MANAGUA, NICARAGUA -- In the lean war years when even potatoes were scarce, they served deep-fried yucca instead of french fries.
There were always hamburgers, of course, and even "Don Macs," served up on no-nonsense buns made from Soviet wheat and flour. But there were rarely cheeseburgers. Who could find cheese?
And needless to say, there was nary an Egg McMuffin to be had.
But through it all, the golden arches, faded to a kind of washed-out ochre, remained standing. And to Managuans, accustomed to much more severe privations, the restaurant was always "McDonald's," shortages or no shortages.
So what if McDonald's corporate headquarters, having suspended the restaurant's franchise by mutual agreement in 1987, wouldn't have seen it that way?
"People always called it McDonald's, and we left it at that," said Alvaro Saballos, the manager of the restaurant. His family has owned it since the franchise was originally awarded in 1972, one of the first McDonald's restaurants in Central America. "It's a point of reference. We just took all the 'M's off everything."
Saballos is one of thousands of Nicaraguans who have returned home from exile since elections in February swept Violeta Chamorro to power and ended a decade of turbulent rule by the leftist Sandinista Front.
Like many of his commerce-minded countrymen, he came home with the idea of making a buck and taking advantage of Chamorro's promise to replace the Sandinistas' government-dominated economy with free-market capitalism.
But to do that, he said, he'll need a little help from the McDonald's corporation in the United States -- a renewed franchise agreement, for starters. That would bring an infusion of cash to spruce up the dilapidated building that houses the restaurant and provide the modern kitchen equipment that is standard at McDonald's the world over.
"Here we do everything by eye," Saballos said. "The timers blew up or wore out years ago. We have to get the timers, the thermostats, the little things that go beep beep beep when food is ready."
The absence of technical gismos isn't the only thing that sets the restaurant apart from the clean, color-coded, look-alike McDonald'ses that dot the globe.
In the Managua restaurant, almost everything dates to its opening in the early-1970s. The floor is yellowed linoleum. Ancient, pre-digital cash registers ring up sales. The tables and chairs are of scratched plastic, most of them colored pea green.
Loose wires dangle from the ceiling vents, and when it rains -- which is everyday during the summer -- the water leaks in so fast that the staff can barely keep up with mops. The air conditioning gave out years ago, and the air is now stirred by ceiling fans.
As for the food, well, "it's safe," Saballos said. "There was a time when I wouldn't have eaten there, but it's okay now."
In addition to burgers and fried chicken, there are Nicaraguan specialties that Ronald McDonald probably never tried, such as derritidos, a melted-cheese concoction; the Saballos family recipe for iced tea; and Rojitas, a locally made soft drink. The only item on the menu that looks and tastes just the same as at other McDonald's restaurants is the Coke -- when it's available.
Supply problems remain. The local mustard, a vinegary brew, must be blended with Guatemalan mustard to cut its sharp taste. Local tomatoes are stunted and watery. Cooking oil, a perennial problem, is of poor quality, burning too quickly and producing shrunken, substandard french fries.
"See?" Saballos said, holding a fry aloft and examining it with a clinical eye. "It's deformed, greasy, it won't hold its square shape."
When Saballos started managing the restaurant in March, he spent hours each morning waiting in shopping lines to get beef and other staples. Some of the vendors were state-run enterprises that enjoyed virtual monopolies.
"It was like they were doing you a favor by selling you something," he said. "Buying beef, it helped to know the people or be a Sandinista."
Now, Saballos has arranged a more efficient network of suppliers, most of whom deliver. "We're standing by waiting, selling a decent burger, not the greatest, but it's okay," he said.
The wait may go on for some time. The McDonald's office in Boca Raton, Fla., which handles franchises for all of Latin America, said it is wary of the Nicaraguan market. Inflation is running at more than 100 percent a month by some estimates, and restaurants are forced to adjust their prices several times a week to keep pace.
"We're in the process of reevaluating the situation in the country right now," Bruce Wunner, McDonald's vice president for Latin America, said in an interview. "In light of the economic situation . . . we haven't made any decision yet."
Wunner, who said he knew of no other case of a McDonald's franchise being suspended because of supply problems, said the corporate parent also wants assurances that the Managua restaurant would be able to duplicate "the type of products that we provide all over the world."
Saballos, so as not to perturb McDonald's corporate types while they deliberate, recently took down the golden arches and parked them behind the restaurant. Confident that the franchise will be awarded eventually, he has an idea for how to hasten the process. "There's going to be pressure on them because I know Burger King's coming to Nicaragua. I'm going tell them about that."