Churrasco, chimichurri and chicharrones

Latin treats from Las Palmas, El Molino and La Pastorcita

Nicaragua, although it has Central America's oldest city, Granada, and its largest lake, is not a country that attracts much tourism. Indeed, I can't even think about it without pictures of Ollie North and Ronald Reagan — remember the Contras? — dancing in my head. Earthquakes and hurricanes are also part of its recent history.

Because it's not been much of a tourist attraction, its cuisine has not caught on in the States, and I only recall one restaurant here featuring it to any measurable extent during the last 10 years. That's a shame, too. The country, with Pacific and Caribbean coasts, draws influences from Jamaica and Cuba, and its cuisine is a nice change from the usual Latin fare. Las Palmas (4005 Buford Highway, 404-634-0589) is your opportunity to try good Nicaraguan cooking.

The restaurant seems to be half-pool hall with four or five tables taking up a third of the restaurant's space. When Wayne and I visited on a recent Sunday for an early dinner, we were alone in the restaurant, so I'm not sure what the ambiance is like most of the time. It's certainly a cheerful cafe, spotlessly clean, with blue and yellow walls hung with the flags of Nicaragua and Cuba (whose cuisine is also featured here). There's a hand-lettered nonsmoking poster that warns you that if you smoke, "Your brain will not work." Although our server did not speak English, the apparent owner spoke well, so don't worry about translation.

We tried a couple of appetizers, including the nacatamal, maybe Nicaragua's best-known dish. It's a tamal cooked up to four hours. Pork, marinated in achiote, garlic and some citric flavoring, is cooked with cornmeal (masa) until the meat is done. Red beans figure prominently in the country's cooking. Gallo pinto — red beans sauteed with rice — is a customary side dish. I ordered, as a starter, red beans with crema, the heavy cream similar to sour cream popular throughout Latin America. The beans were served with sweet, sticky fried bananas.

For an entree, I ordered churrasco, grilled skirt steak served with a chimichurri sauce. This dish is widely associated with Argentine dining, but it actually originated in Nicaragua. The sauce is made of parsley, garlic, olive oil and a touch of vinegar. Las Palmas' churrasco is served sizzling on an iron platter.

Wayne ordered tasty but less interesting grilled red snapper. Indeed, some of the more compelling dishes are served only on weekends, including classic mondongo (tripe soup) and chicken soup with meatballs, potato stew and salpicòn — minced meat with green peppers and onions.

For dessert, skip the tres leches and flan and go directly to pío quinto, a custardy cake spiked with rum.

Two for Mexican

All right, I have become addicted to the taqueria inside El Molino (2000 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-636-8714). I have written before about the enormous, over-stuffed tortas — sandwiches — there for lunch. They cost $3.50 and you get your choice of fillings, like carne al pastor or carne asada.

Recently, though, I have been paying better attention at the counter, where I have noticed that Carlos, the cook, always displays one or two dishes of food. Turns out they are specialties of the day. In 16 years of writing this column and complaining constantly about the predictable menus in even authentic Mexican restaurant, I have now found real variety.

Among the dishes I have sampled are the only chicharrones stewed in green sauce that I have ever seen offered publicly. (Lucero Martinez makes them for her kitchen staff at Zocalo.) I've also eaten little ribs stewed in a peppery sauce; chicken pieces simmered in a mild barbecue-like sauce; intense barbacoa; a spicy stew of chicken pieces and chilies; mysterious meatballs afloat in a mysterious broth and more. Much more.

These "platillos," which are accompanied by rice, beans, tortillas and salad, cost $5 each. I'm guessing the huge portions are demanded by the clientele, mainly Mexican laborers. Hours are noon-5 p.m. daily. English is not spoken, really, but with enough pointing, you'll be able to communicate decently, if not receive an elaborate description of a dish.

I also dined at La Pastorcita (3304 Buford Highway, 404-325-5925) last week. Happily, a mariachi band was leaving as we arrived. I love everything about Mexico but its most popular music.

Do not count on anyone speaking English here, either, but the menu is translated. "Mixed grills" are the specialty but, honestly, they tend to be overwhelming. I ordered one with carne al pastor, bacon, onions, mushrooms, jalapeños and cheese. Wayne ordered the zarape, which combines beef, ham, bacon and cactus with the onions, jalapeños and cheese. Eating a full plate of either, while quite savory, could harden your arteries before you get back to your car. We took half home and, actually, mine tasted better reheated a few days later.

You'll also find decent tacos and the usual Mexican cliches here.

Here and there

The beautiful Krog Street location of the defunct Virginia's has been leased by a new restaurant that will bear chef Kevin Rathbun's surname. Rathbun is the gifted chef at Nava in Buckhead. He has worked in the past with Stephan Pyles, one of the most influential chef's in the development of creative Southwestern cooking. ...

Reader J. Robins writes: "A frozen custard place called Sheridan's just opened in Tucker, out near the Wal-Mart and Kroger. It's got a similar look and feel as Bruster's. I also recommend the tamales at the Buford Highway farmer's market. They're at the food counter when you first walk in. Only a buck-fifty or so and highly addictive." ...

Reader Adam Bertolett writes: "Tin Drum in that new Georgia Tech development (on West Peachtree Street) in Midtown is surprisingly good. ... You'd think there'd be some Cafe Intermezzo-ish place in Midtown to get coffee and dessert but we haven't found it. ... Commune still seems to have problems. I gave it another try since they've gotten a new chef. The food was decent but the service was nonexistent."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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