Nicaraguan spot Cocina Nica serves signature sauces and steaks | Food & Drink

Every Saturday and Sunday of Teresa Villareal’s childhood in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, her mother would sell home-cooked food from a stand outside their home. Villareal’s job was to collect money and fill plates with favorites like grilled chicken, indio viejo stew and baho.

Villareal and her own children now make those same dishes for hungry Wisconsinites at their new restaurant, Cocina Nica, which opened in December at 1701 Moorland Road just south of the Beltline. 

“It runs in the family. Everything that we know, she taught us,” she said of her mother and namesake, who cared for her grandchildren for more than a decade when Villareal moved to the U.S. in search of better-paying work.

The new place is the second incarnation of a restaurant Villareal and her husband Jesus Villareal first opened in 2019 at 5510 University Ave., next to the Original Pancake House. That building needed major renovations and the landlord wouldn’t pay, Villareal said, so they moved out. The pair hoped to find a new home for the restaurant, but they put their plans on hold due to trouble finding enough workers. Then the COVID pandemic hit.

Nicaraguan restaurant Cocina Nica and nightclub Los Remedios share a space at 1701 Moorland Road.

A few years later, political turmoil in Nicaragua revived their plans. President Daniel Ortega, who had long been jailing protesters and dissidents, continued to expand his crackdown.

“There was, you could say, a civil war between the people and the president,” Villareal said. 

Villareal’s brother, his family and her three adult children joined more than 100,000 others fleeing the country. They sought asylum in the U.S., where they reunited with Villareal. 

Soon, the whole family was discussing going into business together. “Now that the family is big, let’s work together,” Villareal told her relatives. “Between all of us, we can help each other, work and all earn money.”

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Pictured from left to right are the pollo asado, carne asada and churrasco at Cocina Nica. All three dishes are served with beans and rice, plantains and a spicy vinaigrette.

They found a place to rent on Moorland Road, in a red barn-like building that was once The Farm Sports Pub. In 2021, it became Patricia’s Taqueria & Groceries. When the owners opened a second taqueria and grocery store on Sherman Avenue, they transformed the Moorland location into a nightclub called Los Remedios. The Villareals bought that business, which still draws a late crowd for music, dancing and Patrón by the bottle ($140) from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. each Friday through Sunday. 

That same space is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. as Cocina Nica. Villareal’s brother Julio Jiron and his family run the front of house, while Villareal runs the kitchen with her husband and kids. 

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Cocina Nica is located within Los Remedios (formerly Patricia’s Taqueria & Groceries) at 1701 Moorland Road.

Baho, indio viejo, churrasco and more

Already the food has drawn diners from as far away as Green Bay, Milwaukee and Richland Center, Villareal said. It’s a mix of customers, including U.S. Americans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Mexicans. 

Dishes like carne asada and pescado frito (fried fish) may sound familiar to diners who’ve eaten at Venezuelan or Colombian restaurants like La Taguara or Pollera Colombiana. The churrasco, a grilled skirt steak prepared in various Latin American countries, is a popular splurge for working-class Nicaraguans back home, Villareal said. Most entrees come with some combination of gallo pinto (rice dotted with kidney beans), ripe or green plantains, yuca and cabbage salad. 

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Churrasco is a grilled beef fillet that comes with chimichurri sauce, beans and rice and fried plantains at Cocina Nica, located within Los Remedios at 1701 Moorland Road.

A few Nicaraguan specialties are available only on weekends. Indio viejo, a thick stew made from corn and shredded meat, has supposedly been prepared in the country since before Spanish colonizers arrived. 

Baho, made from beef, plantains and yuca, all steamed in banana leaves, is said to draw from the country’s Indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan cultures. “Every Sunday, a Nicaraguan must eat baho,” Villareal said. Her version isn’t quite as good as her mom’s, she said, but it’s close enough to have earned the restaurant enthusiastic online reviews. 

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The carne asada is wrapped in cheese and comes with crispy plantain slices, beans and rice, slaw and pico de gallo at Cocina Nica.

Another signature item is the “Nicaraguan sauce” or “chilero nicaraguense,” a spicy and sour sauce made with carrots, onion, red Thai chiles, lime and vinegar. For those who can’t get enough, the restaurant sells it by the jar for $15.

Nicaraguan food isn’t well known in the U.S., so Villareal is glad to see so many people trying it. “It’s going well for us, thank God,” she said.

Making mom proud

Soon, the dining room will pay tribute to Nicaragua with three paintings Villareal commissioned from Platteville-based Nicaraguan artist Gerold Calero, depicting the masked figures of El Güegüense, a Nicaraguan satirical drama originally performed in protest of colonial rule. UNESCO calls it “one of Latin America’s most distinctive colonial-era expressions.”

The family is also hoping to knock down one wall to expand the dining room so customers don’t have to wait for tables on busy nights. Currently, the space can legally accommodate around 120, Villareal said.

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Nicaraguan restaurant Cocina Nica and nightclub Los Remedios share a space.

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Pictured from left to right are the churrasco, pollo asado and carne asada at Cocina Nica.

Villareal regularly thinks about her mom, now 86, and the role she plays in the family business even from 3,000 miles away. By the time the Villareal’s children were living with their grandmother, the older woman was still cooking, but she’d closed her food stand. It was her daughter’s turn to support the family by sending money she earned during long hours cleaning offices and waiting tables. 

Now, it’s the matriarch’s recipes, cooked in a kitchen she’s never seen, that support them all. Villareal said her mom hopes to one day visit, and the family is trying to make that happen.

“She’s very proud of us because we could have done anything else when we got to this country, but we decided to cook,” Villareal said. “She says she feels really proud because what we have now is the fruit of what she taught us.”

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