At its simplest, a baleada is a thick, warm, flour tortilla folded in half to cradle a smear of fried red beans, sharp crumbled cheese and ivory-colored Honduran cream. The fresh tortillas are usually huge, with the circumference of a frisbee, and since the tortilla-to-filling ratio favors the tortilla, the nuttiness of toasted wheat is a baleada's predominant flavor. Because baleadas resemble overgrown tacos, and because the most expensive one will whittle your savings of just $3, it's easy to sit down to one and not get up until you've eaten three or four.
New Orleans is unique among American cities for its large Honduran population, so it was only a matter of time before a baleada powerhouse emerged. Beraca, a virtual baleada factory, shares a U-shaped Fat City strip mall with the requisite nail and hair salons, the Vietnamese restaurant Pho Tau Bay and a consignment shop where Gennifer Flowers' used furs have their own label. Awash in Granny Smith green, its walls host posters of soccer stars, crafty knick-knacks and a Central American mountain village scene painted in sunny-day colors on a straw canvas. There's free coffee in one corner, and in another a large-screen television dialed to Telemundo. Try to catch the fiery Latino equivalent of Judge Judy.
The restaurant's seven tables face off with a tidy open kitchen where most cooks don't bother with aprons and where baleadas are always in a few stages of progress. One cook tears pieces of dough from the mother lump, kneading them on a stainless steel table with the heel of his hand and then rolling them with his outstretched palm into perfect balls. Another cook, meanwhile, drives the rolling pin; she presses the balls into tortilla shapes and then tosses them onto round, cast-iron griddles heating on the stovetop. Any employee with a free hand stops to pat at the tortillas with a wadded-up towel, which keeps them from inflating and encourages the griddle's brown freckles.
Besides the plain bean-cheese-cream snack, try Beraca's more substantial baleadas filled additionally with avocado, scrambled egg and sausage; or with avocado and carne asada, seasoned steak strips that are as tender as you can ask of well-done beef. Request the communal pickle jar for garnishing baleadas -- or anything else -- with slivers of onion, carrot and jalapeno marinating in garlic and dried herbs.
Either starchy green plantains or the ripe, sweeter ones slathered in cream appear on most of Beraca's non-baleada plates, which is both culinarily and historically appropriate: the tight relationship between New Orleans and Honduras was forged in large part over the banana trade. The pipeline causes some Hondurans to joke that New Orleans is the country's third-largest city. For tajadas verdes con carne, taco-seasoned ground beef is served over slices of fried green plantain. Sandwich Ceibeno has a more vibrant flavor contrast: two thin pork chops cooked in the fast-and-furious Honduran style are set over fried ripe plantains whose rust-colored veins burst with tangy sweetness. As with so many dishes at Beraca, these two are crowned with tufts of raw shredded cabbage and a warm, salsa-like tomato sauce ladled from a Crock Pot. The namesake of Sandwich Ceibeno is La Ceiba, a town on the Caribbean coast founded around 1900 by Sicilian-Orleanians in the fruit business. When you order the sandwich, Beraca's youthful owner, Mirlen Nunez, will tell you that La Ceiba is also her hometown.
To say that Honduran cooking is basic or simple isn't exactly fair, but it begins to describe its charms. The recipes for various traditional dishes -- pasteles de carne (meat pies), carne asada, sopa de res (beef soup), tamales -- seem to be written in stone. You'll find less delicious baleadas than those served at Beraca, for example, but they will all follow the same fresh tortilla formula and contain the same choice of fillings. Honduran food, at least in Orleanian restaurants, seems to be untouched by fusion cooking techniques and over-creative chefs -- chiles don't even travel down from Mexico. Of course not, the food seems to say; the country's tropics, mountains and coasts supply terrific products. Why mess with natural combinations and recipes that work?
Beraca serves an upstanding version of yucca con chicharron, a standard Honduran texture extravaganza. Waxy cubes of yucca team up with chewy cracklin' that also crunch; on top, of course, comes cabbage and warm tomato salsa. Sopa de mariscos, a coastal tradition served on the weekends, is a wonderful seafood chowder of peppered shrimp, whole crab, a mat of rubbery conch and fresh cilantro -- all sharing a tureen of buttery coconut broth. You spoon in rice and dip in fresh corn tortillas.
If you haven't yet delved into the area's Honduran restaurant community, do it for the fruit juices. In a city where the favorite smoothie chains use pre-packaged fruit-in-syrup and dried coconut, thank goodness for tall glasses of pulpy guanabana juice; cranberry-colored raspberry juice; and fresh pineapple juice and lemonade. Housemade horchata, a peanutty rice milk drink served over ice, is a rare treat. With a little work on the timing, one monstrous glass can get you through three baleadas.
- Cheryl Gerber
- BERACA RESTAURANTE LATINO owner Mirlen Nunez and Gustavo Giraudo prepare a baleada, the crown jewel of the Honduran restaurant's menu.