For Melissa Araujo, food always has held a nostalgic and transportive power - the aroma of beef and onions sizzling slowly on the stove usually does the trick. One moment, she'll be sitting in a brightly lit Kenner restaurant, and an instant after the smell hits her she's right back at her childhood home in La Ceiba, Honduras, watching her mother slicing onions and pounding steaks for her favorite dish, bistec encebollado.
For Araujo, who was born in Honduras but grew up in New Orleans, the savory beef dish smothered with caramelized onions is more than just a memory - it's a calling. The chef and owner of Saveur Catering, a farm-to-table catering company, has worked at restaurants all over the city, but it's at her Honduran-themed pop-up, Alma, where Araujo educates diners about the dishes of her homeland.
At Alma, Araujo hosts events that include pop-ups and multi-course chef's dinners where she prepares traditional Honduran dishes with the finesse of a tenured chef. That might include her version of bistec encebollado, fresh ceviches and a tres leches cake.
"There's a misunderstanding of what Honduran cuisine is, and it's not that simple," Araujo says. "To really get Honduran cuisine is to understand the way we were colonized, from small Mayan tribes, to the Spanish, to the African slaves who populated the coast, and even the English who colonized (neighboring) Belize."
The result is a diverse, multifaceted cuisine that's as varied as the Central American country itself, from the corn - and masa-heavy dishes of the mountainous highlands to seafood and the coconut-rich soups of the north coast and Bay Islands.
New Orleans is home to an increasing number of Honduran restaurants, the result of a boom in the city's Central American population over the past decade. Since 2000, the percentage of Hispanics in the city increased from 3.1 percent to 5.6 percent. Nowhere was that as evident as in Jefferson Parish, where Hispanics now represent 14.2 percent of the total population, according to The Data Center, a New Orleans-based data analysis group. At 34 percent of that total, Hondurans are the most populous Hispanic group in the metro area, according to the Data Center.
Though the most recent wave of Hondurans immigrated to the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures, New Orleans traditionally has been an attractive hub for immigrants from that country.
Mayra Pineda, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Louisiana and a native Honduran, says the current population is the result of at least three generations of Hondurans, beginning with workers who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s with companies like Standard Fruit & Steamship Co. and United Fruit Company, both of which had headquarters in New Orleans.
"[The first wave of Hondurans] started establishing ties here and having kids. That's the second generation," Pineda says, adding that Hondurans came to New Orleans for a variety of reasons in the following years. The later wave was more "need-based," she says, with immigrants arriving to pursue the American dream and a better job, or fleeing a country that throughout the years has seen an increasingly volatile political atmosphere rife with corruption and violence.
Repairing damages from Hurricane Katrina created a new demand for workers, and as part of the rebuilding effort, the city saw another large group of immigrants from Central and South America move to the city to take construction jobs in the years following the storm. Restaurants catering to those workers were quick to follow.
Marlen Nunez remembers the days after the storm, when construction workers would line up at dawn outside her tiny Honduran restaurant Beraca, which is tucked away on Arnoult Road in Metairie.
"Sometimes there would be fights outside, people trying to get in before the others," Nunez recalls. "Back then, we had 20 people working at the restaurant and we were so busy we could still hardly keep up."
Now, more than a decade later, Nunez's restaurant still serves as a hub for Hondurans seeking familiar and comforting cuisine. A small window opens into the kitchen, where women stretch dough for tortillas. In the dining room, families gather at tables over giant plates of pescado frito, a fried whole fish (often tilapia or redfish) served with rice and refried beans, salad, sweet plantains and a shower of pickled jalapenos, carrots and onions.
It's one of several places Araujo frequents when she's feeling homesick. Her other go-to, La Cocinita, sits on a nondescript stretch of Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Kenner, sandwiched between an electronics store and a tattoo parlor in a strip mall.
At La Cocinita, brothers Ricardo and Raul Ortiz run the show, carrying giant plates of crispy-fried pollo con tajadas, chicken plated atop fried green plantains and tucked under a mountain of pickled cabbage and queso fresco.
Like the ubiquitous pickled vegetable mix - a bright, tangy mix made with an apple cider vinegar brine - most dishes at many of the Honduran mainstays are accompanied by an addictively creamy, light pink sauce (which Araujo playfully calls "crack sauce"). Similar to Thousand Island dressing, but thinner, it's made with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and herbs and complements just about everything.
Jefferson Parish still is home to the largest concentration of Central Americans in the metro area, and many of the restaurants that dot the thoroughfares of Metairie and Kenner market themselves as one-stop shops, boasting a hodgepodge of culinary influences including Honduran, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan and Guatemalan dishes. This casts a wide enough net to attract patrons from multiple backgrounds and demographics, but in many cases it also reflects the makeup of the restaurant's owners and staff.
At Sabores De Mi H, a Latin grocery-cum-restaurant off Williams Boulevard, residents and workers pop in early for the desayuno especial, a full Honduran breakfast spread with eggs, black beans, queso fresco, fresh avocado, seared steak or chicken and plenty of crema - that magical Central American condiment that tastes like a cross between American sour cream and French creme fraiche. At La Cocina de Karla, which opened late last year on Williams Boulevard near 38th Street, you'll find a mix of Latin American dishes - including cheese and beef filled-pupusas - and a list of rotating daily specials, like the pierna al cerdo al horno, a juicy, cumin-scented slow-roasted pork leg.
