We all must patronize Fritanga, a family-owned and operated Nicaraguan restaurant on Versailles Road. Granted, its business model is casual — I have been there when they have run out of Dos Equis and shrimp, and service can run from stellar to lackluster — but its virtues outweigh these inconveniences, plus it is the only Nicaraguan restaurant in the state ... and Nicaraguan food can be delicious.
To start with, you will taste the best salsas in town. There is a standard quartet consisting of chilero, a sweet-hot carrot, tomato and onion vinaigrette; a pea-green jalapeño-cilantro paste; a fiery hot red chili dip; and chimichurri, Latin America's famed parsley and garlic condiment.
Not only are these four flavors wonderful on tortilla chips, but they heighten the taste of milder dishes, such as nacatamal, or tamales with pork ($7); your basic polenta, pork and potatoes; or carne asada ($9.99), which is charbroiled steak.
With the exception of the chips, everything is homemade, and that includes pork rinds ($5.99). These crunchy cracklings are called vigoron. They come scattered around a nice heap of briny coleslaw and chunks of yuca, the starchy root vegetable found all over Latin America.
To start, I also recommend the guacamole ($3.99) ... when they have it. The sample I tried over dinner was a beautiful balance of avocado, cilantro and a lot of lime. This comfort food is always enjoyable, but I have never before used the word refreshing to describe it.
There also are house specials that include choices of standard sides including rice, beans or plantains. Try the luscious and salty carne desmenuza, or Nicaraguan pulled beef ($7.99); the buttery sweet and very tender pollo tropical ($7.50), aka chicken breast; or the shockingly hot camarones a la jalapeña ($11.99), shrimp in a generous bath of spicy chili-infused cream sauce. Think Thai shrimp minus the coconut milk.
But the best way to get to know this cuisine is to order fritanga ($15), essentially a little bit of everything mounded high on a platter. It would feed four easily.
On one end there is a helping of slaw, yuca and vigoron. The fried plantains alongside it are sweet, caramelized and tender. You'll discover fried pork in a chili powder rub, in chunks or shredded and stuffed into tortillas. There is a simple grilled beef that is the perfect match for the chimichurri. A large dense domino of fried cheese — a cross between mozzarella and salty feta — is beautiful golden brown. The red beans and rice are topped with a crema that is so thick, sour cream looks watery by comparison.
The beverages will (almost) make you forget about beer. Most are grain-based but non-alcoholic. Undoubtedly the best is cebada ($2.25), a light summer drink of a beautiful rosy shade. It is laced with cinnamon and sugar, giving it a flavor that is exotic and delightful.
Running a restaurant is not a skill mastered overnight, and I get the feeling that Fritanga is finding its sea legs. But with an atmosphere as bright as a sunny Central American country and an authentically Nicaraguan menu, this is, as I say, a place everyone should try at least once. Then you'll be hooked.
A meal for three, excluding tip and with beer and lots of leftovers, was about $52.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.