Orlando Hidalgo knows plantains. Before he and co-owner Jos Gomez opened Fritanga, the new Nicaraguan restaurant just south of Interstate 44 on Jefferson Avenue, Hidalgo worked at restaurants in Nicaragua and Miami, as well as in St. Louis (including at Siete Mares, the Nicaraguan restaurant on Grand that closed a few years ago).
You might expect that someone with so much experience wouldn't think about plantains much, just cook them with unconscious skill. But Hidalgo told me that one of the things he has noticed since Fritanga opened this spring is how much interest customers have taken in the different ways you can serve plantains.
Fritanga offers three distinct preparations: tostones, maduros and tajadas.
Tostones are slices of plantain that are usually fried, smashed into the shape of a disc and then fried again. They look sort of like a potato chip, sort of like a dried pineapple ring. With a sprinkle of salt, they make a compulsively edible side dish, crisp, but with a little chew to them.
Maduros thick, pan-fried slices of very ripe plantain pair well with spicy foods. They are sweet, with a hint of toast, the texture soft but still recognizably banana-like. The maduros my fiancée made at home a few weeks before we visited Fritanga were like that, anyway. The maduros at Fritanga were similar but more intense. You could detect the difference in sweetness between the caramelized surface and the fruit. And while I knew that the texture wasn't literally molten, my first few bites of maduros fresh from the frying pan certainly felt so. When my fiancée mentioned the difference to Hidalgo, he was quick to pinpoint the problem: "You need to fry them in more oil."
Tajadas my favorite of the plantain trio are fried slices of unripe, or green, plantain. (This is the Nicaraguan version of tajadas; in other Latin American countries, they're made with ripe, or yellow, plantains.) These are thin and crisp and as addictive as French fries. In my perfect America, they would enjoy the hallowed status of French fries, as appropriate in a steak house as a Happy Meal. You'd be able to buy a basket of tajadas at the movies or the ballpark for $5. (Naturally, a little cup of guacamole for dipping would set you back another $3.)
Of course, what will probably happen is that the evil scientists in the T.G.I. Friday's test kitchen will get their hands on some tajadas, and soon there will be tajadas in hot-wing sauce and Sizzlin' Tajada Platters and a sickly sweet banana-daiquiri-esque concoction with a tajada garnish.
But until that dark day arrives, I'll be quite happy to get my tajada fix at Fritanga. When I'm feeling gluttonous, I can have tajadas as a side dish and as an appetizer. A request for tajadas con queso brings a mound of tajadas topped with a vegetable slaw and a square of fried queso blanco. Here the tajadas are more a vehicle for the interplay in flavor and texture between the slightly sour cheese and the tart, delicious slaw a mixture of cabbage, tomato, carrots, green pepper and radishes in apple vinegar.
You'll see that slaw often at Fritanga. I enjoyed it with the tajadas con queso and another appetizer, repochetas (crisp tortillas folded over cheese like a very thin empanada), and it accompanies each entrée. Also served with each entrée are gallo pinto, a traditional mix of black beans and rice, and your choice of the three plantain dishes.
The entrées themselves showcase meat: There are four beef selections, a chicken dish, a pork preparation and a fresh fish of the day. And although "Fritanga" comes from the root word for "to fry," most of the entrées are charbroiled or grilled.
The chicken, the pork and one of the steak dishes are seasoned with dusky red achiote, though only the pork tenderloin (lomo de cerdo asado) had the tangy citrus note often associated with achiote marinades. The flavor was delicious, though the pork itself was on the dry side an all-too-common fate of the ultra-lean tenderloin. Boneless chicken breast (pollo al achiote) was tender, with a mild achiote flavor.
Charbroiled beef tenderloin (churrasco nica) was marinated in achiote, but it came with small cups of tart chimichurri sauce and a very hot, chile-heavy pico de gallo, and these flavors outshone the marinade. The beef itself was on the tough side.
My favorite entrée was carne desmenuzada, a very thick stew of beef with tomato, onion, green pepper and green olive. Tomato paste is the base of the stew, and Hidalgo told me they add a bit of ketchup to give it a sweet-and-sour tang. The rich flavor reminded me a little of sauerbraten. I'd finished about half of the dish when Hidalgo asked if I'd like to add pico de gallo to it. The peppery sauce not only added heat to the dish, but also focused the other flavors.
Whichever entrée you order, you receive good value for your money: the most expensive entrée (excluding the market-priced catch of the day) is the churrasco nica at $9.25, and the lomo de cerdo asado costs only $6.25.
The dining space is small and spare, but attractive and not only compared to the rest of its rather dowdy block. The single dining room seats maybe two dozen. The walls are a very light blue, decorated with brightly colored paintings. (There are two paintings inside the single restroom that made me laugh out loud. I won't ruin the surprise, but even if it's only to wash your hands, you must visit the restroom.) There's a bar at the back of the dining room, though Fritanga doesn't yet have a liquor license. If iced tea or soda bore you, try one of the refrescos; on my visits flavors included tamarind, barley, and pineapple and rice.
On both my visits, Hidalgo himself was the lone server. Even when there were only a few tables occupied, he was quite busy, and the kitchen certainly couldn't send out food at the clip of a high-volume joint, but my overall experience at Fritanga was excellent. Hidalgo made sure to let us know our food was coming soon, and once the dishes arrived, he checked in often to see how we were doing and, in the case of the carne desmenuzada and the pico de gallo, to offer a little extra seasoning. Ask him about plantains, and you might leave with a recipe, too.