Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you think she should go next? Drop us a line.
Nicaraguan eatery La 27th in Pico Union is hopping on a recent Saturday – and it’s not yet even noon. Latin music pumps from the jukebox (jukebox!) as diners are coming and going, sitting down to eat lunch or finishing up their weekend breakfast. Two people at one table are either alphabetizing or trading CDs. A man walks through the restaurant trying to sell gum for a dollar. But it’s the staffers here who seem to make up the majority of the restaurant’s activity. Servers are whizzing through the two adjoining dining rooms with giant plates of food, manager types are making the rounds and chatting in Spanish with customers. The open kitchen is jam-packed with cooks – including a couple of guys dedicated solely to slicing up plantains at lightning speed before tossing said slices into the deep fryer and then serving them up just moments later. (A group of Ziploc bags full of unpeeled plantains sits atop a table nearby, so it looks like these guys won’t be finishing up anytime soon.)
In addition to the menu’s dozens of large entrees, including fried fish, shredded beef, and chicken shish kebab, there’s a section devoted to Nicaraguan specialties. My husband and I start there. Since the fried plantains don’t seem like they can possibly get much fresher, I order up a combo plate that comes with an order of those and ? fried cheese. Why not?
The plantains are surprisingly light on the grease, perfectly crisp, cut super thin, and have just the right dash of salt. Though deep-fried dairy may conjure up images of blah sports-bar mozzarella sticks, the four golden cubes of queso fresco with a curd-like consistency are more decadent than that. And my supersized platter comes topped with a pile of “salad” -- a pickled slaw with diced tomatoes that I wish there were more of.
My husband goes with a Nacatamal, described by our waiter as kind of like a tamale, but not exactly. It’s gargantuan and comes wrapped in parchment paper. While the mushy, polenta-ish masa that encases the ingredients is velvety and flavorful, inside is a bit of a minefield. The fatty pork is littered with small bones and the pits inside the olives are, well, a not-so-fun surprise. It’s a dish you’ve got to pay attention to as you’re eating to ensure you don’t choke. But an authentic one at that, I guess.
We move on to neighboring El Salvador with the loroco pupusa and top it off with a side of rice and beans. I like the Caribbean-style al dente beans with reddish rice. And while I find the tortillas a touch on the bland side, the lorocos – edible flower buds that look like a cross between capers and sea beans - add some earthy flavor, and the melted cheese gives it a dose of saltiness.
We indulge in one specialty drink – the Maracuya, a syrupy sweet concoction of passionfruit puree and orange juice. But the woman working behind the counter when we pay our bill asks if we tried the Cacao, a drink made from cacao beans soaked overnight and painstakingly turned into a savory drink.
It’s the best one of all. We didn’t. But we’ll be sure to return for one ? and more fried plantains ? and that whole crispy fish that looked good? and another dose of Saturday afternoon action.
All items: $3.50 -$14
— Lizbeth Scordo