Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nicaragua: El Tiscapa

Brent ponders whether he'll have steak or Steak.

It's the eve of the finals for the Nicaraguan Barista Championship and we're getting hungry. Once again, Brent, Castalia and myself find ourselves in Enrique's CR-V blasting through the streets of Managua, destination: El Tiscapa, a steakhouse specializing in Nicaraguan beef.

Anytime beef cooked on a grill is involved, I'm usually quite amiable. Tonight will be no different. El Tiscapa looks like some sort of Spanish-era ranch house. Stucco walls, ceramic roofing tiles, open-air dining room and I feel like some Spanish Conquistador coming to roost.

"Thank God we're eating at a steakhouse - no more seafood!"

Our group tonight consists of Cleofas Arreola, Roukiat Delrue, Alirio Laguna, Castalia Cuadra, Brent Fortune, Enrique Ferrufino and myself. The menu is simple enough: beef. There's Churrasco "El Tiscapa", an 8 ounce cut of skirt steak, and all the way up to Gigante, a 16 ounce cut. For the appetite challenged, there's even a Mini Churrasco. Or maybe you'd like something different? Pepper steak, filet mignon, tenderloin or kebabs are also available. Maybe you'd like grilled pork tenderloin? They've got that too.

The side salad.

But really, why? Why would you come to El Tiscapa and trying anything other than the beef? Makes no sense to me. I don't even know if they have anything other than beef and I certainly didn't bother to find out.

For appetizers, there's a selection of soups like Chicken Consomme, Consomme al Jerez, onion soup, cream of asparagus and more. Again, why let something else occupy stomach space in place of steak? Doesn't make sense to me.

Judge Ferrufino relaxes without arm candy.

I'll admit, at the time I didn't realize that churrasco meant skirt steak and ordered the "El Grande", a 12 ounce cut. I figured that these would be thick cut steaks and I didn't want some anemic-looking 8 ounce cut.

Judge Laguna observes as the steaks are delivered.

The really nice thing (for me) about Nicaraguan steak dining is their love of multiple starches. What would be a faux pas in the United States is seen as perfectly normal here, a place where rice and french fries (not to mention plantains and yucca) are de rigueur.

In a blur, the steaks arrive.

As the steaks arrive so does Johanna, another of Enrique's friends. As we're introduced a pattern starts to emerge. Seems that Enrique is just surrounded by beautiful women. Last night, Nicaragua's Miss Earth and tonight a true knockout with a great personality. Nice work, and she likes meat.

Judge Arreola ensures that the wine is up to scratch.

As my steak lands on the plate in front of me I find that it's huge. A bit too much for me to finish. Johanna is up for steak and I offer her half of mine. It's no problem, I assure her. I don't want to eat that much meat. She accepts and takes half. Thank goodness.

Condiments for our steaks: picked onions, hot peppers and chimichurri.

The churrasco was good. The beef flavorful, cooked medium and tasty with just the right amount of seasoning to make the flavor shine. In fact, everything was nicely done. Unlike everywhere else in Nicaragua, the fries, while still being the frozen fries we see everywhere, were cooked just right. Golden and crispy, they matched well with the white rice. I wouldn't mind having more.

Fried Plantain Chips.

The steaks here come out in a fun procession with a number of servers bringing everything out on trays and fixing our plates for us. The steaks are piled on a large platter and our man just knows who gets which steak. Another server follows closely behind with a platter of rice and yet another carries a platter of french fries (my hero).

Service comes for Alirio.

Along with the meal comes a house salad, a simple plate of lettuce, tomato, olive, onions and cucumber in a vinaigrette dressing. It's nothing exotic or fancy but rather just a decent, little salad before the meal arrives. In addition to the steak comes plates of crispy fried plantain slices and a bowl of sauteed onions for the steak.

Sauteed Onions.

By this point, I'm very pleased with myself for sharing half my steak with Johanna. It was just too big and half (actually slightly less) is just right. As I look around our table, I notice that we're dining with some great women. Between Johanna, Castalia and Rouki, there's no daintiness here. These aren't "I'll just have a salad" kind of women, they're not those annoying vegetarian women that are so hard to feed. These women are digging in and taking no prisoners. Thank God.

