In fact, this Central American country as a whole hasn’t been known as top destination for tourists, period. Located between Honduras and Costa Rica, Nicaragua is still often thought of as a war-ravaged nation -- from years of dictatorship, civil strife and the Iran/Contra affair -- but Nicaragua is now rapidly emerging as a hot tourist destination. On The New York Times’ picks of where travelers should go in 2013, Nicaragua came in at number three, with this tagline “It’s eco! And the food’s good! Enough said.”
Perhaps not quite enough said, however. While there are a number of restaurants catching international attention – the Times highlighted Granada's Ciudad Lounge for instance – typical Nicaraguan cuisine, also known as comida tipica, is heavy on rice and beans, light on vegetables, and varied in quality. Gallo pinto, literally translated as “spotted rooster,” is the ubiquitous rice and beans found on nearly every plate at every meal, including breakfast.
A typical “Nica” breakfast includes eggs with onions and cheese served with gallo pinto and fried plantains. Lunch and dinner usually contain some combination of gallo pinto, meat, cabbage salad, boiled yucca and fried plantains, and are often served on and/or wrapped in banana leaves. A variation of this meal, called vigorón, is topped with chicharrones (fried pork skins). The meat is sometimes tough, the yucca bland and the fried plantains soggy. But when the meat is juicy and tender, the cabbage crisp and the gallo pinto just right, the meal can be quite satisfying.
Where to Try Comida Tipica in GranadaFor breakfast, visit Kathy’s Waffle House, a Granada institution. Yes, it’s known as a place for a big American breakfast – you can recover from your hangover on the shaded porch with a variety of waffles, pancakes and other American fare. But you can also have a more typical Nica breakfast of eggs served with gallo pinto and maduros (sweet plantain). Find Kathy’s on Calle Arsenal across the street from the Convento San Francisco.
Another breakfast option is Choco Café, on Calle Atrevesada, which offers a buffet that includes both Nica cuisine (gallo pinto, cheese, plantains) as well as omelet and waffle stations. The restaurant does get mixed reviews, though.
Note: Many addresses in Granada are unusual, and potentially confusing until you get used to it. Rather than a street number, or even a street, addresses take the form of directions, often keyed to a major landmark.. For example, the address of my hotel was: “Calle Consulado, two blocks west of the park.”
For lunch, try the Kiosco Modesta located on the Southwest corner of the Parque Colón (the Central park). Try the vigorón - boiled yucca, cabbage salad and crunchy pork rinds - while sitting in the park watching the horse drawn carriages click by. The Kiosco is not 4-star dining, but the location and atmosphere are hard to beat.
At night, visit one of the fritangas, or sidewalk barbeques. There is a good, and very busy fritanga off of the main pedestrian street, Calle Calzada. Walking away from the Central Park, east on Calle Calzada, make a left at Margarita Bar & Grill and walk about a half a block. You’ll see the line.
There’s a variety of meat to choose from, but the pollo (chicken) is solid choice – a single portion includes a wing, drumstick and part of a breast, platano frito (fried ripe plantain), maduros (sweet plantain), and a humungous mound of cabbage salad. It’s all served on top of two large banana leaves that fold up and serve as both the plate and convenient carrying case when slipped into a small, plastic bag to take to-go. It’s a ridiculous amount of food for only 95 Cordoba or $3.95, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t order a side. Try the queso frito(fried cheese), and of course, no Nica meal is complete without gallo pinto.
Bear in mind that the “line” may be a loose version of what you are used to and possibly difficult to navigate. Do not fear! Wait patiently and the nice woman who runs the fritanga will acknowledge you. She runs a tight ship: if someone tries to cut you in line, she’ll let the offender know it.
More Dining Options in Granada
If you tire of comida tipica -- and given how rich it is, chances are that you will – try one of these other eateries.
The Garden Café on Calle La Libertad, about one block east of the Park, a California-meets-Nicaragua style café offers light fare, delicious sandwiches and lots of fresh veggies.
El Camello on Calle El Caimito about two blocks east of the Park, is a mix of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean, offering everything from falafel and shwarma to lamb stew, curries and pasta. The Canadian owner and his Nicaraguan wife will make you feel at home.
There’s also Kanpai on Calle Estrada, a newly opened sushi restaurant where you can get a fix of California, Philadelphia, tuna and tempura rolls designed to appeal to the typical American tourist.
Though the restaurant was quite nice, with a Zen atmosphere of plants and bamboo, and the service is the highlight. On each table, there’s a life-alert-like button to press when you need the wait staff. I didn’t need to press it to have a chat with the Japanese co-owner, though. When he asked me for honest feedback about the new menu, I told him that I’d never seen an eel and avocado rolls with cheese on it. “And what kind of cheese was it?” I asked. “Sliced,” he replied. I inquired no further.
If you’re a meat lover, try El Zaguán on Calle La Sirena behind the cathedral. This well-regarded restaurant serves up sizzling steaks, sausage and ribs off an open-flame grill, often accompanied by the sweet sounds of live mariachis.
Imagine Café, on the corner of Calle La Libertad and Calle Cervantes is another popular, but fairly overpriced option. Here, the chef is serving unexpected dishes, like warm baked Brie, clams casino, duck breast and lamb chops. A meal here is not complete without a taste of the homemade mango bread, made with fruit from the chef’s own farm.
Nightlife in Granada is pretty bustling for a small city. Grab an outside table on the pedestrian street Calle La Calzada to people watch, buy souvenirs from roaming vendors, and enjoy a Nica Libre (the Nicaraguan version of a rum and coke made with Flor de Caña rum).
If you’re traveling alone, take a seat at O’Shea’s Irish Pub. The owner, Tom, is the Irish grandfather you never had, and probably never expected to find in Nicaragua. He will make you feel welcome and probably introduce you to a few of his loyal patrons.