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It Takes Two To Fritanga 

Thursday, Mar 18 2004
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

Behold, the fritanga plate in all its magnificence, a crunchy tower of protein and shaved green bananas reaching almost halfway to heaven. You will find the well-marinated Nicaraguan-style carne asada on the plate, in long hanks that look as if they were roughly torn from the side of a cow, and slivers of pork, and perhaps a few spareribs, rubbed with chile and deep-fried to a spurting crispness. At La 27th, a family-owned Nicaraguan restaurant around the corner from the neo-Egyptian apartment courts and Victorian robber-baron mansions of Alvarado Terrace, there are also chorizos, a skein of plump, peppery sausages that half encircle the plate like a retaining wall, the requisite pickled cabbage, and fried bricks of salty cheese that squeak like Wisconsin Cheddar curds when you bite into them. The La 27th fritanga is a formidable plate of food.

La 27th, probably the most prominent Nicaraguan restaurant in the downtown-adjacent neighborhood sometimes called Little Central America, occupies a low storefront on a block of light-industrial buildings, in a space once held by the Salvadoran café El Izalqueno, which I used to like for its huge selection of atoles and its tasty rice-flour pupusas. The inside is the usual riot of beer signs and tropical plants, tourist-office posters and a gas-station map of Managua that I swear is the same one we had in the proofreading bullpen at the Weekly in the days when the paper devoted more column inches to Nicaragua than it did to West L.A. The jukebox is set at nightclub volume. The list of freshly made fruit beverages includes a vividly purple drink spiked with the slippery seeds that may be familiar from the grassy coat of a Chia Pet, a blend of orange juice and fresh passionfruit seeds, pulpy guanabana shakes, and cacao, which resembles, more or less, chocolate-spiked horchata.

I had thought the restaurant may have been named after the owner’s air-force unit, or a historic peace treaty, or Daniel Ortega’s birthday, but it takes its name from a former location down by USC, as if it were saying, “Hey, we’re the guys from 27th Street, but we’re on Pico now.”

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People come on the weekends for the baho de res, a heavy, comforting dish of beef boiled with plantains and tubers. Baho is the Nicaraguan equivalent of a French pot-au-feu, a dish usually savored more for its resonances of homey well-being than for any intrinsic flavors in the food, but it happens to be really good here, oozy and rich as pastrami, slightly sweetened with chunks of red banana. Weekends also see the mild, tomato-based tripe soup mondongo, the Nicaraguan answer to menudo, a traditional hangover cure sharply flavored with lime juice and the essence of corn.

A lot of the food at La 27th can be explained as basically deconstructions of its fritanga plate, as in the tajadas con queso (the fritanga plate with extra cheese and no meat), the carne asada plate (bigger steak, fewer plantains, no pork), or the cerdo asado (bigger pork, no beef). La 27th makes a decent version of Nicaragua’s national salad vigoron — steamed yuca layered with the tart, spicy pickled cabbage, then sprinkled with slabs of fried pigskin. Vigoron is a classic Central American dish, with the warm, claylike tuber playing off against the cool crackle of the cabbage and the fatty intensity of the pork. There is an unusual appetizer of hollowed-out zucchini stuffed with pungent Nicaraguan cheese and fried in a thick coat of egg, which is probably the most delicious Central American stuffed-vegetable preparation on record. The salpicon, a dish of chopped beef, onions and diced radish you will find on pretty much every menu between Guadalajara and Tierra del Fuego, is bland but soothing here, a dish executed in shades of gray.

There is a nacatamal on weekends too, of course, the famous banana-leaf tamale as large as a throw-pillow, a soft concoction stuffed with chile-rubbed pork, olives, a hard-boiled egg and possibly a spare chicken leg or two, a tamale big enough to warrant its own ZIP code. I have eaten my share of nacatamales in my time, mostly at the old La Plancha down on Ninth Street, and I have had $14 nacatamales on the Westside that were described on the menu as Mayan TV dinners, but I can safely say that the La 27th nacatamal is the best I’ve ever tasted, soufflé soft, gently flavored and pushed right over the top by an unlikely addition of prunes. Who knew the revolution would come to this.

La 27th, 1830 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 387-2467. Breakfast, lunch and dinner Wed.–Mon. 9 a.m.–10 p.m. AE, MC and V. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12–$22.

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