighborhood, and suddenly, we're there.
I would tell you it took five minutes to drive there but that would include the time it took for me to walk from my room, down the elevator, out the door, into the van, drive there and get out. Sixty seconds seems more like it.
Cleofas, Rouki, Alirio and Julio with the Owner of Taska Kiko.
Nestled between what look to be nice homes in the darkness of night is Taska Kiko, a Basque restaurant specializing in seafood. Like many restaurants in the capital, Taska features an open-air dining room with peaked thatched roofs held up by large wooden timbers. The feeling is breezy, warm and tropical. A perfect setting for seafood.
It's just after 9am and the dining room isn't too busy. Just a couple of other tables and our group of international judges: Cleofas Arreola from Mexico, Roukiat Delrue from Guatemala, Brent Fortune from Portland and Alirio Laguna from Colombia. We're being hosted by Julio Peralta and Martha Mendieta from the Associacion de Cafes Especiales de Nicaragua (ACEN for short).
We settle in and the drinks start flowing with pitchers of sangria. There's talk of wine and more Nicaraguan rum, oh my. In my mind, I remember that moderation needs to be my key but the sangria is cold, tasty and my glass empties rapidly and refills equally as fast.
People ask me what I like most about traveling - this is it. Sitting around a table with promises of great food and adventure in a different country with friends old and new. The last time all of us were together we were freezing out butts off in Copenhagen insisting that we dine al fresco. I'm pleased that it's warm instead of cold.
Looking around our table, I reflect on how long I've known these friends. I've known Brent the longest since the NASCORE 2004 show in Portland. I met Cleofas that same year through the USBC. Rouki and I did the Ethiopian championships in Addis Ababa last year and Julio also froze his butt off in Copenhagen. My new acquaintances are Martha and Alirio, both of whom are becoming fast friends - even though Alirio's English skills are about the same as my Spanish.
A plate of bread lands on our table. It's beautiful. Hot and fresh baked, it's crusty on the outside and light spongy on the inside. I'm dreaming of salted butter.
Suddenly, the sauteed shrimp arrive. Exquisite. The flavor is perfection. Buttery rich, one must suck the heads for full effect. Not to do so denies one the ultimate pleasure of the dish.
Next up is a plate of cheese and jamon iberico. The cheese is slightly sharp and flavorful, but it's the jamon that demands your attention. It's rich, dark, salty and fatty. The slices glisten with fat. It's also extremely gamey, which is slightly off-putting but it's the hallmark of the jamon iberico. Guess it has to so with it's diet of black acorns.
Grilled Beef and eggplant.
Sadly, Rouki has allergic reactions to seafood and is missing out. What a shame. But there's a dish of sliced grilled beef and eggplant to try. Simple. Salt, pepper, lime and onto the grill. Lovely. The flavor is bold and beefy.
When the grilled calamari drizzled with olive oil arrives, I know I'm going to start facing serious resistance from my friends. It's damn good. Amazingly good. The texture of the calamari is just perfect. Chewy with the right amount of bite. I imagine forks stabbing into hands and knives arcing through the air, it's that good.
Grilled spiny lobster with sweet potatoes.
The seafood continues with a plateful of spiny lobster. I don't think I've ever had spiny lobster before and dig in. I love lobster. The only problem with lobster is that there never seems to be enough. All that work hacking through the shell for that one chunk of tail meat.
For my dollar, I'm a big fan of the Maine lobster. It's meaty and thick. It's what I grew up eating and I have a predisposition to it's texture. Spiny lobster is lighter, flakier and more fluffy than Maine lobster - and there's less meat. The problem with the spiny lobster are the spines. They're quite sharp and actually hurt. This impacts my ability to really dig into the nooks and crannies of the lobster and dig out every morsel of meat. Even in death, the lobsters spines protect it from desecration.
Cleofas in his element.
There's no other way to describe it, this has been a feast. A variety of flavors and textures. Me likey. If more meals were like this, life would be a fairy tale.
There's talk of dessert but we're stuffed. How about some after-dinner drinks? Hmm, somehow after dinner drinks seem so civilized, which is unusual for me. We try a local drink. It's alcoholic but sweet and on the rocks. Do you want more? No, thanks. One is enough. We have to work tomorrow.
Liquor on the rocks.
As we drink, Julio notices an older gentleman and introduces us to him. He's one of the grandfathers of the revolution. A true Nicaraguan hero. We have a photo with him. Just a few hours in-country and already we're being introduced to famous people, this must be what it's like to be Prime Minister.
Afterwards, we pile back into Don Roberto's van and the one minute drive back to the Hilton where it's time to crash out for a day of judges training in the morning at 7am.
The casino is just across the street...
Our group with a leader of the revolution.
Los Robles Monte de los Olivos 1c al E No.6
Nicaragua - Managua, Managua