Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nicaragua: Taska Kiko

The Entrance.

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!

Pouring Sangria.

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).

Sauteed Shrimp

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.


The Bread

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.

Jamon Iberico

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.

Grilled Calamari

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.

Alirio Laguna

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.

Taska Kiko
Los Robles Monte de los Olivos 1c al E No.6
Nicaragua - Managua, Managua

Nicaragua: Managua Primero Dia

Morning breakfast at the Hilton Princesa.

My room in the Hilton Princesa faces east. Due east. As demonstrated by the powerfully blinding sun blasting me in the face refusing to allow me to sleep through to my 7am wake up call. I'm tired and want to sleep a bit more. I pull the covers over my head but the fluffy white comforter is relatively thin and the light pierces the veil.

I don't want to get up and close the drapes and drop a pillow on my face. It's thick and luxurious and effectively blocks out the sun. Success, but the pillow now restricts my ability to breathe. I have no choice: I must get out of bed to close the drapes.

Once closed, the room is dark. Almost tomb-like with a slight glow shimmering around the edges. Finally, I get back to sleep for just a few minutes. Problem is, I've expended so much mental energy thinking about how to abate the light, pulling the covers, using the pillow and then getting up and closing the drapes that my mind is up and running. There is no going back to sleep.

Carretera Masaya - The world outside my window.

Breakfast is in the hotel restaurant and it's the standard hotel fare found around the world. Fruits, juices, pastries, omelets and eggs to order, and a hot line of ready to eat goodies. Nestled amongst traditional breakfast fare like ham, sausage, hash browns and waffles are Nicaraguan items like beans and rice, fried plantains and something that looks like pressed and fried soy bean patties that turn out to be fried cheese.

The quality is to be expected. Dried out hash browns, overheated ham slices and rice on the dry side. Rouki tells me that the rice and beans are very traditional and I wonder if this is an accurate example of Nicaraguan cuisine. I certainly hope it isn't.

I decide to go with a mixed plate of rice and beans, a slice of ham, a slice of sausage, a hash brown, some of that soy-looking fried thing, a small croissant, two fried eggs, a coffee and a glass of sandia agua fresca (watermelon juice). I'm eating the soy-looking thing and it's dry. It may have been fried nicely but it's been sitting in the steam tray for quite some time and now it's resembling the texture of leather. Rouki later tells me that it's a traditional Nicaraguan item of fried cheese and not the fried tofu I had been thinking.

The eggs are the highlight of the meal. Eggs over easy, but they need some help in the form of hot sauce. I ask one of the staff (who by the way, have been more than helpful and friendly) about hot sauce and they disappear for a considerable while. I start to wonder if someone has forgotten when she reappears with a bowl of chopped onions, chiles and vinegar. I'm guessing they don't have bottles of Cholula or Tabasco, so they made me a hot sauce fresh. That's nice.

When it comes to coffee, there's some good stuff here in Nicaragua. Evidently, the good stuff is exported to places like the United States where people like me pay high prices for good coffee. In-country, they drink something that other people call coffee.

Actually, I can't get too down on their coffee. It's pretty bad but unlike a lot of the bad in the United States, this one actually seems like it has a good brew ratio. The flavor is unfortunate, but at least it tastes unfortunate. Unlike American coffee that can barely taste unfortunate because they use too little to really notice.

Of all the agua frescas in the world, the sandia is my favorite. I can drink an entire watermelon's worth [with enough time], but this stuff tastes like watermelon grown in the middle of winter: dead. There is no discernable flavor. Just limp watermelon-ish liquid that looks red. There's no sugar added and it really needs it. I wonder if this could be a new diet fad in the making.

After breakfast, Roberto is back with the van and we're whisked away to the Crowne Plaza where we're meeting the competitors and holding their information session. Baristas from all across Nicaragua are here. Twenty-two of them.

Cleofas leading the barista session.

You know, the more that I judge outside of America, the more I enjoy it. As Cleofas Arreola leads their session, I watch their faces. These baristas make roughly US$140 per month, which is a decent wage here in Nicaragua. But I see in them an openness and eagerness that so readily gets lost in the hyper-competitiveness of the United States Barista Championship. I'm eager to see them in action on Friday.