Johanna and the other half of my steak.

My steak with my favorite sides: rice and fries.

Soon, it's time for dessert. Over the past year or two, my taste for sweet desserts has been diminishing. I don't need a big dessert. Many times I don't order dessert at all. Tonight is one of those times when I'd prefer to leave my palate savoring the flavor of the meat.

But our group has other plans in mind and orders a couple of desserts for us to share. One slice of Tres Leches Cake and one slice of Leche Flan. It's not much, just enough for a bite or two for each of us, but it's something for us to have a taste, which is fine by me.

The Tres Leches is sweet but not as moist as the cakes I'm used to elsewhere and the flan is a bit thicker and denser than I prefer. Not bad though, just different than what I prefer.

Tres Leches Cake.

Leche Flan.

As our dinner ends, our group separates. Johanna and Enrique are going to take Brent and myself out to the club while the rest of our group goes back to our hotel to sleep. Afterall, we are supposed to judge the finals tomorrow.

Restaurante El Tiscapa
Avenida Tiscapa y Avenida Universitaria
Managua, Nicaragua

Nicaragua: Semi-Finals and Cupping Comp

Judges Vanessa, Castalia and Alirio.

It's another morning in Managua and after another hotel buffet breakfast our little crew is back in the HiAce van towards the Galeria Santo Domingo.

Day Two of the Campeonato de Baristas means another eleven competitors fighting for six spots in the finals. As with anything here in Managua, things get off to a later than expected start but once we're rolling, things move rather smoothly.

Salome prepares under the lights.

Quite simply, the experience, knowledge and competition savvy of the Nicaraguan competitors is about four years behind that of the United States. Yet another day filled with stemmed glassware, vanilla ice cream, ice, blenders and all sorts of flavored syrups in what we would consider to be very large servings.

Amongst some competitors, we seem to be seeing the same serviceware. I can't count how many times I've seen those stackable foodservice espresso and cappuccino cups these past two days, but they seem everywhere.

Getting Serious: Tech Judges Juan Carlos and Erika, Head Judge Cleofas, Sensory Judges Vanessa, Julio, Rouki and Frank.

What it means is that the competitors are sharing amongst themselves - evidently, some are "sharing" more than others when, allegedly, a fight broke out in the competitors room when one competitor wanted others to "share" their cups a bit more than they knew they were sharing.

One of the disconnects I experience as a judge is the disconnect from the baristas. For baristas, competition is an opportunity to learn more about the craft, meet new friends and spend time with old ones. The very nature of judging means that you're sequestered separately from the competitors and it's that camaraderie of craft that I think is missing when you're a judge.

Giving her all during the preliminary round.

Meanwhile, we're chopping away through the competitors, tasting drinks, evaluating technique and trying to quantify it all in a manner that can help the barista competitor prepare for either the World Barista Championship or next years' championship.

For me, I want to impart as many thoughts as possible and I'm cramming as much as I can into the limited space on the scoresheets with the hope that I can sit down with the competitors and go over their scoresheets to review, consider and prepare for the next round.

Taking a moment to consider the scores.

Sadly, the reality is that competitors are typically too disappointed that they didn't make the cut to take the time to review the scoresheets. I understand. You've just been cut, the wound is still fresh and it's tough to look at what you've done wrong, much less absorb it and consider the next competition, which is about a year away.

Cleofas and the six finalists: Diedrich, Rebeca, Salome, Alberto, Lesther and Miguel Angel.

Back to the competition space and it's time for the Finals Announcements. The Finalists are (in the order of performance tomorrow):

- Rebeca Ramos
- Alberto Mayorga
- Lesther Balladares
- Miguel Angel Zamurio
- Salome Corea
- Diedrich Moreno

Cupping Championship

As the competitors head off to prepare for tomorrow, Brent, Rouki and myself venture over the cupping competition and give it a try. For the competition, they're using the Cup of Excellence form - which I don't understand. After getting a quick and dirty lesson in CoE Cupping from Rouki, we're off.

