On My Plate in Nicaragua: Fast Food, the Nica Way

Certain brands, however American they may seem, are global behemoths. No corner of the world can escape Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Subway, or Starbucks.  Fast food chains have a way of making the big, wide world seem small, when the same brand that can be found in suburban Michigan can also be a local lunch spot in Cambridge, England; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Globalization brings the comforts of home to every corner of the planet, but as familiarity spreads, regional cuisine becomes all the more intriguing in the face of such sameness.

In Nicaragua, actual fast food is the kind of fare you find on the side of the road, served with sodas poured from glass bottles into plastic bags for the sake of portability and frugality. Nicaraguan street food is ubiquitous, from grilled meats to sandwiches to quesillos, the improbably delicious combination of cheese, cream, and sautéed onions wrapped up in a warm tortilla and eaten straight out of a sandwich bag. However, these coexist with Nicaragua’s own American-style fast food chains. There are some imports, like the Burger King located a short walk from my office, but there are a few homegrown franchises that offer similarly salty, carb-laden, mildly addictive budget meals. The most beloved of these is Tip-Top.

On my first day at the office, my coworker walked me over to the nearby plaza that housed a few potential lunch options. Although I was in the mood for tacos that day, he pointed out the Tip-Top across the courtyard and strongly suggested that I check it out sometime. He described it as a fried chicken place comparable to KFC – an appraisal he quickly amended to, “Um, or better, I guess.” With this encouraging endorsement, expectations were high for my first outing to the venerated Nicaraguan institution. When I finally walked into the garish yellow-and-red restaurant a week or so later, I was ready to be dazzled.

While standing in line, one thing fascinated me: the selection of toys included in their kid’s meal combos. There were a variety of plastic tops encased in an upright plastic box, a rainbow array of cheap playthings that would hold the average child’s attention for the duration of one meal and probably no longer. In this respect, it was business as usual, but the toys were missing something. There wasn’t the slightest hint of corporate branding, no Marvel superheroes or Disney tie-ins or movie franchise logos anywhere. They were just toys, with no marketing aim other than to get parents to spend slightly more money on slightly less food for their little loved ones. It didn’t change my opinion on fast food kid’s meal toys in general (space-wasting plastic trash, unnecessary clutter, forgettable, not as fun as free stickers), but it did make me feel hopeful for a brief moment that there were still small pockets of the world not ruthlessly licensed out for advertising purposes.

The “combo especial” I ordered came with a standard array of, yes, KFC-esque items: two pieces of crispy fried chicken, a packet of fries, a sesame seed dinner roll masquerading as a biscuit, a soda, and, most surprisingly, a small tub of coleslaw. Not even in Nicaragua, it seems, can I escape that mayo-drenched and deeply unwanted side dish. I was also automatically handed a fistful of ketchup packets labeled “salsa de tomate” and illustrated with the Tip-Top mascot: a chubby yellow chick wearing a white chef’s hat, carrying a fork – cruelly ironic if you think about it for more than half a second.

Fried chicken, I’m happy to report, is the same in Nicaragua as it is in New Jersey, in Ohio, in California, in most regions of the United States outside of the Deep South where I’m not willing to fight anyone over the fundamental differences between Popeye’s “bonafide” fried chicken and Grandma Sally’s family recipe. The skin was generously seasoned but not too salty, the meat easily pulled apart with bare hands; I would happily eat it again, but I’d say a quick prayer for my blood pressure first.

As far as the sides go, the fries were…fine. It’s hard to mess up fast food fries. I skipped the pseudo-biscuit dinner roll entirely, since it frankly didn’t seem worth it. Coca-Cola is identical the world over, though admittedly I ordered it only because it was familiar and the first thing that came to mind when they asked me for my drink choice. (Well done, Coca-Cola marketing team.) I left the coleslaw in its plastic container where it belonged.

Would I go to Tip-Top again? Absolutely (with full acknowledgment that fried chicken is a sometimes food, not an all-the-time food). In fact, just between you and me, I already have.

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