Halfway through my pollo con tajadas at El Catrachito, I have a flash of recognition, as if I’ve sampled this multi-car pileup of an entree someplace else, which I have certainly not. This must be, I think, the gustatory equivalent of feeling comfortable around a complete stranger, for reasons you don’t fully understand.
The interplay between the dish’s two main components has sparked this sensation: While the fried chicken and fried green bananas appear to fight for dominance, each shouting its worth, the combo’s salt and starch have locked arms, instantly realizing their compatibility. That’s when it hits me: Pollo con tajadas is the Honduran version of chicken and waffles.
I’m so pleased with my discovery that I want to share it with someone. That someone turns out to be co-owner Jose Lopez, whose puzzlement over my tabletop revelation says it all. By the look on his face, I feel like I just tried to explain the plot of “The Hunger Games” in Klingon.
No matter. I’m content to return to my investigations inside his Silver Spring restaurant, housed in a former diner, where every time I visit I learn something new about Honduran cuisine and its inverted, minor-key variations on Latino cooking in the Americas.
Like so many restaurants run by Central Americans in our region, El Catrachito (the diminutive of “catrachos,” the nickname for Hondurans nicked from a victorious 19th-century general) feels the need to align itself with cuisines better known to Americans. Lopez has paired his native food with dishes from Mexico and El Salvador, which tells you something about the emerging mainstream status of Salvadoran cuisine. For years, Salvadoran immigrants were the ones who buried their pupusas and yuca fritas in menus larded with Mexican plates (or at least thick-tortilla interpretations of Mexican plates).
For the most part, I ordered Honduran plates at El Catrachito, an approach that will scramble your brain and force you to broaden your definitions of classic Latin American dishes. Those who live outside of Honduras, for instance, would probably reclassify the country’s tacos as flautas or taquitos. Tacos Hondurenos are corn tortillas stuffed with seasoned, slightly dry chicken, then rolled up tight and deep fried. The flutes are topped with shredded cabbage, a “special” sauce (basically ketchup and mayo) and chimol, a mild Honduran pico de gallo. The plate is simultaneously minimalist and baroque, a messy combination of simple ingredients that add up to something deeply pleasurable.
Non-catrachos might also look askance at the thing Hondurans call an enchilada, which is a tostada by another name. Whatever you call it, the crispy tortilla base is meticulously layered with coarse ground beef, shredded cheese and cabbage, red onion, chimol, more special sauce, avocado and cilantro leaves. The plate boasts more colors than a gay pride parade — and will leave you feeling just as good about life in the big city.
Certain patterns emerge if you dine at El Catrachito often enough. The same cabbage-sauce-chimol-cheese garnishes top a number of dishes, be they the pollo con tajadas (which I’ll take any day over chicken and waffles) or deep-fried turnovers called pasteles (fairly greasy pockets stuffed with chicken, beef or vegetables). Just as important, you’ll discover that unlike, say, some Mexican or Peruvian staples, Honduran dishes lack heat. This food prefers to cruise the highway, top down, a cool breeze in its face.
The star here is, in fact, the mild-mannered baleada, sort of a mashup of a burrito, a crepe and cryptic catracho alchemy. You have the option of steak or chicken, but neither is the source of the rich, raw animalism tucked inside this folded, half-moon tortilla. I had to lift the hood of my baleada to suss out the mystery, sampling each ingredient one by one: the scrambled eggs, beef, cheese, avocado, refried red beans, crema and flour tortilla with the supernatural chew. I finally singled out the crema, which Lopez says is a Honduran take on mantequilla, a funky cross between sour cream and butter. The red beans arrive from his country, too. The whole thing seems to speak of Honduras, where the cows and plants absorb the mountainous, sea-salt spirit of the place.
Ultimately, I wandered all over the menu at El Catrachito, with varying degrees of satisfaction. The cheese-and-loroco pupusa, its masa shell perfectly thin and charred, was stuffed fat with the Salvadoran flower bud, allowing its artichoke-like flavors to run off at the mouth. The salmon a la plancha was, by contrast, an empty, arid piece of fish looking for something to say. The beef sopa, a bowl bobbing with corn and yuca and chayote and bone-in pieces of meat, was the “Hallelujah Chorus” of soups. And the velvety tamales, which I was told were Honduran-style, spoke in a hushed voice, their spice reduced to a whisper.
The atmosphere at El Catrachito can be just as charming as the food. The bones of the old diner seem to attract children like an outdoor playground. As their parents feast on baleadas and oversize bowls of soup, the kids drape themselves across chrome stools at the counter, folding paper menus into fans, which instantly become objects of value, worth fighting over. Salsa music throbs from a nearby TV, its beat irresistible. The place is full of life. Sometimes, I wish I could take it home with me in a to-go box.
2408 University Blvd., Silver Spring.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Wheaton, with a 0.2-mile walk to the restaurant.
Entree prices: $5.99-$11.89.