She Conchs to Stupor
Coconut-enriched seafood chowders, from new-wave Florida soups to the fiery mocquecas of northern Brazil, are a staple of the warm-water Americas. But Honduran sopa de caracol is perhaps the greatest seafood soup of all. The national dish of Honduras, sopa de caracol is lovely to behold, an ivory-hued liquid tinged with pink, a faint whiff of tropical seas in its steam.
At the new restaurant Rincon Hondureno, the soup comes in a bowl the size of a skiff. If you dig down into it, you will come across huge, fleshy logs of yuca root and plantain, whose subtle, earthy sweetnesses and claylike textures are enhanced by the sluice of coconut milk in the broth and the perfumy hint of lime. Caracol means snail in Spanish, more or less, but the Honduran caracol is the pink-shelled conch of the Caribbean, sliced thin and pounded thinner. You'll find a big, chewy fistful of sliced caracol in your soup bowl too.
Rincon Hondureno sits near the edge of the West Adams district, a couple of blocks off the Santa Monica Freeway in a rough neighborhood of swap meets and auto-parts stores. The dining room, washed in sea blue, has high ceilings, a cheerful mural of sailboats, and sleepy natural light. Bottles of safety-orange Belizian habanero sauce dot each table; bottles of Honduran beer, frozen to the consistency of Slushies, are drained by T-shirt-wearing regulars. A jukebox in the corner lurches into sudden life, blares three minutes of loud tropicalismo, then settles down again into silence. This is an easy place to spend an afternoon.
First, there are appetizers: cheese pupusas perhaps - pupusas are nearly as common in Honduras as they are in El Salvador - or enchiladas (think tostadas) smeared with stewed meat and mounded with shredded cabbage, or taquitos, or the little meat turnovers called pastelitos.
The most popular Honduran snack is the baleada, a thick, freshly baked flour tortilla as big around as a phonograph reord, daubed with fried red beans and Honduran sour cream and folded into something like an oversize taco: truly wonderful. Green plantains sliced thinly lengthwise, then fried until they resemble phallic potato chips with a subtly sweet aftertaste - tajadas, they're called - are served with nearly everything here.
Rincon Hondureno isn't the only Honduran restaurant in L.A. - there are perhaps a couple of dozen scattered around Westlake and Huntington Park, most of them discernible from generic taco stands only by the word catrachas somewhere on their signs and by the hint of coconut milk in the fish soup. Rincon Hondureno may, however, be the nicest, the sort of place you'd be glad to find in a Honduran beach village.
The fried pork chops are a bit tough, and the stewed oxtail is blander than you'd like, but nowhere else will you find sopa de caracol as good, or curry-tinged arroz con pollo, or coconut-infused fish soup that revolves around a whole, fresh rock cod as highly peppered as pastrami. For breakfast, there is hash fish, finely minced whitefish sauteed with onions and peppers, served with red beans, plantains and the inevitable square of salty, white cheese that seems to come with everything here.
Even the refrescos, the sugared fruit drinks common to practically all Latin American cuisines, seem unique: In addition to the usual tamarindo and horchata, there is an intense, pulpy cooler made from guanabana pulp, and a drink flavored with passion fruit - maracuya - that could pass for some four-dollar tincture in a health-club juice bar.
Don't pass up the nance. Nance may be the most unusual fruit drink you will ever taste, a murky beverage made from a small, woody fruit that looks like a tiny plum but has one musky note slightly reminiscent of black walnuts and another closer to cats in heat. "Most travelers to Central America who chance to try this native fruit," one botanical guide says of nance, "wonder why anyone would bother to grow it, much less buy and eat it." This goes too far. Nance may not be appearing in a box of Froot Loops anytime soon, but it's not half bad as a drink. Plus, it is said to be the very favorite food of macaws. Awwwwwwk.
1654 W. Adams St., L.A.; (213) 734-9530. Open Mon.-Fri. 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sat.-Sun. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12-$18. Beer only. Takeout. Street parking only. Cash only. Recommended dishes: baleadas, sopa de caracol.
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