Lunch brings us to the local mall, the Galleria Santo Domingo, where the competition will be held. In the mall, we run into Lorenzo of La Marzocco who's in town at the end of his La Marzocco Central American Goodwill Tour. He joins us for lunch and is off back to Milan in the morning.

Our host, Julio Peralta takes us to RostiPollos, a local chain specializing in rotisserie chicken. It's a de facto feast. After a really good amuse bouche of tortilla chips and pickled onions, we order some salads. I go for the Ensalada Tricolor con pollo. It's garnished with dry chicken breast, tomato wedges and is actually not bad. Brent goes for the mixed salad and Martha with the chicken caesar.

Julio, Rouki and Brent at RostiPollos.

For our main meal, Julio orders up two Super 4 combos: whole rotisserie chicken, a big bowl of refried beans, three rolled and fried tacos (like flautas), fried cheese and a stack of corn tortillas.

The tortillas are thick and weigh a ton. One is gonna be more than enough. They're thick and dense but I'm not getting a massive corn flavor like the ones I sampled in Mexico City. The refried beans were something else. I'd never tasted any bean quite like this. Fried and mashed into a thick puree, the beans had a distinct sweetness and tasted slightly spiced. Brent noted that it tasted like butternut squash, I thought it reminiscent of spicy pumpkin pie.

Our RostiChickens.

After this mornings' taste of fried cheese tiles, the fried cheese at RostiPollos was actually pretty darn good. Salty cheese cut in cubes and deep fried. Why this isn't popular in America is beyond me. With a tall glass of Coke, I could tear this dish up. The taco/flauta was pretty good. Thick, crunchy tortilla wrapped around shredded chicken and topped with a kind of cole slaw. Tasty.

But with a name like RostiPollos, one would expect the chicken to be the specialty. Indeed, there's a wood fired rotisserie oven churning out chickens and while the leg and thigh pieces are properly cooked, I found the breast to be on the dry side of moist. You know how dried chicken breast dries out the mouth when you eat it? It wasn't that bad but there was some drying action. Better to stick with the dark meat, 'cause that was pretty good.

Martha and Cleofas eye my salad.

We're running out of time and hustle our way back to the Crowne Plaza for the afternoon Judges Workshop. Seventeen people have decided to pursue the certification. Some are owners (or soon to be owners). Others have ties to producing coffee. The session is being led by Cleofas in Spanish leaving Brent and myself fending for ourselves in the back of the room.

Throughout the day there's been small explosions in the traffic circle just outside our windows. Tensions have been running high in Managua since the weekend when elections were held to vote on the new city mayor. The Sandinista incumbent, Alexis Arguello, is fighting to hold the position from opposition candidate Eduardo Montealegre.

You don't have to worry about sniper fire if you have your laptop.

According to our sources, tensions have been rising because of the Sandinista's refusal to release election records supporting their claim of victory in the race. Clashes and riots led to the shooting of two opposition supporters on Monday and CNN today reported the finding of burnt and discarded votes in support of the opposition in the city dump.

Protesters in the traffic circle have been holding vigil and firing off improvised explosives the size of large firecrackers all day long. Sandinista supporters storm and damage a local mall, forcing the mall where the competition will be held this weekend to close "for security reasons." Those of us from out of town joke that the situation could spark into violence but there seems to be more than just a little truth to those jokes than we'd like to believe.

Alirio, Brent and Rouki lounge in the bar.

I hate to say this, but secretly I'm hoping for a flare up here in Managua. It's sick, it's twisted, it's deranged - I know this, but I can't help myself. To see a revolution again up-close and personal brings me back to the days in early 2001 when I was in Manila during the EDSA II Revolution. Back then, I had my press pass and video camera and shot some fantastic footage. Secretly I curse on Canon for building such a crappy tape mechanism that causes their cameras to crap out after a while. My Canon is sitting back home in Maryland because of that crappy mechanism. So much my guest appearance on CNN.

Nik Orosi once told me that while fighting raged around them in Croatia with fighting and blackouts, Nik and his friends partied the nights away at underground nightclubs. Instead of getting worked up and worried about the violence that could flare up at any moment, we find ourselves encamped at the Crowne Plaza bar where we occupy ourselves exploring the finer points of Flor de Cano rum, with the obligatory sides of Coke and water con gas.

Julio pondering the wonders of Nicaraguan rum.