Friday, November 14, 2008

Nicaragua: Mi Vieja Ranchito

Before Mi Vieja

After a long day at the Galleria Santo Domingo, Brent and I are in a new Honda CR-V as fellow judge Enrique Ferrurfino, and his former Miss Earth 2002 girlfriend Carla, are barreling us down the highway at alarmingly increasing speeds. At any moment now, I'm expecting us to either lift-off or some object to block our path crushing us into smithereens as mangled Honda parts and miscellaneous body parts are spewed across the highway and splashed onto the pages of La Prensa in the morning.

Enrique - probably on the phone with some Honey.

Unlike the open expanses of western American highways, our highway in Managua is a poorly lit, divided, two-lane highway and we're easily the fastest moving object on the road. Most are moving at a decent rate of speed, but there's more than a few vehicles that are pacing themselves at about 25mph, which may not seem too bad until your careening towards them in the right lane at 75mph and the gap between the vehicle to our left and the slow-moving vehicle in front of us is closing at Mach 2.75.

Aunt Rouki Wants You.

Most of our meals in Managua have been relatively close to the hotel. Tonight, we're on the open roadways of Nicaragua, a considerable distance from the center city, heading to Restaurante Mi Viejo Ranchito - one of Martha's favorite places for traditional Nicaraguan food.

Somewhere, in the darkness behind us, the rest of our team is ensconced in the Toyota Lite Ace minivan and Don Roberto's deliberate pace.

Brent and Cleofas decide to order.

The restaurant seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Indeed, it is an oasis in the dark blackness of the Nicaraguan countryside. And it's jam-packed. So packed that even the parking lot is full.

After a few minutes of waiting for the rest of the group and then some discussion, we're being herded into the restaurant to be seated at a table. Like many restaurants in Managua, Mi Viejo is an open-air restaurant. Large timbers form the frame and are covered with what looks like thatched roofing. A concrete structure houses the kitchen and other facilities but the dining area is open to the elements.

The House Salsa.


It's starting to seem that this is a popular way of dining and I'm finding it quite enjoyable - even though the heat and humidity is a bit stifling.

Soon, we're seating with the rest of our group: Roukiat, Cleofas, Alirio and Martha. It's a fun group of friends who I grow fond of seeing and spending time with as the years and coffee events bring us together and pass. Once drinks have been delivered, it's time to order.

Bandeja Tipica Ranchera - res, pollo, cerdo, salchicha, chicharron, frijoles molidos, indio viejo, queso, platano frita, yuca, papas fritas y ensalada.

Readers of this blog know that I really dislike ordering. It requires a bit too much thought and consideration. Just let me have the best. Bring it on. I can take it. I'm here to experience flavors. Happily, Martha has a combination dish in mind and Rouki is determined that everyone must try the Quesillo - a corn tortilla covered with a sheet of cheese, diced onions and crema.

The quesillo is okay. It's a bit bland and a bit flat but I notice Martha slathering her quesillo with some of the house salsa (a blend of vinegar, chopped onions and hot peppers) and do the same. On it's own, the quesillo is a bit disappointing. It's nice but the flavor is kinda flat. With the salsa, it comes alive. The zesty zing from the pepper-infused vinegar is perfect. The quesillo dances on the tongue.

In a few moments, our combo platters arrive. It's called Bandeja Tipica Ranchera - res, pollo, cerdo, salchicha, chicharron, frijoles molidos, indio viejo, queso, platano frito, yuco, paps fritas y ensalada.

While Mi Vieja Ranchito, with it's timber and thatch roofing and local musicians could pass for some sort of folkloric tourist trap, it is anything but. In fact, we are the only tourists in the joint. Everyone here is Nicaraguan and local. This is Nicaraguan food as real Nicaraguans make and eat it. Food that's not "Americanized" or "refined" or made into some sort of fine dining fusion. It's simple cookery as normal people would have it.

Digging into Rouki's favorite: Quesillo

And even though the notion of comida tipica conjures in the mind the best of local, handmade ingredients, this is just plain average food, which means that the industrial agriculture system that fuels America has also made it's way into Nicaragua in the form of frozen french fries, packets of Hunt's ketchup and sausage that has that processed mealiness to it - it's way too soft and mealy to be house made.

Which makes me wonder about the rest of the ingredients and how much of the industrial agriculture has penetrated the food supply here. Is the pork on these skewers from some farm in Matagalpa or a pig factory in Minnesota? I imagine the beef from some farm just a short drive from the capital, not a four hour flight to Kansas City. The appearance of just frozen french fries causes me to wonder how much the actual flavor of Nicaraguan food may have changed in twenty years and that what we taste today may not be the flavors that our friends (and those eating around us) grew up eating.

Fried Cheese

Whatever the case may be, I find the food to be pretty tasty. Like I said earlier, this isn't fancy or fussed over. Just plain, homestyle cookery. The platano chips are crisp, the yucca is boiled, broken and starchy bland (I prefer fried a la french fries with salt), lurking under it all are thick corn tortillas cooked by hand on a plancha.

