Quick: Name five Honduran dishes. So after you've named baleada — which is one of those fun Spanish words that plays with your tongue — what else you got? If you haven't taken advantage of the significant impact this Central American country's cuisine has had on the culinary landscape of Charlotte, you are missing out. After all, Charlotte has one of the largest Honduran populations nationally after New York, Houston, L.A., and Miami. And baleadas are only the start.
Since restaurateur Gilmer Alfaro opened Lempira Restaurant on South Boulevard in October 2006, he has opened five more outposts of Honduran cuisine in Charlotte. His latest offering is Morazan Restaurant, a family-friendly fast-casual concept.
Morazan on South Boulevard is only a stone's throw from the original Lempira but offers a vastly different ambiance. Whereas Lempira morphs into a raucous sports bar/nightclub in the evening, Morazan's televisions are strictly offering family choices. The dining room is fronted by windows and otherwise brightly lit, while rows of booths remain much as they were when this space was The Clock, a decades-old Greek-family-owned restaurant, with one notable addition: a full bar. The intent is home-style food in casual surroundings eaten at all hours of the day.
The Morazan menu seems to reprise as many of the familiar hits of Lempira as possible. But Alfaro's restaurants are not out to conquer new culinary ground. These dishes are touchstones for the large Honduran and Salvadorian expat communities. Subsequently, all tortillas — both flour and corn — as well as pupusas are made in-house and arrive hot to the table.
Honduran cuisine is a specific mix of the foods of the indigenous peoples with Caribbean, Spanish and African influences. The best of the menu are the dishes that are fresh and uncomplicated, like tamales wrapped in plantain leaves with a lush interior of masa, and chicken spiked with bell peppers. Or tamales de elote (Honduran cornbread), baleadas slathered with balas (mashed beans) and mantequilla crema (Honduran salty sour cream) then studded with bits of grilled beef, or a hot flour tortilla quesadilla oozing cheese.
Five baleadas are on the list, including ones with scrambled eggs and ham, and scrambled eggs with chorizo and slices of avocado. In addition to these traditional Honduran dishes, desirable entrées include the tenderly sweet, roasted chicken (pollo al carbon) nestled on a bed of rice and sided by a crisp cabbage slaw, slices of avocado and jalapeños, pickled onions and warm corn tortillas.
Some of the starters succeed better than others, and most are fried. Honduran "tacos" are rolled-up tortillas that are pan-fried and taste vaguely like egg rolls stuffed with chicken salad — probably an acquired taste. These are topped with chopped cabbage, spicy tomato sauce and dry cheese. Some empanadas are stuffed with mashed plantains while pastelitos (meat pies) are fried corn flour tortillas tinged red by achiote and stuffed with ground beef and cheese. Most of the dishes are ably enhanced by Salvadoran chimol (like pico de gallo, only better) that bristles with the fervor of limes and cilantro.
It was over a rustic loroco (flower bud) pupusa and a passion fruit soda that I pondered whether, in time, Honduran cuisine might make more inroads with some dazzle. The menu at Morazan has so many items, it is actually spiral-bound and dotted with photographs. But rising above the level of comfort food would add to the cost and the prices at Morazan are such a deal: Pupusas are two bucks, while most entrées are less than $10.
Plus, Alfaro has deliberately positioned his eateries along the Central Avenue and South Boulevard corridors, so his focus seems to be the expat community.
But Morazan has a strong enough draw to bring me back. In truth, you can't understand people without eating their food; we need not make a big deal about culinary authenticity — after all home-style does not always mean authenticity. The water in Charlotte is different, as is the masa (dough) — thus the flavors are not exact. We ought to be more concerned with whether the food tastes good, and if we're having a good time. At Morazan, I had both.
5421 South Blvd., 704-525-2000. Hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 12 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.