I started writing these reviews with the goal of bringing under-reported, mom-and-pop/hole-in-the-wall places to the attention of new Missionites, so that they could appreciate what the Mission was, what its roots are and what it still means to its long-time citizens. And, of course, I’ve reviewed very new, hip restaurants too, because we all live here and we all eat.
Red Balloon is one of the maybe five or six Nicaraguan places in our neighborhood, each more old-school than the next. (My very first review was of a Nicaraguan restaurant Las Tinajas.) Red Balloon has been here for about 35 years, owned by two different women. It’s small, unpretentious and spare, yet homey, with a few prints on the walls (one of famed Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario) and, inexplicably, elephant statuettes over the door. It’s usually packed with locals and families, who flock here to eat at their abuelita’s house. I had only been once in all the time I’ve lived in the Mission, and that was to get a nacatamale to go, many years ago (more about those later.)
On our first visit, we asked about the caballo bayo from the starters menu. I’ve yet to find the origin of that name, which literally translates to “bay horse.” If anyone out there knows it, I’m dying to know! It is a dish that is typically served at festivals and consists of little clay pots served buffet-style, filled with different meats, yuca, fried cheese, plantains, chicharrones, gallo pinto, pickled slaw and moronga. It’s a cornucopia of many Nicaraguan dishes in one fell swoop, served with corn tortillas so you can make your own little tacos/burritos as you please. The BF said he’d try that.
I asked our server about the Indio viejo dish (“old Indian”), and she described it as something like a tamale stew. I said I’d try it, and she gave me a startled look. “Que pasa, no es bueno?” I asked. “Si es bueno! But the caballo bayo is enough for two people!”
HOLY CABALLO — that lady saved us! We were so glad she talked us out of ordering a second dish, because we couldn’t even finish this one between the two of us. Starting from the top, middle — fried cheese, mariquita (plantain chip) slaw, platanos maduros (fried ripe plantains), gallo pinto (rice and red beans); below that was a hunk of incredibly flavorful steak — tender, in a citrusy marinade, perfectly charred. Above, the moronga –– blood sausage. To the left, steamed yuca, chunks of fried pork and, finally, chicharrones (pork rinds).
The standouts were the steak, the buttery fried cheese — because FRIED CHEESE — and the blood sausage. The moronga was dense with rice and had a deep, earthy flavor, brightened by notes of spearmint. Really great. The roast pork was a bit dry, though flavorful, the gallo pinto a bit dull, and the yuca, unfortunately, very bland. I mean, yuca is naturally bland, but that’s why you cook it with garlic or fry it or something! Here, the typical Nicaraguan salsa — a concoction of vinegar, onions, citrus and chilis — awaits on the table so you can spoon it over anything and everything on your plate, and that helped somewhat.
The plantain chips were meh, but they usually are to me. However, the maduros were just the way I like them — sweet, and quivering in almost jelly-like fashion. The slaw was also quite good — a tart, fresh bite to counteract the heaviness of the meal. This is rib-sticking food, people, and you shan’t go hungry. The dish is $28, but again, it feeds two, and you may even have leftovers.
On our second visit, I was determined to have a nacatamal.
This photo is a little messy, but nacatamales are Nicaragua’s gift to the tamale world. Various Latin American countries make tamales, but Nicaragua just kept going with theirs until they got them right. First off, they’re huge — one is more than enough for an entire meal. A nacatamal is wrapped in banana leaves and filled with a hearty mixture of contrasting flavors and textures: the masa, annatto-seasoned pork butt, mint, potatoes, rice, capers, a chili pepper, an olive, raisins and tomatoes. The whole thing gets wrapped into a fat, square bundle, enveloped in corn husks and then pressure-cooked.
One of the biggest differences for me from this baby and other tamales is the masa — it’s also flavored with annatto, and is a softer masa that melts in your mouth. The pork becomes fall-apart tender, and you’ll get bites of mint, tanginess from the olive and/or capers, earthiness from the potatoes, a very slight sweetness from the raisins and, of course, the porky/fatty goodness (they can be made with chicken, too, if you don’t love yourself as much as I do). It’s often served with toasted bread, but that was a little too much carby-ness for me.
So instead, I dunked the bread into my sopa de res:
This beef soup was a revelation to the both of us. Such a clear, pure broth, bursting with beefy flavor, with vegetal notes. Floating in the depths were hunks of stewed beef, cabbage, zucchini, carrots, cilantro and yuca. On the side came a dish of rice, to add as you went along — that way it doesn’t soak up all the broth and turn to mush. Lovely. Most of this came home with us, because I managed to eat my entire nacatamale.
The BF “mistakenly” ordered the same beef that had been in our sampler platter on the first visit:
Or was it a mistake? He’d loved that steak so much the first time, I think he just wanted to have it again. And it was still a huge hit. Perfectly charcoal-broiled, flavorful, tender, a great char, a good chew — everything you want in a steak, for about $10.00. It came with either gallo pinto or red beans and rice (separate), and the BF went for the latter. The beans had so much more depth of flavor than they had in the gallo pinto. Alongside was more of that wonderful fried cheese, melty platanos maduros and a little salad with blue cheese.
There is so much more to explore on this menu. They serve breakfast all day, and desserts. The BF was eyeing a vapor-cooked boneless brisket, which is only served on weekends, and I the sopa de lengua (beef tongue soup), as well as the myriad other pork dishes, seafood, slaws and more.
In our ever-gentrifying neighborhood, Red Balloon is still hanging on, serving up authentic old favorites to Nicoya families and Mission denizens of all stripes. It’s the kind of place where the server calls you, “Mi amor,” and wishes you “Provecho” when she serves you your food. “Buen provecho” translates to “enjoy your food.” However, I’ve always seen it proffered, and received, almost as a benediction, a blessing. A stranger at another table will say it to you, and your reaction is likely to be a somber but earnest “thank you,” with real gratitude. It’s a lovely custom.
We happened to run into an acquaintance on our last visit to the restaurant, a Nico himself. I asked him if Red Balloon was his favorite. He said, “Yes, it’s the most like eating at home.” That’s the kind of place this is. Buen provecho!
2763 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Credit cards accepted, but tip is cash only.