Overland miles: 4526 Tacocount: 73 Days without sodas: 1
Spanish tapas – very much like Mexican street food – is an brilliantly executed cuisine in its own country, yet exported terribly to the rest of the world (think of all chain Tex-Mex restaurants you know to appreciate what I’m taking about). For this reason, and because it’s nowadays seen as an easy way to charge up to a tenner for a three IKEA-sized meatballs in a wretched sweet chilli sauce, we avoid eating it most of the time in the UK. Although the situation is improving: if you’re living near or visiting North London, make sure you check out Bar Esteban in Crouch End or Bar Pepito (sister bar of the less stylish Camino) in King’s Cross for the real deal. But alitas a la barbacoa (BBQ chicken wings – it always sounds much more sexy in Spanish, doesn’t it?), patatas bravas with a cheesy topping and anything involving garlic bread are *not* tapas people. Send them all back in their silly little earthenware dishes, and demand a full refund.
But every now and then on this trip, we find ourselves inexorably pulled to a Spanish joint (or a Spanish-sounding joint) by the lure of delicious nuggets of pork on toasted bread swiped with a nutty green olive oil, or some tender slices of octopus gently seasoned in paprika, or some proper, fat, juicy albondigas in a thick, spicy sauce. Or it might just be the need – once in a blue moon – for a decent glass of red or two to go with it all. We were pleasantly surprised by the offerings at Angie Angie on Avenida Sur in Antigua, which included one dish I’d never heard of let alone tried (and am glad I did): sage tempura.
On our last night in San Juan del Sur, we figured we were due for a night off the rice and beans, and pushed the boat out at El Bocadito. It was a smart little place a couple of streets back from the beach drag, brightly painted and lit, without being overpoweringly illuminated. It had a bare board floor and a functional bar to the rear serving, I noted, Flor de Caña rum. A gregarious waiter who may also have been the owner greeted us in English with a couple of laminated menus, and proceeded to keep talking to us in English throughout. I stubbornly answered back in Spanish throughout, making for one of those delightfully incoherent conversations you hear all across Central America.
The menus divided up the dishes on offer into full and half portions, and tapas (The name comes from the verb tapar, meaning ‘to cover’, and actually referred to the tiny plates used to protect your drink from the flies, containing a couple of tasty morsels – so when you actually order tapas you don’t get much, and shouldn’t pay too much). The fun part of ordering involved choosing the different things we wanted to try depending on which portion sizes they were offered in. Of course, we didn’t choose enough dishes the first time, which made it all the more fun to order more later.
The first selection of plates appearing together included a tapa of local fried cheese served on toast, topped with pineapple jam. For a while in England I became obsessed by a strange breakfast concoction of of manchego cheese and membrillo (quince jelly) on a muffin – this dish employed exactly the same balance of sweet and salty tastes, and soft and crunchy textures. Our tapas sized portion really was just a mouthful, although we stretched it to four bites, but it pushed our taste buds into fifth gear for what followed: garlicky potatoes in a creamy mayo and a trio of tender meatballs coated with a decadently rich tomato sauce.
Our senses overwhelmed, but our tongues drooling for more, we did not have to wait long for the rest of our order to turn up (an extremely unusual experience in Nicaragua). Clare wanted to try a fish brocheta with a satay sauce: I figured this was on the outer limits of acceptable tapas fusion, but have to admit that the crisp-coated skewered fish had an ideal partner in the salty-sweet peanut dip – it was a fairly big half portion too. Far better than the brochette for me was the plate of meatball-sized fish croquettes (below, rear), fried to perfection so that they could be skewered with a cocktail stick and popped whole in the mouth, the contents of blended white fish, herbs and wine melting in an instant. Even better still were the slices of pork tenderloin served on crunchy croutons (below, front). They had been anointed with a caramelised apple chutney that made the whole dish taste like toffee apples on a crisp autumn night.
We couldn’t resist getting another slice of fried cheese on toast for our second round – and on our garrulous waiter’s recommendation ordered a similar dish to the pork concoction, this time pairing succulent beef with some more of that licentious piña jam. I hadn’t yet been able try almejas negras (black clams) – a speciality in these parts – because Clare isn’t a fan, but as she had picked the fish satay, I was able to try a tapa of the tiny, succulent clams in a creamy herb sauce. It was unbelievably moreish, and now that it had returned to room temperature, the house red we had ordered was a decent enough partner. I was glad we had decided to splurge here on our last night in San Juan (spending about £15 between us with drinks).
The night was still young: there was still time for a Nicaraguan nightcap of rum on the rocks. While I was slowly sipping it – as some readers may have seen on my Facebook page – a bright green parrot mistook me for a dashing pirate and perched on me. I was pretty sure at the beginning of the night that this was my favourite tapas joint in Central America, but having a fancy bird on my arm by the end of it only reinforced this belief.