Staring down an oversized bowl of sopa de caracol (conch soup) heavy with coconut milk, you might just think for an all-too-fleeting moment that you're on a sunny, sandy, tropical isle. Yet you're actually sitting in the hole-in-the wall cafe of your dreams in a scruffy East Hollywood strip mall.
Situated between a Thai massage joint and a neighborhood pharmacy, Lempira Restaurant serves homey, filling Honduran favorites with an emphasis on conch-based seafood soups. Loosely translated, lempira means the "lord of the mountain" and stems from the 16th-century folkloric hero Lempira, of the indigenous Lenca people, who led an ultimately unsuccessful revolt against Spanish conquistadors in what is now Honduras. The country's currency is named after him.
The minuscule cafe barely holds seven simple, formica-topped tables with attached fluorescent yellow and pink benches. The cafe does a brisk to-go business. An overheard flat-screen TV is perpetually tuned to telenovelas. Mirrors in the sinuous shapes of mermaids adorn the walls of the cafe, along with decorative tchotchkes and trinkets unique to Lenca culture. Packages of imported Honduran cookies and barbacoa (BBQ) potato rings are sold by the front counter.
Honduran cuisine is a delicious mélange of Spanish, African and Caribbean influences. Besides the famed conch soup, Lempira serves meat dishes including platana maduro con carne malida: a whole, fried plantain split down the middle and layered with ground beef, sour cream, cheese and shredded cabbage, generously sluiced with mild, house-made red salsa. The saltiness of the beef complements the unctuous sweetness of the ultra-ripe plantains, which are almost custardy. The hefty, griddled revueltas are corn tortillas stuffed with refried beans, meat and cheese. Various Honduran tamales are offered, from braised pork to stewed chicken to plain steamed corn. Baliadas are huge flour tortillas folded over ground beef, cheese, sour cream and mashed beans — it's a sort of cross between a taco and a burrito. If you happen to visit Lempira during the morning hours, satisfying breakfast baliadas are stuffed with soft scrambled eggs, avocado, beans and cheese.
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But what you're most likely here for is the renowned sopa de caracol. Some refer to it as the national dish of Honduras. The chowder is loaded with conch filets (imported from Honduras), unripe plantains, green bell peppers, diced tomatoes and yucca (cassava root), in a coconut milk broth. The large bowl is showered with chopped cilantro, and a squeeze or two of lime truly brings out the flavors. White rice is served on the side to sop up every last bit of the broth. Thick, handmade corn tortillas are for dipping in the soup.
Take an agua fresca to go, from the more commonplace horchata to tamarind juice to the exotic guanabana (soursop), which tastes roughly like the marriage of mango and papaya, or nance, a wild, tropical fruit sometimes known as yellow cherry.
Service is no-nonsense though hospitable. The proprietor, Ernesto Gomez, who has been operating the restaurant for more than two decades, will hand you menus and take your order. His wife, Maria Medinaunn, cooks the food. Dishes may be slow to arrive. However, it's more than worth the wait for this utterly distinctive taste of Honduras and its indigenous cuisine.
4848 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 662-2927, facebook.com/lempira.