Las Tinajas, the restaurant on Mission Street named for the earthen jars once used to keep water fresh and cool, specializes in comida nica – the cuisine of Nicaragua. Being unfamiliar with it, except for the nacatamale (more on this later) I wanted to see how it differed from other Central American countries and if I would be able to appreciate cuisine I have not grown up on.
My goal in trying out under-reviewed restaurants, or perhaps places seemingly under the radar to newcomers to the Mission, will be to discover a favorite dish or a particular food that is beloved in each establishment. I’ll be dining primarily with my boyfriend – from here on out, “the BF.”
According to the owner, Las Tinajas is almost 30 years old. Seeing how busy it always is I’d always wanted to try the cafeteria-style restaurant with steam tables to the right and the dining area to the left. It is a pleasant space, clean and well-lit, and is often filled with Latino immigrants– Nicaraguenses, presumably – but also American workers on their lunch hours looking for a filling, hearty meal.
You order at the counter and I loved the way the sweet-looking woman – who looks Asian but speaks perfect Spanish – as do all the employees (it appears they are of Asian descent, but Nicaraguan born) puts your order in by speaking into a call box on the wall for items that need to be grilled or fried in the kitchen. Other precooked items – stews, rice, beans, yucca – are served up at the steam table. If you are eating in, you pay and receive a numbered tent for your table.
I asked the lady behind the counter for her favorite dish, and without hesitation she pointed at the top of the signage above her, indicating the most expensive item on the menu – Antojitos Las Tinajas ($19). Antojitos means “little things that whet your appetite,” although there is nothing little about any of it.
The plate came piled high with rice and beans (gallo pinto), a cabbage salad, carne asada, a grilled pork loin, fried plantains (maduros, although these weren’t particularly ripe) fried plantain chips (tajadas fritas) and a square of battered fried cheese.
The carne asada was delicious – flank steak at its chewy/tender/juicy best, marinated in typical carne asada fashion with lime, garlic, etc. It was by far the best thing on the plate. The pork was nicely seasoned – juicy and flavorfull – although at first I thought it was chicken breast. The beans were nicely firm, but the gallo pinto, was a tad bland, but easily doctored up with the curtido de cebolla (pickled onions, carrots and chiles), a variety of hot sauces (Tapatio, Tabasco, and my favorite, El Yucateco habanero), and a very tasty and tangy chimichurri (a fresh parsley, garlic, red wine vinegar and olive oil sauce well-known throughout Central and South America).
I found the plantains dry, and the plantain chips a bit chewy and wilted. The cabbage salad was a good buffer against the richness of the rest of the plate, but otherwise unremarkable. The fried cheese was a little tough for me. The BF ordered chicken taquitos, but was told they were out, so he ordered what they called a repojeta – rather like a quesadilla but using the battered fried cheese inside a tortilla, served with the same cabbage salad and crema. It was tasty enough but not very exciting. All in all, this is really hearty, filling food . Even sharing, we could not finish it and took it home for a dinner of leftovers – but I can’t say we were overwhelmed.
Las Tinajas offers many refrescos – aguas de tamarindo, posol, barley, horchata, cacao. I tried the tamarind and found it overly sweet. They also serve beer and soda, and many desserts: rice pudding, bunuelos, tres leches cake, rum cake with custard, etc.
Wanting to give Las Tinajas a second chance, I returned the next day for take-out. I had the fried pork with yucca (cassava – in this case steamed), a side of maduros with crema (hoping that they would be riper today), and a pastelito de pollo – little pastries I saw on the counter that I asked about. One was filled with chicken, the other pineapple, and both were sprinkled with coarse sugar.
I had wanted to get a nacatamale – Nicaragua’s version of tamales and one of my favorites. It is larger than most tamales, comes wrapped in a banana leaf, and is filled with tender masa, delicious stewed pork or chicken, potatoes, olives, raisins, and a green herb that tastes a lot like basil. It is a meal in itself and I’ve only had homemade ones. Unfortunately, I was told they were making them when I came in, and would not be ready until about 3:30 p.m. – which is a bit odd since they close at 4:30 p.m. daily. Perhaps people order them to take home.
The fried pork was wonderful – crispy and tender, if just a teensy bit dry. I am accustomed to eating Cuban-style yucca, which is steamed and then sautéed in butter and garlic, which gives it great tenderness and flavor. This, however, was rather plain and also a little dry. The pastel of chicken, however, was quite nice – a tender mash of chicken, spices and raisins enveloped in a flaky, sugary crust.
I also got the cacao refresco, which tasted like a brown horchata. Other things that intrigued on the menu are the soups and juicy-looking stews – mondongo (tripe), caldo de res (beef), chicken – as well as a few fish and seafood dishes. They also have daily specials of baked chicken, tongue and shredded beef, among others.
We were quite taken by the homey atmosphere, and how at least two men came in whose food was brought to them immediately – steaming bowls of soup with a half avocado on the side, a bowl of rice and beans, with plenty of curtado alongside. It was obvious the men were regular customers and had either pre-ordered or were just served their “usual,” enjoying conversations with other diners and the wait staff alike.
As with any local place, I’m always happy to hear Spanish still being spoken in my neighborhood, a hopeful sign that it won’t change too drastically or permanently. Las Tinajas is a place to go if you love Central American food, grew up on it and miss it from your home country. The people are warm and friendly, and I’m sure to many it feels like home.
P.S. I went back today (Friday) and got the nacatamale – take-out only – and it was delicious – worth it to go there just for those!
2338 Mission St.
Between 19th & 20th St.
Hours: 10:00 to 4:30, closed Sundays and Mondays.