Outside Jefferson Parish, Honduran restaurants mostly are found on the West Bank and in New Orleans East (although Kenner's long-running Los Catrachos opened a Mid-City outpost last year, and there are a few others). At El Sabor Catracho, in Terrytown, servers hustle giant plates of pollo guisado, a fragrant stewed chicken dish, and giant bowls of steaming caldo de res, a hearty beef soup flavored with beef bones and marrow and full of soft strips of steak and vegetables.
African and Caribbean influences are central to the dishes found on Honduras' northern coast, which is home to the indigenous Garifuna community, descendants of Africans and Native Americans. La Casa Honduras, which has two locations in New Orleans East, on Crowder Boulevard and Alcee Fortier Boulevard, is strongly influenced by the Garifuna tradition. Many of the dishes here are representative of the country's coastal cuisine, rich with seafood, plantains, and coconut milk. It's also one of the only restaurants in town where the potent Garifuna liqueur guifiti is sold. It's a powerful herb- and root-infused elixir that packs a punch and is said to have digestive qualities.
Then there are makeshift restaurants and pop-ups, like Alma, which occupy a less formal dining sector. At El Obraje II, a bright red taco truck stationed along Chef Menteur Highway near Bullard Avenue in New Orleans East, chorizo and scrambled egg-filled baleadas are peddled to construction workers tasked with rebuilding the tornado-damaged houses and businesses nearby. At the Algiers Flea Market, an eclectic mix of Mexican and Central American stands sell crispy corn pupusas oozing with cheese alongside vendors hawking DVDs and soccer jerseys. A Honduran-run raspado (snowball) stand sells shaved ice doused in tamarind concentrate and mango puree, framed with fresh mango slices dusted in chili powder and hot sauce.
The immigrant story for the Hispanic population in New Orleans is constantly changing, a mosaic of different cultures that have worked hard to find common ground while both assimilating and maintaining their own identities. It's by no means a homogenous group (try bringing soccer into the conversation and watch how fast lines are drawn in the sand), but the cuisines share many ingredients and similar cooking styles.
At Kenner's Fiesta Latina, for instance, owner Delmy Cruz hails from El Salvador, her husband is from Mexico and the restaurant's kitchen is staffed almost exclusively by Hondurans. Though the menu traverses several Central American countries, the kitchen's prowess with Honduran specialties is clear.
Here, crunchy bits of pork belly and rind or chicharrones arrive sidling fried bits of yuca, pickled cabbage and nibs of salty queso fresco. Sopa de mariscos, a seafood stew that's sweetened and thickened with coconut milk, arrives brimming with conch, shrimp, crab and clams. Juicy pieces of carne asada round out a plate of refried beans sprinkled with queso fresco, Spanish-fried rice and golden-fried maduros, sweet plantains that taste of caramel and brown sugar. Almost everything arrives showered with pickled onions and carrots and a few lime wedges, all of which provide a requisite acidic pop.
It's also where Araujo goes for that perfect bistec encebollado when she finds herself missing home.
"It's all about that memory," Araujo says. "Coming to eat here is like being in my mother's kitchen, and that's what makes it so special. It's like coming home."
There's no shortage of great Honduran food in the New Orleans metro area, but the trick is knowing where to look. From roving pop-ups and chef's tasting dinners, to food trucks and flea markets, here are 10 spots to find both classic Honduran dishes and creative twists on the Central American country's fare.
By appointment, or check for upcoming dates at www.almanola.com.
Dishes vary by event, but could include ceviche, carne encebollado, and tres leches cake.
KENNER & METAIRIE
3116 N. Arnoult Road, Suite L, Metairie; (504) 889-0962; www.facebook.com/beracarestaurant
• Baleadas, pescado frito
1924 Airline Drive, Kenner, (504) 469-5792; www.fiestalatinarestaurant.com
• Sopa de mariscos, carne asada, yuca frita con chicharron
2317 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Suite 4, Kenner, (504) 346-6903; www.lacocinitaprimera.com
• Pollo con tajadas, taquitos Hondurenos
La Cocina de Karla
3118 Williams Blvd., Kenner, (504) 346-1575
• Pupusas, pierna de cerdo al horno
3001 Tulane Ave., (504) 510-2890; 3020 David Drive, Kenner, (504) 456-4101; www.facebook.com/loscatrachosmetairie
• Camarones al sarten con coco, horchata
Sabores de mi H
3521 Florida Ave., Kenner, (504) 443-1029
• Desayuno especial, pescado rojo, pollo a la Ceiba
NEW ORLEANS EAST
La Casa Honduras
5704 Crowder Blvd., (504) 244-0005; 4611 Alcee Fortier Blvd., (504) 609-3999
• Sopa de caracol con coco, parrillada de mariscos, gifiti shots
Algiers Mini Mart Flea Market
2105 Behrman Highway (weekends only)
• Pastelitos, pupusas, mango picado raspado
El Sabor Catracho
400 Wright Ave., Terrytown, (504) 368-5880; www.facebook.com/elsaborcatrachorestaurant
• Pollo guisado, caldo de res