At La Cacerola, fluorescent bulbs glowing from the ceiling tiles hide nothing. They illuminate mismatched plates and discount-store sugar containers set on vinyl tablecloths. Toys lie on the floor, forgotten by the owner's children. A loud television jutting from the corner plays saucy scenes from a Spanish-language soap opera and bouncy cartoons.
In this, I found a much-needed pause.
Sitting in that unfussy ambiance, I felt detached from the perfectly poised plates and branded details found in many restaurants, styled to satiate the foodie's urge to Instagram the meal.
Upon the arrival of a non-Latino customer, one of the owners switches on the overhead radio, drowning out dialogue of the telenovela with Top 40 American pop hits. This happened the five times I dined at La Cacerola—a charming customer service tactic and presumably an amenity for gringos.
La Cacerola's paper menu is folded into a skinny pamphlet, a restaurant logo in script on the front page fading from a lack of printer ink. The inside boasts a filling collection of homemade Honduran dishes with helpful descriptions.
And the food is cheap. Most full meals hover around $8, with only two seafood dishes priced above $10. One is the tilapia ($12), which I shared with a friend on my first visit.
A whole fish (and its face) arrived on a platter, its golden-fried skin perforated in three places and garnished with slender half-moon pieces of crisp white onion and juicy round slices of tomato and lime. Resplendent grease shone on our fingers as we picked through the flaky white meat and ate with our hands.
Though the owners and wait staff will happily adapt any dish for vegetarians, meat reigns. Fried chicken dishes can be ordered plain (whole or half chickens are available, too), in a light tomato sauce sweetened with thyme (entomatado) or buried under a milky onion cream sauce (encebollado). Of the three, the ambrosial entomatado offers the most complex flavors, harder to mimic at home if you're unfamiliar with the ingredients.
Grilled marinated chicken breast (one plate is served with two) and beef steak provide a rich palette for the side dishes. Each entrée is paired with the extravagant choice of three authentic Honduran sides. Sticky-sweet plantains come browned, almost candied. Fried or steamed yucca arrives fresh and piping hot with a tangy cream sauce for dipping. The hearty cabbage salad and the chunky chismol (a Honduran-style pico de gallo) both use fresh, raw vegetables. Avocado can be added—at no charge—sliced or folded into chunks with crumbly sharp white cheese.
A homemade, savory hot sauce is available upon request, though bottles of Texas Pete and Tabasco are scattered among the tables. For a bigger kick, order the pickled vegetables. The sharp, vinegary contrast of the pickled chiles and radishes complement the dishes.
Notable appetizers include the yucca with chicharron (fried, fatty chunks of pork) or the chilaquiles scrambled with eggs and chicken. Both can be ordered vegetarian, subbing an ample amount of avocado for the meat.
Fruit juices vary. Highlights include the melon and passion fruit, and all can be served with less sugar. The horchata, though sweet, shines light on a beautiful tradition. While Mexican restaurants sometimes cheat and add dairy to the rice milk, the Honduran version at La Cacerola simply includes ground nuts (peanuts and almonds), rice milk and spices, including cinnamon, with zesty lime rind floating on top.
Breakfasts at La Cacerola bear an unhealthy heft, with salty beans, eggs and charred, fatty beef absent of balance. Daily specials are the way to go. Try the ground beef stewed with sweet plantains and tomatoes for the ultimate comfort food.
In its first six months of business, La Cacerola never seems full. "We just have to wait until people find us for it to get really busy," one of the owners told me. "But we can wait. We have time. "
A toddler frequently waddles around the restaurant, eating or keeping himself occupied with anything at hand, like a plastic soup ladle or a paper Burger King crown. Last week, he steadily kicked around a soccer ball twice the size of his head, showing off more dexterity than when I met him in the restaurant 12 weeks prior.
That night, a young girl tugged the waistband of her mother's jeans while her mother took our order.
"When are we leaving?" she whined in Spanish.
"Soon," her mother lied. The restaurant would close in two hours.
I realized then why I like this place so much. I've been that kid, whining to go home while my restaurant family pushed through dinner service, no matter how busy or slow it may have been.
There's a sense of familiarity attached to such places, even if one's only exposure is as an eater. Anchored by both a lackadaisical vibe and top-notch professional customer service, La Cacerola delivers an exhilarating reality check: a seat at a neighbor's table.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The trifecta."