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Here's Some Nicaraguan Assistance to L.A.

El Asador brings good tastes of a Latin American nation to a city that had none.


Nicaragua may have been all over the news 10 years ago, but we've never had much chance to sample its food around here. Since the Managua Restaurant closed a couple of years back, the Southland hasn't had a single good Nica place. Now it does: El Asador.

It's a spacious place with tropical-beachy decor. One blue-and-white-drenched mural shows a man holding a net, but evidently not for fishing; he seems to be stringing it up for volleyball. A colorfully garnished hammock hangs from the ceiling. On weekends, El Asador is crowded with families and snappily dressed young couples.

The cuisine is sturdy and intriguing: a little like Salvadoran, more remotely akin to Mexican. You start out with tortilla chips and a lively, distinctly non-Mexican salsa of minced onions with bits of tomato and green chile, tangy with lime juice. The large menu actually lists Salvadoran pupusas and a couple of Mexican snacks in the taco family, and there are tostadas (choice of seafood piled on a crisp fried tortilla), but that's obviously not where El Asador's heart is.

On the other hand, you can't necessarily judge a dish by its name. The enchilada is only a distant cousin of the Mexican enchilada. It's made by filling a tortilla with rice and bits of meat, then dipping it in beaten eggs and frying it, chile relleno-style. It may sound like the Monte Cristo enchilada, but it's something all its own, light and crisp, delightful with its topping of shredded cabbage dressed with lime juice. Pescozon is another fried appetizer with an egg coating. Think of it as a squash relleno, your choice of zucchini or chayote.

Some of the "appetizers" are filling enough to be a meal. Take the Nicaraguan specialty vigoron. It's a couple of yuca roots (mild and starchy, not unlike potatoes) topped with cubes of chicharron, which in this case doesn't mean pork cracklings but chunks of pork skin fried quite dark: alternately chewy, fatty and meaty, with a funky fried pork flavor. The whole thing is topped with shredded cabbage salad.

The seafood selection, listed on the back page, is familiar simple treatments--fried, al mojo de ajo, etc. One outstanding dish back there is sopa de congrejo, a whole crab floating in broth with carrots, mild peppers and squash. It comes with a couple of tortillas and a mound of rice, which is good for throwing into the bowl at the end to soak up the sweet, milky broth.

Except for the soups, most entrees come with rice, plain-boiled brown beans, a chunk of fried white cheese and some cabbage salad, and also either fried plantains (like curly 8-inch-long potato chips) or fried bananas (very soft and rich).

One of the best entrees is pollo tapado. Basically it's Creole chicken, that dish of chicken sauteed with tomatoes and peppers that's made everywhere in Latin America. But unlike the many bland, tired versions you may have had, this one is juicy and pleasantly tangy. Like many dishes here, it includes some green olives (watch the pits), though in this particular case they don't happen to add a lot.

The carne asada turns out to be skewered strips of tender steak, and salpicon (available only on weekends) is chopped--not ground--beef with bits of green onions and peppers: OK on its own, excellent with a bit of the medium-hot green chile sauce on your table. Lomo relleno is a wholesome but not terribly exciting slice of pork loin stuffed with carrots, squash, green olives and capers, with more of the same piled on top.

Fritango is a very hearty entree of pork ribs, cut crosswise into chunks and fried very brown. Think of it as crisp-style carnitas on the bone. It's great with both table sauces on it, the green chile sauce and a mildly sweet-sour one mostly consisting of minced onions. Instead of being served with rice and beans in separate quarters of the plate, like other entrees, it comes with the rice and beans mixed together.

Even heartier is the nacatamal (available only on weekends). It's a tamale made with rich masa wrapped in banana leaves, stuffed with pork, carrots, yuca and the odd green olive. They don't even bother to serve side dishes with this baby.

There's not much for dessert but flan and a pleasant tres leches cake soaked with condensed milk. On the other hand, I doubt many people are actually up for dessert after a nacatamal or fritango. Or for beach volleyball either, I bet.



El Asador, 1225 Venice Blvd., L.A. (213) 387-8220. Beer. Parking lot in rear. All major credit cards. Open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$30. What to Get: enchilada, pescozon, sopa de congrejo, pollo tapado, fritango, tres leches.

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