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Relative Success

Los Nicas
Christopher Gardner

Kitchen and Kin: Maria Teresa, her son (left) and grandsons serve wholesome, homely fare at Los Nicas.

The hard work of three generations goes into the savory cuisine at Los Nicas

By Andrew X. Pham

ONE OF THE privileges of being a kid is "dining out" at friends' houses. Getting an invitation to a home-cooked meal is as easy as showing up at the door with a lopsided grin. But once you're an adult, following more rigid rules of etiquette, the next best thing is ferreting out those quaint eateries where the food is as simple and honest as your best friend's mom used to put on the table.

At Los Nicas, a humble new diner in downtown San Jose, cooking doesn't get much more homey. Grandma Maria Teresa cooks food steeped in Nicaraguan tradition. Her grandchildren serve it, while her son and his wife fuss over all the other details of restauranting. Not entirely new to the food business, these folks are also co-proprietors of Inca Garden, a Peruvian restaurant just a few blocks away.

Los Nicas is a simple affair swathed in muted adobe tones and stocked with blocky brown chairs. Dipping down from the high ceiling, antique globes illuminate a bank of mirrors and amplify the restaurant's airiness. Music is sporadic when it isn't drowned out by the bus traffic on Market Street. Currently, the menu dictum thrusts in one direction: "carnes y mas carnes"--grilled meat, stewed meat, broiled meat, chopped meat, shredded meat and deep-fried meat.

Our first meat was beef, shredded and rolled in corn tortillas. Three Nicaraguan tacos ($4.25) were deep-fried and delivered with a side of refreshingly sour slaw and a hefty dollop of sour cream. We heaped these golden cigars with some slaw, smeared on some cream and crunched on them with great relish.

Next was broiled pork tenderloin, lomito de cerdo ($9.25). The 10-ounce cut, bathed in a peppery marinade and broiled to a sizzle, came with the standard escort of rice, fresh salsa and ribbons of plantain chips. For variety we requested a delectable but greasy side of rice fried with mashed beans, and a plate of sour cream and fried plantains--great stuff, each morsel's center a veritable sweet pudding ($2.50).

At our host's recommendation, we switched back to beef, this time a brocheta bramadero ($11.99), also flanked with white rice. Although there wasn't enough meat on the single foot-long kebab for a serious carnivore, the flavors wrapped up in the mix of charbroiled onions, pimentos and bacon should make anyone happy. Deeply permeating each chunk of beef was an herbal marinade, making each bite rich without additional salsa or condiments. A lovely way to prepare beef.

At the first whiff of its complex aroma, we developed a crush on Maria Teresa's chowder. The crispness of the peas, carrots and tomato slices and the perfectly cooked rice, whole and not soggy, gave the cream broth more garden soup than chowder characteristics. The shrimp were curled up tight and rubbery, entirely bleached of flavor. One solution would be to add freshly sautéed shrimps to the soup just before it is served. At $9.75 for a mid-size bowl, fresh shrimp and some quesadillas would have been a good idea.

That's the thing about Los Nicas: Some items are underpriced, some slightly overpriced; some portions positively generous, some rather conservative. Lunch specials are the best bargains at $5.95. Salpicon, for instance, makes an excellent choice for an Indian summer lunch. Served at room temperature, the finely chopped beef--simmered with onion and flakes of bell pepper--cuddled up to a side of vinegary cabbage slaw on a warm couch of fluffy white rice. The meat had a slightly lemony tang that coupled nicely with the rice to make a simple but filling meal.

For now, Grandma Teresa concentrates on beef, pork and chicken dishes and hopes to add a dozen seafood items to the menu in a few months. When that happens, we'll be sure to swing by for another tasty homemade meal.

Los Nicas
Cuisine: Nicaraguan
Ambiance: Cozy, unadorned family diner
Menu: Entrees $7-$14
Hours: Daily 11am-2pm and 5-8pm (call ahead; hours subject to change)
Address: 62 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose
Phone: 408/294-7880

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From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro.

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