Honduras in Houston

See images from the kitchen of Honduras Maya Cafe & Bar in a slideshow.

"Chingao!" my friend exclaimed quietly but forcefully as he polished off the last of the anafres sitting in the tall clay pot between us, swiping up any final smudges of the refried black bean and cheese dip with thick, torn-off bits of his tortillas de maiz.

In front of him was a similarly decimated platter of camarones Maya — shrimp that had been cooked in a simple lemon butter sauce, served with the shells mostly intact — along with a few stray edges of a baleada con aguacate and an empty bottle of Salva Vida, the national beer of Honduras. It was a scene of utter destruction.

I laughed from over my plate of chancletas, only a quarter of which remained. "So you like Honduran food, huh?"

"Yeah," he chuckled after a few minutes. "Hell, I might never eat Mexican food again."

So far, that seems to be the consensus among everyone I've taken to Honduras Maya Cafe & Bar, the new Honduran restaurant on Bellaire Boulevard. It hasn't been open long, only a few months, but it's a welcome addition to the city's entirely too small Honduran dining scene, which currently consists of Las Hamacas — a chain with several locations around town — and a handful of other small restaurants. It's said that the only two places to get authentic Honduran food are Honduras and New Orleans. But the Bayou City has started to give the Big Easy a run for its lempira since much of New Orleans's Honduran population relocated to Houston after Hurricane Katrina.

Honduras Mayan is in a beautiful, open space with plenty of tables and a full bar, and it fills up with people once 7 p.m. rolls around. Friday nights are especially popular, as the restaurant hosts a karaoke night that sees people streaming in the front door — families, young kids, couples — to sing along to their favorite canciones catrachas over a frozen margarita or a Port Royal lager.

Inside, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you're in a semi-upscale restaurant: Sparkling granite tabletops, colorful mosaic tile designs over the bar, thoughtful woodwork and captivating murals make Honduras Mayan quite easy on the eyes. The service is equally refined, quick and efficient, the staff always ready to help out if you have a question about a menu item, or offering suggestions for first-timers. There is a bit of a language barrier, but it's easily overcome with a little patience and occasionally some pointing. And regardless of your level of Spanish, you may find yourself starting to feel like family after only the second or third visit.

On my first visit to Honduras Mayan, I was desperate to try the baleadas.

A popular street food in Honduras, baleadas are made by folding a huge, thick flour tortilla in half and stuffing it with a simple yet rich concoction of beans, crema and shavings of cotija cheese. This baleada sencilla — or simple baleada — is comfort food at its finest, the downy tortilla gently embracing the generous spread of refried black beans, tangy crema and salty cheese inside. At Honduras Mayan, you can get your baleadas with other traditional contents, like scrambled eggs (for a cheap, filling breakfast) or fat slices of creamy avocados, as we did that evening. I will never understand why baleadas aren't more popular here than, say, quesadillas or other greasy tortilla concoctions. The simple little pockets are certainly better for you (although I'm not arguing that they're health food), they don't weigh you down, and they taste amazing.

Along with our baleadas (we made the mistake of ordering two before dinner; don't do this, as you they'll fill you up), my dining companion and I munched on the traditional anafres sitting on the table.

"Way better than salsa," he said.

"I wouldn't go that far," I replied. But the bean dip, served in a ramekin that was kept warm by a candle underneath it, was definitely a nice change of pace from chips and salsa and felt somehow more civil, perhaps because of the stout clay pot housing it.

I sipped on a frozen margarita as we nibbled, reflecting on how such a plainly Tex-Mex concoction as this — salt-rimmed glass and all — was better here than at any other place in town. How can a brand-new Honduran restaurant be serving the best frozen margarita in Houston? I don't know, but repeated visits are definitely in order (especially during the daily happy hour) to reaffirm this conclusion, now reached at least three times.

