Dining on a budget: El Gallo Pinto

By Evelyn Barge
Staff Writer

Sometimes the best meals are discovered behind the most unassuming of storefronts.

That’s certainly the case with El Gallo Pinto, a Nicaraguan and Mexican restaurant tucked away in an unremarkable Azusa strip mall.

Named for the traditional Nicaraguan dish of beans and rice, El Gallo Pinto is a gem of an eatery that serves up a hearty dose of authenticity with each of its delectable dishes.

The extensive menu is protein-heavy with options like broiled steak ($10.99), fried marinated pork ($10.99) and beef tongue ($12.99).

All entrees are served with – you guessed it – gallo pinto. Or you can substitute salad and tortillas or fried plantains.

If you want to mix and match, try a few selections from the a la carte section of the menu.
The nacatamales ($4.99), much bigger than Mexican tamales, are mouth-wateringly delicious and provide more than enough food for a wholesome lunch or dinner.

Round off the meal with plantain slices ($2.50) or fried cheese ($2.00), just two of the tasty traditional sides available for a very affordable price.

I found the atmosphere inside the restaurant to be warm and inviting.

The wait staff was especially friendly, as the server greeted each customer and offered up helpful recommendations, even while busy during the lunch-hour rush.

El Gallo Pinto is a fairly small operation, so be prepared to settle in and enjoy the experience.

On the day I visited the Azusa Avenue restaurant, just one person was serving the lunchtime crowd in the dining room, while a single chef was preparing all the dishes in the kitchen. Still, the relaxed environment and easygoing pace just mean you have more time to take in the decorations and savor your meal.

After leaving the restaurant quite satisfied, I called my younger sister, Gail, to chat about my first foray into Nicaraguan cuisine. Gail traveled to Managua, the capital of the Central American country, in the spring of 2006 on a weeklong mission trip, and I asked her what she remembered about the country’s traditional diet. We compared our separate experiences with the local style of cooking and found many similarities, despite the hundreds of miles and years that separated our meals.

She described the scene in Managua with its open-air markets, street vendors and fresh produce, meats and seafood as impoverished yet beautiful, and complemented by a rich culinary tapestry.

“The food is amazing,” she said, “better than I ever eat here (in the U.S.)”

True to those roots, El Gallo Pinto carries on that tradition, serving up spectacular Nicaraguan cuisine from inside a rather simple strip-mall unit that’s certainly worth walking into.

El Gallo Pinto is at 5559 N. Azusa Ave., Azusa. For information, call (626) 815-9907

(626) 962-8811, Ext. 2472

Dining on a budget: Start with the specials

Dining at a new restaurant can be confusing, even overwhelming. With more than 100 different items on most menus, ordering the right dish is like picking the winning lottery number or guessing the exact number of jelly beans in a candy jar.

The problem gets worse when youre trying a new cuisine. The dishes use new flavors, different ingredients and are sometimes in a foreign language.

Offering popular yet simple dishes, Rosie Thai Food in Covina is an excellent introduction to Thai food, especially if youre not familiar with the cuisine.

First, try all-day specials. Youll find familiar Asian dishes, such as Kung Pao chicken and teriyaki chicken, as well as classic Thai favorites like pad Thai and spicy beef with mint.

For $5.95, the all-day specials come with rice and salad, and during lunch, a small cup of soup. For a few extra dollars, the specials include more exciting dishes, such as stuffed chicken wings, shrimp sauteed with black pepper and garlic, and Thai barbecue spareribs.

Keep in mind that Thai food expertly combines sweet and savory flavors, so the beef and broccoli stir fry at Rosie will taste very different than at a Chinese restaurant. The combination of the two flavors creates dishes that will make you hunger for more but not weigh you down.

Once youve graduated from the specials menu, I highly recommend dining family style and ordering more authentic Thai dishes from the second half of the menu. Not only is the food delicious and flavorful, but its also very affordable.

One of my favorites is panang curry with chicken, a sweet and savory coconut-based curry. I also like the Tom Kha Gai soup, which includes coconut milk, lemongrass, straw mushrooms and various herbs. Both sweet and savory, the soup is light enough as a starter or can be ordered as an entree. On a cold night, its especially satisfying.

If you enjoy spicy food, the hot mint leaves and chili paste with chicken is a highly addictive stir fry dish. However, you may want to keep a large glass of ice water or milk close by.

Rosie Thai Food is at 474 E. San Bernardino Road in Covina. It is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and closed on Sundays. For more information, call (626) 339-4935.

By Esther Chou

Dining on a budget: Unexpected delicacies at Vons Supermarket

Rarely does one get convenience and quality: Its usually one or the other.

However, at the Vons supermarket in Glendora, I found that these two traits have apparently united at the deli counter.

As a former Azusa Pacific University student, Ive been going to the Glendora Vons deli for years, finding it to be a local, quality meal even on a student budget. In those days, a Vons sandwich was a decadent treat enjoyed during my weekly trips to buy Top Ramen in bulk.

So, for the discriminating eater on the go, this may be the ideal solution.

One of the great things about the Vons deli is their sandwich ingenuity, something you wouldnt expect to find on a toilet paper or dish soap (or Top Ramen) run.

For $4.99, the deli offers a variety of interesting and unique sandwich creations.

In my younger years, I never did branch out all that much, sticking mostly to turkey sandwiches on whole wheat bread. For this review however, I decided to go nuts or at least my version of nuts.

I ordered the Hail Caesar, described as having Primo Taglio pan-roasted turkey, Primo Taglio havarti, green leaf lettuce, garlic spread and tomatoes on rustic Italian bread.

Sounds fancy, right? It tasted pretty fancy too.
The combination of the havarti cheese, fresh lettuce and tomatoes was entirely refreshing. And while the garlic spread was a bit strong, it served as a nice counterpoint to the rest of the sandwich.

My only complaint, however, was the rustic Italian bread. Im not entirely sure why a bread that shreds the roof of ones mouth is being widely used on sandwiches, but it shouldnt be. It hurts. I recommend staying far away from the rustic Italian, and instead perhaps opt for a nice sourdough or wheat roll.

While the sandwich alone was $4.99, Vons will make it a meal, which means add chips and a medium drink, for $1.50 more. However, the chips can be substituted for fresh fruit or soup.

California Dreamin is a pan-roasted turkey sandwich with avocado, bacon and ranch spread, also on the painful rustic bread.

These are just a few of the many culinary Frankensteins available for the adventurous palate.

Gourmet soups, rotated from day to day, are also another feature here. For a $3.29 small, or $3.99 large, customers have the choice between broccoli and cheddar, minestrone, chicken noodle or clam chowder. And that was just on Friday. Couple a half sandwich with the small soup and pay only $4.99.

Finally, hot paninis are available in turkey and havarti; ham, swiss and cheddar; pastrami and swiss; three cheese; or philly cheesesteak.

I personally wouldnt touch those greasy nightmares with a 10-foot pole, but for the seemingly ubiquitous price of $4.99, you, too, can look like you were recently dipped in oil.

I guess my favorite part about all of this is that, while theres a Starbucks four doors down from Vons, theres also one about 20 feet from the deli counter.

So, why not substitute that soda for an iced coffee? It goes great with a turkey sandwich!