Fat City: 3828 Hessmer Ave.
The sign outside Tula’s Kitchen said that it served the finest Nicaraguan cuisine in Louisiana. In the 1980s, that was a safe bet. Tula Lacayo–who for about thirteen years was the consul for Nicaragua here–did all the cooking, most of it to order. Her daughter served it and gave enthusiastic explanations. The dining room was small, colorful, and sparkling clean–a happy place full of good Latin American family vibes.
Nicaraguan food is obviously Central American, but distinctly different from Mexican cookery and its other cousins. The Nicaraguan tamales–called nacatamales–are some twenty times the size of the tamales from Manuel’s. One of them makes not only a big meal, but a festive one. It’s a corn meal porridge with the texture of cooked-down grits, shredded meat, herbs, cheese, and sauce in the center. Tula would smile beatifically as she explained how nacatamales were Sunday food, a family celebration. They took all morning to make, she said, but that was part of the ritual.
My favorite savory dish at Tula’s, though, was a combo plate called the fritanga. Fried pork seasoned with achiote, fried plantains, fried cheese, and gallo pinto (a sort of warm salad of beans and rice) made it a very pretty platter and seriously delicious.
Another good one was pescado Tipitapa (named for a city in central Nicaragua). This was a whole fried fish sent out with a spicy, chunky tomato sauce. Tasty, fresh, and enormous. Tula’s answer to paella was arroz Tula: shrimp, chicken, ham, sausage, and rice, a first cousin to jambalaya.
Tula grilled a mean beefsteak, too–but not until marinating it in garlic, pepper, onions, wine, and oil. A filet mignon came out slathered with chimichurri, the Central American answer to pesto. Tula’s was the first place I encountered that unique, zingy sauce, and it was so good that I still order it whenever I encounter it. (As one does pretty often these days.)
Good as all that was, the dish I remember most vividly was the house’s dessert specialty: tres leches cake. Now popular, in Tula’s day it was the first version most of us had even run into. The “three milks” of the name went into custardy cake topped with marshmallow cream, but with a wonderful lightness of texture. The perfect match for cafe con leche–the cinnamony Central American cafe au lait.
I don’t know why Tula’s closed, but my guess would be that we were nowhere near ready at that time to accept such exotic eats, and that there were not enough Nicaraguans living here back then. It would be an enormous hit today.
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