A friend of mine came to San Francisco to attend a conference towards the end of January this year. It had been three weeks into the year, and despite not having written a single word on this blog, excitement for the project was a-brimming. Right at the airport, once we were headed in the right direction, I excitedly described the essence of what has since come to be lovingly known as the 101 challenge. My friend was immediately intrigued and on board.
I had never had Nicaraguan food, and neither had he – so it was a natural choice for an adventurous evening out. I had heard of Oye! Managua as one of the only places in the locale for some amazing and authentic Nicaraguan hospitality and cuisine. Besides, how can you not automatically gravitate towards an institution with a built in exclamation point in its name?
Finding the restaurant was not a challenge at all – I knew the neighborhood well. It’s the same street where my ultimate favorite Peruvian restaurant is located. Unfortunately, having been there 20 times before 2012 even started, I can’t quite count it in my 101 target of the year. The area is one part of San Francisco I almost feel at home driving and looking for parking at the same time. Which brings me to the challenge of the evening: looking for parking.
We drove past where the restaurant was supposed to be, not having quite sighted it yet, but staunchly clutching at our faith in the talent of my talentless GPS. I turned on my parking-spotting vision. I started to comb the curbs on either side of the street. I ran complex optimization algorithms in my head about the prospects of side streets and mentally traded off walking distances and ease of a spot-sighting, simultaneously exciting the inner geek in me at the whirr-click-click of the mental exertion.
Not a lot of luck that night. We contemplated parking at the Safeway parking lot, decided that being towed was seriously not worth it, and then kept going up and down the same stretch of the street to will a spot to open up. Just as we were about to contemplate a change in our dinner plans, we found a small spot – and after a bit of wriggling and a lot of encouragement, the car was parked, we were unbuckled, bags were safely stowed in the car trunk and we were on our way headed towards Oye! Managua.
As it turns out, we were headed in the wrong direction. So after a few blocks when we realized we were reaching the end of the commercial stretch of the road, we turned back and eventually made it to the restaurant.
It’s not hard to miss it. It’s a small door, with an unassuming and simple sign above the door. The sign is placed perpendicular to the store front, with stylized font proclaiming the enthusiasm in the name – Oye! In the dark, it’s easy to miss. The paint on the front face above the door mimics waves surrounding the lettering “Restaurante Nicaraguense”. We may have walked past it a few times (albeit on the other side of the street) before we realized where it was. We were glad to eventually stop our hungry pacing up and down and purposefully cross the street towards our evening meal of indulgence.
And indulgence it was! The restaurant itself was interestingly decorated – blue ocean theme, lots of sealife a-swimming through the air along the walls, multicolored lights glimmering along the seam of the ceiling where they meet the walls, and the somewhat incongruous fuzzy red hearts, about 3 weeks too early for Valentine’s day.
When we arrived, just past the peak dinner hour, the restaurant was pretty much empty, except for maybe one other table with a lone diner. We had the pick of tables and headed over to a four-seater by the window. Excitedly we set out to navigate our way through the fairly extensive menu. Not overwhelmingly extensive though – just the right amount of variety but still manageable.
I must admit I was excited about the plantains. The real surprise was when the food arrived, heaped atop large oval diner-plates, surrounded by rice and beans and of course the plantains. Creamy sweetness enclosed in a delicate, crispy skin – great on its own, great scooped up onto a forkful of beans and just simply incomparable layered in with the bistek (steak).
I ordered the churrasco – a center cut steak smothered in the house specialty sauce. My friend ordered the pollo a la jalapena – the chicken in jalapeno sauce. We chattered excitedly as we waited, catching up on each other’s updates and news, and speculating whether we should have been more adventurous and gone with the beef tongue and the tripe soup that were categorized under the “traditional” Nicaraguan specialties.
Our orders arrived – safe, that’s true, but oh so flavorful and tasty! I do have to admit that my friend’s order was hands down the better choice – the sauce was exceptionally smooth and packed the right citrusy-jalapeno punch. The tender chicken had remained moist, and had been so effectively infused with the flavors of the sauce that you had to wonder what technique the chef had mastered to conquer the osmotic laws of nature.
We had actually wanted to try the beef empanadas as well – but sadly they were out of the empanadas by then. I wasn’t that excited about ordering dessert and would have preferred to go find another place for a post-dinner sweet morsel. Yet after that satisfying meal, we were feeling too lazy to relocate, and we decided to just go with the caramel flan: after all, it was comfortable and convenient and we didn’t have to leave.
The biggest surprise of all was waiting for us in the form of that caramel flan. I can not describe for you the incredibly amazing experience that was that caramel flan. Delicate, yet firm. Cloyingly sweet, almost saccharin – yet when coupled with the hints and overtones of a savory richness, that sweet assault on your tongue was surprisingly morphed into an experience to remember. Ah, I still recall that caramel flan with fondness.
Oye! Managua was a reward for stepping outside the comfort zone and made me completely reconsider my thinly veiled indifference towards all desserts and things sweet.