In recent years, Kenner has built a solid reputation as a multicultural dining destination for adventurous eaters. Joining the mix of Brazilian, Honduran, Middle Eastern and other international eateries is NolaNica, a Nicaraguan restaurant tucked away in a nondescript strip mall on Airline Drive.
Gean Carlos Reyes opened the small restaurant last summer, offering creative takes on the traditional Central American dishes he grew up eating. Reyes attributes his cooking style to his New Orleans upbringing as much as his Nicaraguan roots. His parents left that country during the 1979 Sandinista Revolution when he was six months old, and his culinary style reflects time spent in his mother's kitchen as well as a career working catering gigs around the city.
Dishes fall within typical Central American parameters — grilled meats, rice, beans and plantains abound — but there are several standout dishes specific to Nicaragua. Vigoron features thick slices of boiled yuca underneath fresh cabbage slaw doused in red chili sauce and topped with large, fatty hunks of chicharron. It's a fascinating dish full of unexpected layers, from the soft, doughlike yuca to the spice and crunch of the slaw to the rich flavor of fried pork belly.
Repochetas — Nicaragua's answer to the quesadilla — are made with fragrant corn tortillas and Cotija cheese and fried until the oily crescents are crispy and oozing. Grilled meat kebabs sidle soft, charred onions, which are almost as flavorful and addictive as the skewered meat. The steak version arrives blackened on the outside with a juicy medium- rare inside. Pork is a coral shade, the result of an achiote rub made with sour orange and pineapple juices that tenderize the meat and impart citrus notes. That same marinade is used to coat perfectly grilled pollo al carbon, which has a deep orange and charred exterior that gives way to juicy, smoky meat.
Gallo pinto, the country's most common dish of rice and kidney beans, features prominently. Reyes subsituted plump black beans and serves the dish with grilled meats and other additions, and he also uses it in breakfast bowls topped with bacon, eggs and thick slices of avocado.
Despite the mostly traditional menu, there are a few instances where Reyes gets creative. Though most dishes don't carry a lot of heat on their own (Nicaraguan food isn't known for spicy heat), the kitchen uses a liberal hand when dispensing a fiery paste made with jalapenos and cilantro, and a little goes a long way. Jalapenos also are tucked into mashed yuca fritters, which are fried crispy and topped with an addictive avocado and sour cream sauce. The NolaNica burger, sandwiched between giant slices of grilled Jamaican coconut bread, features a griddled beef and pork patty, thick slices of fried cheese, fried sweet plantains and a generous dollop of tart cabbage and carrot slaw — a salty, creamy, fatty and delicious detour.
There is no seafood, and drinks are limited to standard soft drinks, bottled water and a couple of agua frescas.
Diners at a loss for what to order can try the fritanga, which serves as the perfect primer on the cuisine, incorporating some of the restaurant's most popular dishes on a giant aluminum tray. Reyes jokingly refers to it as the "tour of Nicaragua," and at $13.37, it's a lot cheaper than a plane ticket, though you have to drive past the airport to get there.