By Evelyn Barge
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