Along with our meal comes a serving of the traditional fried cheese. Slices of queso fresco tossed into a deep fryer until golden brown. It's a great idea and all the examples I've tried on this trip have been salty, but these suckers are really

salty, but they're also pretty darn good.

Martha and Carla discuss the lower points of men.

The meal is a mish-mash of flavors and textures. It's vibrant and exciting. It's the kind of meal that I prefer: lots of flavors and not too much of anything to dull the palate. There's grilled beef, grilled pork, sausage, fried plantains, rice and beans, tortillas and french fries. It's my kind of eating.

But how is it? What does it taste like? Good. Some of it's good, some of it's great, some of it is just okay. This isn't food that's been teased and fussed over. This is food for the local folk. Simple food, simply prepared and for that it's fantastic. Of course, the fries suffer from the usual situation of being undercooked (I'm really thinking this is the way Nicaraguans prefer their fries), and the sausage tastes processed but the beauty of this meal is that this is how I envision real Nicaraguans eating. This is food without pretense and everyone is digging in.

With a beauty queen by his side, no wonder Enrique is always smiling.

One of the best things about this kind of eating is that it offers something for everyone. What you might like, she might hate. This means that everyone gets to eat well and to their tastes. I think it's a win-win situation. Of course, the drinks are flowing - which always seems to be a win-win situation for our crowd.

It's a warm and lightly humid evening out here in the middle of nowhere. The full moon provides a luminescent glow over the countryside. It's idealistic and romantic, and the girl sitting at the table opposite ours is beautiful. Dark brown hair, light skin, brown eyes - and surrounded by a table of twenty that seems to be her sister, her parents, her brothers and the in-laws of her sister. But she's not the only one. Running interference is the tequila girl, a stunningly built girl with ample curves in all the right places. She's tall, with rich, supple skin, lightly dyed hair and two bottles of tequila strapped to her waist.

My God, with curves like that I could easily be bled of all my money and blitzed drunk on tequila. Dirty fantasies fly through my mind. Thoughts of glistening skin in the moonlight divert my mind and it takes all of my willpower to resist her urges when she comes up to me asking if I would like a shot of tequila. No, gracias, I say while attempting to telepathically communicate my larcenous thoughts.

As our evening winds down, we spill out onto the street under the glow of moonlight. It's time to climb back in our vehicles for the ride back to Managua where our barista competition adventures begins once again in the morning.

Mi Vieja Ranchito
Km 17.5 Carretera Masaya
Ticuantepe, Nicaragua
505 279 2865

Nicaragua: This Show Is My Show

Brent commandeers the Cafe Sol y Agua booth.

One truth of competition is that, regardless of whether you're a judge, volunteer or competitor, you never have much time to see the attached trade show. In an effort to beat the odds, Brent decided that he would offer a guided tour of the trade show and commandeer several booths.

Brent considers SambaJuice.

Brent bailing out American Airlines.

Nicaragua: Campeonato Baristas 2008

The show gets underway.

It's the start of the barista championships here in Nicaragua and things are Situation: Normal.

Barista competitions typically have three stations with an espresso machine each. Today, we've got three stations and two La Marzocco Linea 2EE espresso machines. Where's the third one you ask? On the way, they tell us. Start time is supposed to be 10am and by 11:15am things are just starting to stir. Oh look, and here comes the third Linea!

By 11:35am the competition is off an running which, by all accounts, is relatively "on time." Both the Philippines and Hawaii have a flexible sense of time but Nicaragua gives flex time new meaning. You're just not socially adjusted if you're half an hour late. At 10am the first two competitors hadn't even arrived yet. It's gonna happen in Managua. It's just not going to happen in a New York Minute. Those obsessed with staying "on time" should stay at home.

Today there are eleven competitors and thirteen judges to fill two judging teams.

Wait a minute, you might say. Did he say "thirteen judges to fill two judging teams?"

Those of you familiar with the WBC style of barista competitions may have noted that it takes seven people to create a judging team (two technical, four sensory and a head judge). With our competition host busy in the first half of the day with official duties we're short one judge and I jump in to cover as a technical judge on both teams for most of the day.

Just judging at the normal pace can be stressful. Doing them back to back, with no rest in-between is a whole new challenge. At one point early on, I almost marked a competitor for something I had noticed on the flight before. But once I got into the groove, it just started to flow.

Overall, I thought the flow of the competition went by pretty quickly. Maybe it's because I was working constantly and didn't have time to notice anything else but before I knew it, I was moved into a sensory judge slot in one team for the final four competitors.

Dancing after competition.

The competitors themselves were young and inexperienced. They're a reflection of the age of the competition and I know this is how the USBC must have been like early on. Lots of whipped cream. Lots of ice cream. Lots of stemmed glassware. Lots of big drinks. Lots of sugary sweetness and commercial syrups. One competitor even busted out whipped cream in a can.

I'm guessing that many of the seasoned competitors might groan about this but even I can remember seeing lots of the same when I started competing in 2004. These competitors are just getting their sea legs and it's gonna take them a little while to catch up, but if Mexico is any indication, it won't be too long before Nicaragua produces a formidable champion to the WBC.

The competition continues tomorrow with the Finals on Sunday. You can watch all the action on the Live Videostream
from Managua.