A new plantain

The countries of Central America long have attracted travelers with wanderlust from the north. The cultures, the terrain, the rich histories, the socioeconomic and political struggles and the ecological diversity all compel Americans to journey southward. Tourists rave about the brilliant waters of Belize, the biodiversity of Costa Rica’s rain and cloud forests, and the Mayan ruins in Guatemala, but few speak about the food.

Central America has not exactly been crowned the next hotbed of culinary tourism. Even here, in the ethnically diverse environs of Sacramento, that region’s cuisine is largely unknown and unexplored. I mean, how many Honduran, Nicaraguan, Costa Rican or Panamanian restaurants can you name in your neighborhood?

Well, if you live or work on the Freeport corridor, sandwiched between the homey neighborhoods of Land Park and Curtis Park, the answer is: at least one. Betting on the popularity of Nicaraguan cuisine among Sacramento’s culinary-adventure set, Silvia’s Restaurant has opened where the old Mums Vegetarian Restaurant used to be, keeping the tradition of owner-operated niche cuisine.

Silvia Gomez, a native of Granada, Nicaragua, is responsible for the restaurant’s debut. Though Nicaraguan food may be novel in this city, Gomez is no neophyte to the Sacramento restaurant scene. A 19-year veteran of Sacramento, Gomez worked for the Fat family restaurants for 17 of those years. She was encouraged by several people she had fed in that time—many at her home—to start her own restaurant. Nicaraguan food was an easy choice. “It’s not too spicy and not too fatty,” Gomez said. Plus, she gets to introduce her own recipes, as well as those handed down by her mother, to Sacramento.

To generalize, Central American food is a hybrid. It has similarities to and crossovers with Mexican, South American and Caribbean cuisines. Yucca, plantains, beans, rice, fresh and fried cheeses, grilled meats, banana leaves, cornmeal, tropical fruits and sweet milks can be found in various dishes. The theme is a simple preparation of hearty, flavorful foods. Staples such as beans, rice, corn and plantains anchor many, if not most, dishes.

The restaurant’s menu is chock-full of traditional Central American mainstays. Familiar dishes like chicken quesadillas and beef tacos are offered alongside unfamiliar items, such as vigorón (made of pork rinds and boiled yucca) and baho (a mix of yucca, green plantains, beef, onion, tomato and bell pepper, topped with banana leaf and steamed).

Even for the dishes that sound familiar, the preparation is distinctive. Meats are marinated a full day for maximum flavor. The red beans are refried and drizzled with crema. The white rice is cooked with broth and then fried, making for a richer taste and a satisfying mouth-feel. The salad is a tangy, vinegary cabbage slaw that adds vivid flavor and crunch to the other foods.

We started with the complimentary plantain chips and bean dip. The bean dip was mild and pleasant, and the plantain chips were light with a hint of crunch. We progressed to the sliced, fried plantains with fried cheese and cabbage slaw for an additional pre-entrée warm-up. The fresh cheese was reminiscent of a dense Indian paneer or an elastic queso fresco. It was salty and chewy on the inside and fried to a crisp on the outside. Eating the fried cheese, cabbage slaw and plantain all in one bite required much precision but proved rewarding on multiple tries.

A sample of the chicken stew (pollo tapado) revealed a mild, sweet flavor reminiscent of a Thai pineapple curry but without the heat. The stew held generous portions of tender chicken thighs—both large and small chunks—and a plethora of vegetables such as onions, potatoes and bell pepper. Rice, beans and tortillas added girth to the dish.

The grilled pork dish outshined the chicken stew. It came with three long, cylindrical pieces of perfectly grilled meat, marinated only in vinegar, salt and pepper. The meat’s long soaking yielded tenderness and a concentrated pork flavor, which was accented by the tang of the cabbage slaw. Also served with rice and beans, the combination made for a filling, hearty meal.

Among the interesting accents to the meal was the cebada drink—a nearly gelatinous pink drink made of barley, which tasted mildly sweet and flowery. Puzzling at first, the drink became tastier and more attractive with each sip, although it had no alcohol. (Really!)

The buñuelos dessert also was a tasty treat. Made of yucca and cheese fried with syrup, it was a cross between a doughnut and a potato pancake.

For the less adventurous, Gomez provides some “American” dishes as well, such as Caesar salad, chop suey and canelones (cannelloni). But the Nicaraguan dishes are so pleasing, it’s a wonder why anyone would bother. After all these years, it’s about time someone introduced Sacramentans to some down-home Nicaraguan cooking. With friendly service and charming, homey décor, Silvia’s Restaurant does that and more.