After our main courses arrived, conversation was briefly suspended. My dining companion was happily peeling apart his buttery shrimp and tucking them into some fluffy, fat corn tortillas, spreading more of the bean dip on as he went. On my plate, slices of pear squash — or chayote — sandwiched a thin layer of cheese. The dish was battered and then baked, and covered with a very light tomato sauce. I hadn't understood why the dish was called chancletas until it arrived; the shape of the stuffed squash was similar to those of small sandals, or the "chancletas" my father was always imploring me to pick up off the living room floor when I was a kid.

The flavor of the pear squash isn't all that intrinsically tasty, but it's an important and reliable crop in Central America, so people have found creative ways to use them — hence dishes like chancletas. Battered and stuffed with cheese, anything becomes tasty, and the chayote was no exception. What the pear squash brought to the dish on its own was a pleasantly crisp, snappy texture that prevented the dish from being too saturated and heavy. And, as an aside, it's awfully nice to find a vegetable-based main dish at a restaurant that isn't just rice and beans — all the better for vegetarians to be able to enjoy an evening out, as well.

One of the things that sets Honduran cuisine apart from its Central American neighbors like Nicaragua and El Salvador is its extensive use of tropical fruits and coconut milk. Both of these are present in one of the country's most popular and iconic dishes: sopa de caracol. Caracol means "conch" in English, and the meaty, slightly tough chunks in the soup are the white flesh of the snail that inhabits the beautifully curled and fluted, pinky-rose conch shells that wash up on the beach. But don't let the fact that conch is a giant sea snail turn you off; the sopa de caracol is by far Honduras Mayan's best dish.

Mixing with the conch pieces in the coconut broth are thick slices of cassava, carrot, bell pepper, onion and sweet plantain, with plenty of bright-green, herbal cilantro perking up the soup. Taken with the coconut milk, it tastes strikingly similar to a Thai curry, sans any heat. It's at once sweet and slightly briny, tasting of both the sea and the earth. The serving at Honduras Mayan is large enough to split between two people, but you'll likely find yourself greedily slurping it all down yourself.

On a return visit, I shared my second bowl of sopa de caracol with my dining companion who'd just flown in from California.

"We don't have anything like this out in Santa Barbara," she sighed over spoonful after spoonful of the rich, silky broth and bites of starchy-sweet plantain. Our dishes had reversed places at this point, my bowl now in front of her and her comal of lomito de res in front of me.

The thin slices of ribeye had been seasoned and grilled almost exactly like fajitas, sitting on a bed of green bell peppers and onions, but — once again — were elevated to a different level by the presence of a garlicky chimichurri sauce, thinner than its South American counterpart but spicier, and those same tortillas de maiz that had appeared on the table with the camarones Mayan. Those tortillas, thick and fluffy and endlessly toothsome, like naan bread, could make even the most meager meal a stunning feast.

To finish with breakfast may seem odd, but the meal is the largest and most important of the day in Honduras. At Honduras Mayan, you can either start or finish your day with a massive traditional meal: Breakfast is served all day long here.

A typical Honduran breakfast — called a desayuno Maya here — comes with refried black beans, avocado, crema, salty cheese, fried eggs (called "unscrambled" here) and — my favorite part — fried slices of plantain. A less expensive version, the desayuno especial, comes with bacon instead of plantains and a hearty mound of rice cooked with leftover black beans alongside your eggs and avocado. Along with a cup of dark, strong coffee, it will prepare you for a long day ahead, or simply serve as a relaxing way to start the weekend.

Eating our traditional breakfasts one recent Saturday morning before heading down to Galveston for the day, my dining companion and I found ourselves amid a community of people catching up and sharing news from back home. The owner stopped by to check on us as if we were her own daughters, and we felt a part of the catrachos — Honduran neighbors, family and friends — gathered here.

Whether or not you're a catracho, you can enjoy a rich, filling breakfast and a sense of belonging at Honduras Mayan. Even if it's just over fried eggs and plantains.

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