Toronto’s Nicaraguan community is very small, but that hasn’t stopped Jesus Morales from putting Nicaraguan food on the city’s radar with his Bloor and Ossington restaurant La Bella Managua.
In 2003, Jesus Morales was working in the kitchen at the University of Toronto’s Hart House. For 15 years, he had worked at a variety of restaurants and food shops in Toronto, from Italian chain bistros to the fishmongers at St. Lawrence Market. His sister had recently visited him from their native Nicaragua, and commented how the city lacked a single restaurant featuring the cooking of their birthplace.
“That’s what I’m going to do next—open a Nicaraguan restaurant,” he told a co-worker in the kitchen at U of T, who told him it would never fly in Toronto. “If no one comes,” he said, “at least I’ll get to eat the food I love.”
Opening a new restaurant in this city is a gamble, but being the first to introduce an unknown cuisine is doubly difficult. The path to reproducing established restaurant archetypes like Italian, Chinese, Thai and French is well worn. Up and comers, like Mexican taquerias, have steady momentum behind them. But when Morales opened his dream spot, La Bella Managua, in 2005, Nicaraguan food in was an unknown in Toronto.
The Nicaraguan community here is tiny—there are no official numbers, but Morales tells me there are just 4,500 in the city and perhaps another 2,000 in the province—and the country’s cooking culture hasn’t travelled too far beyond its borders. Most immigrants from Nicaragua came to North America as refugees in the 1980s during the country’s brutal civil war, which ended in 1990. Since then, the small country has largely fallen off our diplomatic radar, and with it, Nicaraguan immigration.
Morales opened La Bella Managua, which he runs with his wife, Claudia, in a converted bakery at Bloor and Ossington owned by a fellow Nicaraguan. When I visit, he starts me off with a short glass of ceveda, a thick barley drink sweetened with blended raspberries and scented with cinnamon and cloves. He explains that Nicaraguan cuisine draws on almost every aspect of Latin American cooking styles, but it puts a unique twist on certain flavours.
The ceviche, made of tender, finely chopped shrimp, as well as peppers, onions and lime, was subtler and more tender than many Peruvian ceviches. “That’s the addition of ketchup,” Morales says, which gives it a sweetish undertone. Hinting at the tuber-based indigenous cuisine found in places like Brazil and Ecuador, Morales prepares sautéed sweet plantains and a dish of crispy fried marinated pork chunks and coleslaw atop steamed white yucca root. Gallo pinto, the Nicaraguan take on the Caribbean staple of rice and beans, involves mixing the ingredients into a red and black–flecked mashup, and Central American influence is also apparent on the menu in the form of tacos and quesadillas, and habañero peppers in the homemade salsa.
These are all typically Nicaraguan dishes, though none, says Morales, reminds him of home as much as the nacatamal, a supersized plantain-leaf-wrapped tamale, as big as a dictionary. Filled with cornmeal, marinated pork loin, sliced onions, tomatoes, potatoes and whole mint leaves, the nacatanal is steamed for three hours. “This is a very special dish,” he says. “Es serio!” (It’s serious.) The recipe has been in his family for three generations, and there’s enough tender meat and savoury cornmeal here to feed two people easily. “You’re basically eating lunch and dinner in one shot.”
Morales’s first three years operating La Bella Managua proved to be a constant struggle. Banks wouldn’t lend him money, so he cobbled together the space (which is painted bright orange and decorated with Nicaraguan maps, flags and souvenirs) on a shoestring budget. But the greatest challenge was that customers simply didn’t know his food. Unlike ethnic restaurants in identifiable communities, like the dozen or so Ethiopian spots nearby, La Bella Managua was essentially marooned. People needed to seek it out, and initially, they didn’t.
“People wanted to eat what they already knew,” he says. Slowly, customer by customer, word spread—first among Nicaraguans telling other Latin Americans, then among people telling their Canadian-born friends. Now, he counts half his customer base as Latin America, half as everyone else. Only 10 per cent are Nicaraguan, who often come in on Sunday afternoons after church. Business is good.
“It makes me feel tremendously proud, having this role,” says Morales, touching his hand to his heart. In a city where Nicaragua doesn’t even have a diplomatic office, he’s pleased to be the lone representative of his homeland’s culture and cuisine.
La Bella Managua, 872 Bloor St. W. #BCT 416-913-4227.