Quite frankly, cupping competitions are downright frightening. There are twenty-one coffees to cup and identify. The competitors are flying through the samples and I'm struggling. I'm stressed. You have to write down the details of the sample, then smell, taste and whatever else is necessary while marking the score sheet and moving along at the proper pace. I'm freaked, and sweating my ass off. I'm starting to crack.

The competition starts off with one sample of each coffee. Each competitor will smell and taste the coffees and make notes regarding. Then, all of the coffees are cleared away and three samples of each are set and the coffees are cupped blind. The competitor to accurately identify all of the coffees wins. Since we're just interlopers, I jump out of the way because I can't keep up with the pace -it's relentless.

With Rouki, Castalia, Brent, Alirio and Martha.

To top it all off, a crowd has gathered and the television camera lighting is like a roaring fire on my head and I'm covered in sweat - both from the lights and the stress of my cupping inadequacies.

It's getting late and we're hungry, so we decide to ditch the competition, gather our friends, head to the hotel to change and then off to dinner.

Christmas has arrived at Galerias Santo Domingo.

Nicaragua: Casa del Cafe

Things are easier on the eyes here in Nicaragua.

For lunch during the championship our hosts have contracted with Casa del Cafe, a coffeeshop on the lower level of the Galerias Santo Domingo, to provide our lunch. The first day they were planning on catering cheeseburgers to our quarters in the competition space but the security guards wouldn't allow anyone to bring outside food. Odd.

But the real oddity was after we finished the first day of competition and went down to the cafe to eat our food. Food that has turned cold because it's been sitting around for awhile isn't unusual, what was unusual was the manager's insistence that they wouldn't reheat the food for us. Rather than warm the food to maintain some level of flavor integrity, it was more important for the manager to be "right" than the food warm.

Rouki and Brent excited for another lunch at Casa del Cafe.

Unfortunately, one of the recurring themes here in Latin America is the influence of the United States' industrial agriculture system. The burgers at Casa del Cafe are a perfect example of what is wrong with industrial agriculture.

Rather than buying fresh local meat, which I understand is widely available in Nicaragua, the convenience of commercial, pre-portioned, frozen beef patties is too seductive to resist. Why worry about frivolities such as sourcing, labor and waste when deep frozen convenience is readily at hand?

The hambuguesa y queso.

What this means is that the beef patty is just lame and devoid of flavor. Sure, it's a large portion and holds together nicely, but there's no reason to eat it other than to stave off death by starvation. Add frozen cut fries and you've got a classic American meal - just as bad as though you bought it in the United States.

Which brings me to another thought: the fries. I'm seeing a trend in the preparation of fries here in Nicaragua: no one knows how to make them - even frozen fries. Frozen industrial fries are bad enough but how about learning how to cook them properly? Fried to a golden crisp is ideal, not this limp yellow julienne-cut piece of potato I keep finding in front of me.

Day two at Casa del Cafe could have been better had I chosen wisely. The choices for day two were a cheeseburger or empanada. Stupid me was worried that maybe the empanada wouldn't be sizable enough and it wouldn't come with fries. For some reason, I had to have my fries. I chose poorly.

Empanadas - the better choice.

When traveling and the option exists to go with the local cuisine, always choose the local cuisine. Even I know this. Why I decided on the burger still haunts me. It was a moment of culinary weakness. At least this time, the burger was hot, and so were the fries (undercooked yet again). Sadly, the burger still tasted like cardboard, just hot cardboard.

Castalia, on the other had, decided to go with the empanada. A good choice even though it lacked fries. Two large empanadas. One chicken, the other beef, how could I have gone with the burger? Luckily, she let me have a taste.

The crust was thick and flaky. Perhaps a bit too thick for my tastes. The fillings were savory and slightly sweet, like a good empanada. Can I send my burger back?

Casa del Cafe
Galerias Santo Domingo
Km 7 Carretera a Masaya
Managua, Nicaragua