MASAYA, Nicaragua — The restaurant Cocteles y Ceviches El Pollo, located in the town square here, is a modest, squat building with yellow walls and a sloping, red-tiled roof. The food coming out of the small kitchen must be good, judging from the never-thinning crowd waiting for a table. It is a rule of thumb when traveling: A crowd outside a restaurant means good food; a crowd of only locals means exceptional food.
I am here with my husband, children, and several cousins after a morning spent 9 miles to the west, exploring Masaya volcano, for which the town is named. We all agree that this small restaurant looks much more promising than the many air-conditioned, fashionable options lining the street across the square.
While people wait for one of the plastic tables outside, children, and the odd quirky adult, climb the 30-foot-high colorful wooden chairs in front. Food isn’t served at those heights, but climbing the eccentric chairs helps work up an appetite. If you are lucky, you will be seated at the one 10-foot-high table with shorter versions of the tall chairs.
It is a sweltering 100 degrees, and we are hankering for a cold drink. A sign hanging in front of the restaurant says “Batido’s” (smoothies), and we rush to place our orders, hoping to get a drink while we wait for a table. Except placing an order isn’t easy — not because most of us don’t speak fluent Spanish, but because there are 72 flavors to choose from.
The usual combinations with pineapple, banana, mango, or strawberry seem uninteresting when there are several exotic fruit smoothies to choose from — passion fruit, local melon, or freshly grated coconut. As if that isn’t enough, you can create your own smoothie with fruit from the stall out front — perfectly ripe starfruit, fragrant guava, pulpy dragon fruit, or custardy guanabana.
I must look confused because the owner, Oscar Ramirez, a tall man with shoulder-length hair, dressed casually in jeans and a loose, cotton shirt, comes up to me and says something. I don’t know more than a dozen Spanish words, but by the cadence of his voice, I gather he is asking if I need help.
“Vegetariana para me,” I say pointing to the menu, which has no vegetarian options and is written with chalk on a blackboard.
Understanding dawns, and, with my husband and cousin translating, Ramirez assures me that he will make me the best vegetable and cheese platter and a smoothie to go with it. Being vegetarian, I have long learned not to fuss when traveling. I am happy with a simple salad, but it is so hot today, I do want a perfect smoothie. I communicate to Ramirez that I don’t like bananas, that I am Indian and therefore a mango snob, and that tropical strawberries lack flavor. I don’t want any of these in my smoothie.
Ramirez peers down at me from his great height. Creases form at the corners of his bespectacled eyes, and his unruly hair seems to curl more, as if indignant at my lack of trust.
“Delicioso,” is all he says, smacking his fingers against his lips, and walks away.
We are barely seated at our table when our smoothies arrive in tall, frosty glasses garnished with mint or fresh cilantro, wedges of sweet lime, pineapple, or passion-fruit seeds. It is a collage of fruit colors — light yellow pineapple, dark yellow passion fruit, milky-white guanabana, translucent-white melon, and a deep orange papaya. When the waiter hands me my “surprise” melon smoothie garnished with mint, I am slightly disappointed. I would have preferred the passion fruit or guanabana.
Then I take a sip and am floored. The melon is a local variety of cantaloupe and I have never tasted one so flavorful. A dash of ginger complements the fruit’s sweetness, adding a kick and complexity to an otherwise simple drink.
When my vegetable platter arrives, it hardly makes an impression.
With this meat-heavy cuisine, it is the batidos that rescue me from a diet of rice and beans, the vegetarian option available everywhere. During our 10-day stay in Nicaragua, I discover batidos include a range of beverages made with fresh fruit. A batido could be a thick, fresh fruit juice, a milkshake, or yogurt-based and more like a smoothie here. The best batidos are prepared by street vendors. I never come across one using protein powders or artificial sweeteners. By the time I leave the country, I am hooked on batidos and feeling very healthy.
Back in the United States, I’ve tried re-creating many of these batidos. They never taste the same as the ones made from fruit grown on small farms in the fertile, volcanic soils of Nicaragua, ripened by the hot tropical sun and hand-picked just when they are ready to eat.
Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at email@example.com