A bit of bread and cheese accompanied me on the flight to Managua. That was to hold me over, since my flight was not arriving until the late lunch hour of 1:30 p. m. It was cheddar cheese from Safeway, extra sharp, and three-day-old sourdough bread from Whole Foods. The point of the snack was to avoid showing up famished; getting too hungry leads to all sorts of problems, including eating before you have found the best available place. You could also think of it as a kind of reverential abstinence before a culinary adventure.
Anyway, I got off the plane and searched for a taxi. Inside the airport terminal I negotiated the price to León, a city about two hours north of the Managua airport. Outside I picked a relatively old taxi driver. An old driver is a good way to get personal safety, good local stories, information - and, well, a good way to find a place to eat, maybe the best way. The fare was set, but once we were under way I negotiated a separate price for the first step of my odyssey.
"I'd like to stop for something really special to eat, something very Nicaraguan. I'll offer you ten dollars for your time and I'll also invite you there for lunch." I probably didn't need to pay so much, but I was excited.
He accepted my offer and told me we would stop at a quesillo near León. A food cart? A bar? A brothel? I didn't know. He warned me that it was near the end of our trip. I was hungry but, thanks to the bread and cheese, could be patient. I reflected as the miles bumped by that quesillo probably refers to queso, the Spanish-language word for cheese.
We were about half an hour from León when I saw an official-looking road sign saying there are quesillos ahead. A few minutes later I saw about five on each side of the road. They were all open- air restaurants, and all had customers. The indications were positive.
The cabbie said he knew a special quesillo in the small town of La Paz, so we stopped there, in the second cluster of quesillos. I was told only one cooked dish is served and it was called... you'll never guess: a quesillo. The choice is between "without onions" and "complete." I ordered mine "complete," without asking what that meant.
It turns out that a quesillo is pretty simple. The dish is cool, liquid white cream, rolled in a thick warm tortilla with gooey cheese, with onions inside and a splash of vinegar. The tortilla and the cheese are made on the premises each day. The onions give it a sweetness and soft grit to the texture, while the vinegar adds its goodness. Simple. Awesome.
Total price for lunch: $12, including the extra payment to the cabbie
We continued the drive to León together in his rather ramshackle vehicle, chatting about the colonial architecture and all the places to visit in Nicaragua. As we crossed the countryside, I marveled at the beautiful volcanoes and the lakes, but I also noticed the local agriculture. Immediately outside of León I saw a few small farms - very small farms - that raised and sold chickens. Duly noted.
Once we arrived, I quickly became fond of León. It's one of the most charming Latin American towns I've seen; a kind of magical dream that you think cannot exist outside a magic realism novel, except it does. Run-down enough to evoke the past, the buildings are still attractive and everyone seems to have deep roots in the place, with a town square that comes alive at dusk with families, teenagers courting and flirting, merchants selling balloons, and older people sitting on benches.
At first I thought I would try the town's best restaurant, but I wasn't encouraged by what I heard. Both my hotel and my guidebooks claim that the best place is a restaurant called El Mediterráneo, which, as the name indicates, serves Mediterranean food. It might be good, but is that what I flew down here for? Besides, I liked the atmosphere of the town square.
Excerpted from An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen. Copyright © 2012 by Tyler Cowen. Excerpted by permission of Dutton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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