During her 12-hour waitressing shifts at Benito’s Place, Cindy Castro often returns unfinished plates to the kitchen: bites of carne asada, piles of fried plantains, or some other indication that it can be impossible to conquer the tiny restaurant’s enormous portions. The reaction she gets from the cooks feels very familiar.
“They’ll be like, ‘Oh, did [the customer] not like it?’” said Castro, whose mother and stepfather own the homey spot abutting a bus stop on 11th Street NW near Logan Circle. “It’s something that I’d hear my grandma or my mom say at home: ‘Was my food not that great?’ ”
Breathe easy, everyone. The first-rate flavors coming out of Benito’s kitchen are only outdone by the generosity of the serving sizes and the ambitions of the enterprise. With Benito’s, the husband-and-wife team of Maynor and Telma Majano aimed to create a taste of home for a diverse community. On an impressively thorough menu, the Majanos have pulled off a rare feat: They’ve mastered dishes from across Latin America, creating a gathering place where emigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador can find comfort — and where everybody else will want to devour standard-bearers of each cuisine.
Maynor is from Honduras, which explains the image of the country’s flag on the menu and the exceptional baleadas, a ubiquitous Honduran breakfast whose integrity he monitors with his sister-in-law, Johanna Leon. Plump flour tortillas, stretched at least a foot in diameter, are stuffed with refried red beans, salty Honduran cream and a sprinkling of crumbly white cheese. Benito’s also offers an “especiales” version, stepped up with scrambled eggs, avocado and grilled chicken or steak. Traditionally served with a cup of coffee, both versions are enjoyable any time of day.
Pollo con tajadas, one of four specialties listed on the chalkboard outside the front door, is another Honduran staple. This one will tempt you to cheat on your go-to fried chicken joint. Each plate comes with two bone-in pieces of deep-fried bliss — crunchy and salty but not over-battered or excessively greasy. An abundant bed of fried plantains soaks up residual juices, and a drizzle of mayonnaise dressing adds visual contrast.
A crucial blend of garnishes balances out the hearty fare and unifies elements from across the map. Cabbage salad, Mexican pico de gallo and Honduran pickled vegetables — jalapeños, carrots and onions tinted purplish-red by beets — offer an acidic blast to the dishes that need it most. That includes the Honduran tacos — fried corn tortilla rolls the size of miniature Louisville Sluggers — and the Honduran enchiladas, a crunchy tostada with ground beef and a slice of hard-boiled egg.
Telma says two Salvadoran cooks police the pupusas, naturally accompanied by an oregano-heavy fermented slaw called curtido. Salvadoran subs are stuffed with oven-roasted chicken, which can be finished in the fryer at the customer’s discretion, as well as curtido, Honduran pickles, cucumbers and another serving of hard-boiled egg.
After too many lackluster experiences at Latin American eateries that tried to accomplish too much, I’ll admit that the menu’s Mexican portion first struck fear into me. The difference between those places and Benito’s begins with the corn tortillas, which are made fresh from masa flour every morning, to varying thicknesses. The rounds are pliable, steamy platforms for the perfectly cooked beef tongue and the chicken tinga, a stewed meat swimming in a smoky chipotle-and-adobo sauce.
Research and development also shine through in two dishes held dear in hearts all over Mexico. White sesame seeds dot a mole poblano sauce the color of black cherry cola that smothers bone-in chicken pieces and screams of cinnamon. Pozole blanco, an unctuous soup that’s as much tender pork shoulder and hominy by volume as broth, arrives steaming in earthenware. A separate plate holds lime wedges, avocado, onions, pickled jalapeños, tostada crisps and, finally, chicharones — a customizable sidecar that makes the vehicle more fun to drive.
After several visits to Benito’s Place, the only misstep I’ve found has been the overcooked seafood in the Yucatan-style shrimp. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Telma, a constant tinkerer and taster who spends most of her time monitoring the back of the house, may have already detected and resolved the problem.
The pride and commitment are palpable in the dining room. The name honors Maynor’s late father, Benito, and the Majanos — first-time restaurant owners — paid rent on the building for more than three years while they renovated it and obtained the proper licenses. Now the place is an all-around family affair: Telma works alongside her sister, Rosa Castro, and her son, Ennry Castro. A native of Guatemala, the proprietress leans on her mother’s recipes when it comes to a handful of dishes, such as the chile rellenos, grilled beef shortribs and tamales.
Cindy Castro says it was her mother’s decision to leave the exposed brick wall to the left of the front entrance, which displays a vibrant painting of a volcano in Antigua, Guatemala, rising behind a puddle-soaked road. Maynor’s mother sent paintings of village scenes from Honduras. Christmas ornaments with the flags of each nation hang from the ceilings. Guacamaya bird carvings of colorful red macaws flank a chalkboard listing Mexican specialties.
Maynor and Telma ran another business around the corner called Mi Bendición (“my blessing”), a convenience store where they cashed checks and processed money transfers, before opening Benito’s. Many of the cooks in their kitchen came into their lives as customers.
The store was destroyed in an electrical fire in January. Telma was heartbroken to see 17 years of work go up in flames. Although it’s been difficult getting the family restaurant off the ground, she says, she prefers it to life at the store. There, she saw people come and go in a hurry, anxious to get money to their families back home.
At Benito’s, she says, she brings home to them. For the rest of us, it’s a delectable, international day trip.