NICHOLASVILLE — I've been to lots of restaurants in old gas stations that have been refurbished as places to eat but are no longer active fill-up spots. But there is a new place in Jessamine County that serves food — and indeed gas.
In the dead of winter, after an ice storm and in the middle of a small blizzard, Nicaraguan Latin Grill sounded pretty good to me. I was expecting self-service (food, not gas), but I found a full-service restaurant with about 20 tables covered with white tablecloths — in a Shell gas station. It was a little surreal.
The grill is a family-run restaurant. Owners Luis and Socorro Vanegas, originally from Nicaragua, came here from Miami, where they had 25 years' experience in Latin-style cooking.
The food at Nicaraguan Latin Grill is good: fried plantains, seviche, sopa de res (beef bone soup), carne asada (grilled beef), Nicaraguan fajitas, Cuban sandwiches — and huevo de toro (bull testicle fritters). Well, it looks like they're authentic.
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But there's a shortcoming: With only one server, one of the grown Vanegas children, and Mom and Pop Vanegas cooking in the kitchen, service gets slow. In fact, our server has a second job and had to leave for a moment. Mom and Pop served our entrees. But if you can stand the wait, the food is worth it.
Our server suggested that we try the fritanga Nicaraguans sampler platter ($14.95). Indeed, it was a serving platter filled with almost every appetizer on the menu. The sautéed sweet plantains were wonderful; the fried cheese had a bit of age to it (we detected a slight ammonia taste); bits of beef tenderloin were very nice, as was the fried pork; the hard-boiled eggs were topped with a dab of ketchup; the red beans and rice were blander than I had anticipated; and the pork rinds didn't come out of a bag.
Another appetizer we sampled was seviche, a South American creation that "cooks" fish in highly acidic citrus juice. Here, bits of raw fish had been marinated in grapefruit juice and served. I loved it, but my dinner companion didn't. Seviche is normally marinated in lime or lemon juice, so the grapefruit juice was a curve we hadn't expected.
Our entrees were delightful. The tipitapa whole fish ($11.99) — Mama served it, head and all, and said it was red snapper — had been dredged in cornmeal, fried and served with an onion-tomato sauce. Wonderful.
We also sampled lomo de cerdo asado ($10.99). Pork loin — marinated in achiote, a combination of finely ground seeds from the annatto shrub, vinegar, salt, garlic and other spices — was covered with grilled green pepper and onion. The pork was a bit tough but otherwise highly flavored. Served on the side (an additional $2) were black beans and rice. With more seasonings, they were much better than the red beans and rice.
We drank beers ($4 for Corona) with the appetizers. But for our entrees, we switched to horchata, a milky concoction of ground rice and water that has been sweetened and flavored with cinnamon. It's common south of the border, and it was yummy.
Finally, we sampled the two desserts offered (the menu has three, but the restaurant was out of atolillo, a pudding made with rum and cinnamon and topped with raisins). The flan — a rich custard made with evaporated milk, eggs and sugar — was as good as you can get anywhere. The arroz de leche — a thick pudding of rice and milk that I think had been thickened with cornstarch, flavored with cinnamon and topped with raisins — was extremely sweet.
Nicaraguan Latin Grill is an interesting place to stop for lunch or dinner, but if the place gets crowded, you might have to wait until the cows come home before you are served. The one waiter, although very helpful explaining the dishes, won't be able to handle a crowd.
Dinner for two, including tax but not tip, was about $65, give or take a couple of incidentals.