By 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, the 140-seat Lempira Restaurant was rocking. A server selected another song on the jukebox: Out poured the melodious voice of a woman declaring her heart for, um, I am not sure for whom. No one was speaking -- or singing -- English. Tables were crowded with families, couples, groups of friends and co-workers. Some wore cowboys hats; others had corporate T-shirts. One mother discreetly breast-fed her child in a corner; an older child managed to escape her watchful parents eyes to dance in front of the jukebox.
Lempira has an almost-prime-time appearance. What was once Mai Japanese Restaurant with its tatami room and grill area was been transformed into a Central American outcropping. Some tabletops are adorned with decorative contact paper patterns; others are plain. Walls float 3-D oil paintings depicting countryside scenes from an unacknowledged place. I asked, "Qué hacen las escenas representan?" And my server answered, "Until 10 p.m." My evening was like that.
According to the manager, Lempira is the only Honduran restaurant in town. "No, no. The others are Salvadoran. We are Honduran," he reported proudly in English. In fact, the place is named for the national hero of Honduras, a country the size of Virginia. Lempira was a Lenca (indigenous people) warrior who bravely fought the invading Spanish in the 1500s, only to be assassinated soon thereafter by the Spanish during "peace negotiations." The Honduran peso was renamed for him. A drawing of Lempira features prominently on the menu jacket.
This is the first Charlotte restaurant for owner Gilmer Alfaro, although he has a Honduran restaurant in New York City. With the surge of people relocating here from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, it's not a surprise to find their eateries here as well. Lempira opened last October and has garnered praise and patronage from the Honduran community. "Their tamales taste almost like the ones my grandmother makes for Christmas," gushed one ex-pat.
The menu offers the better-known Mexican dishes, but the adventurous eater should skip to back: platos típicos hondureño. This is the heart of the kitchen where cooks from Honduras and Mexico create Honduran national dishes sure to cast a spell on any nonnative soul. Some dishes have the same name as ones found on a typical Mexican menu, but these dishes are altogether different.
Take the enchiladas. These are not the rolled up Tex-Mex numbers, filled with beans and sloshed with sauce. Instead, the Honduran enchiladas arrive two disks to a plate, like Mexican tostadas, only much better. The crispy corn tortilla base is slathered with black bean puree, then layered with a spicy ground beef mixture, shredded cabbage, carrots, half a hard boiled egg, a drizzling of a thin Mexican sour cream, a slightly thicker tomato sauce and then dusted with crumbled cheese.
Not surprisingly, plantains play a major role in Honduran entrees. The impressive tajadas con carne is a large, plate-filled dish with fried sliced green plantains, mounded with shredded cabbage, diced tomatoes, marinated grilled beef or chicken, the same watery tomato sauce and a salsa of radish, cilantro, onions and green chilies. One noncabbage, watery tomato sauce dish is pinchos, a grilled entrée of two steak skewers alternating with onions and peppers, puffy white rice, a small garden salad, shredded cheese, cream and griddled tortillas.
I can't speak to whether the tamales de pollo are as good as anyone's grandmother's, but they do have the makings of a taste memory. So do the baleades, a national dish and favorite street food in Honduras: a folded flour tortilla with beans, cheese, crema and sausage. These are hot, cheap ($3) and filling. In fact, none of the dishes at Lempira are expensive. Most items range between $3 to $8. For drinks, customers sip on fizzy drinks or horchata, a liquid rice pudding with a hint of morro seed.
Service, by the way, is friendly and well-meaning, in spite of communication gaps. We waited for the entrees at one point, which gave me a chance to speculate about the imposing security guard -- a disconcerting sight to my dining companion -- at the back door. When I asked my server about the need for a guard, she laughed it off and noted some "problemas." The manager explained further that the guard served as a bathroom monitor. Then a Honduran friend explained that queuing was not an attribute of his compatriots. It seems, though, something may be lost in the translation.
But there's something to be said about the newness of these immigrant outposts in Charlotte. Older cities have remnants of past waves of immigrants who have moved on and assimilated. We have the here and now -- and part of the now is Lempira, a fun, inexpensive place to explore the soul of Honduras and energies of newly arrived immigrants.
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To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136.