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Latin flavors dance to a tropical beat

Tiny Antojitos BiBi features Honduran cuisine. Spices are muted, meals are colorful and vegetables are plentiful.

May 21, 2003|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

With just seven tables, be forewarned: Antojitos BiBi is often jampacked. But this little cafe, in a strip mall facing MacArthur Park, may be crowded for another reason: It serves Honduran food, a cuisine hard to find in Los Angeles but well worth seeking out.

Dishes here may seem familiar, yet they are subtly different from other Latin cuisines. Honduran food is not overly spicy. Tortillas are thicker. Soups incorporate coconut milk. A distinctive tortilla dish, the baleada, is a sort of burrito that is folded in half over beans, sour cream and cheese, rather than rolled. (For a more filling meal, the restaurant will add eggs, ham, chorizo or carne asada.)

Meanwhile, Honduran enchiladas (enchiladas catrachas) are stacked, tostada-style. BiBi's uses a thin, crisp tortilla as the base. Over this goes ground beef, then a mixture of shredded cabbage and carrots, followed by sliced tomatoes, a sliced hard-boiled egg and, finally, a dusting of cheese. The color leaps out at you.

The restaurant's slight tropical feel lends a sense of place. Windows look out on a row of palm trees. The walls are lined with wooden novelties and, in one corner, a TV shows whatever soccer game is in progress.

As you work your way down the menu, catracho refers to anything from Honduras, so a desayuno catracho is a Honduran-style breakfast. BiBi's gives you eggs, fried beans, cheese, avocado and handmade tortillas -- a swell start to the day. The restaurant opens early, so there are plenty of breakfast options.

Hondurans eat lots of starchy yuca (manioc). Virtually tasteless, it's white and chewy, and it certainly fills you up, which may be its most significant function. Yuca and plantains, another chewy starch, make sopa de caracol a hearty dish. Caracol is conch meat, imported frozen from Honduras. This soup, with a delicate coconut milk broth, will make you think you're on a sunny beach.

BiBi's Friday and Saturday special is tapado de costilla de res, another coconut milk soup. Here again, yuca joins up with bananas -- this time two types, one sweet, the other bland. They're supporting players for beef ribs -- costillas. Though it's not spicy, this soup tastes uncannily like a South Indian curry, or maybe that's an illusion induced by the rich yellow color of the broth.

Montuca is a luscious, sweet-tasting tamale made with fresh corn instead of dried corn masa and eaten with thick cream; it can be plain or filled with mild stewed pork. Pastelitos are golden brown turnovers of corn dough filled with potato, rice and ground beef. Sprinkled with grated Honduran cheese, they come on a bed of shredded cabbage and carrot in a thin tomato sauce, accompanied by pink marinated onions.

Fresh vegetables are popular garnishes. The cabbage mixture (ensalada), together with pink pickled onions, is heaped onto tajadas de guineo verde con pollo frito: crisp, fried banana slices with fried chicken. This plate holds an impressive amount of food. On the bottom is tomato sauce, then a generous layer of fried banana slices (guineo is the Honduran word for banana), then one of ensalada and finally two pieces of very crunchy fried chicken. On the side are the pickled onions and a fresh chopped salsa of radish, cilantro, onion and green chile.

The banana slices around the edge of the plate stay crisp. Those buried under the food soften as they soak up the juices, doubling their flavor. There are also tajadas plates with carne asada or ground beef instead of chicken.

Like many Latino restaurants, Antojitos BiBi serves dishes from various countries. Alongside the Honduran dishes are Salvadoran pupusas and Mexican tacos and burritos.

The only dessert I've had is torrejas en miel, soft yellow bread dipped in egg and fried, then soaked in syrup.

You can get cool tropical fruit drinks or licuados (fruits frothed up with milk) such as papaya, maranon con nance, maracuya (yellow passion fruit) and guanabana (soursop). The day I had it, mixto de frutas was a smooth blend of papaya, cantaloupe and nance. Or you can get Tropical brand "banana" soda. Its strong flavor isn't a bit like fresh banana, but it's straight from Honduras and stubbornly distinctive, like the cuisine itself.



Antojitos BiBi

Location: Park View Center, 2400 W. 7th Street, No. 109, Los Angeles, (213) 383-8595.

Price: Appetizers, $1.50 to $3.50; main dishes, $4 to $10.

Best dishes: Enchiladas catrachas, tajadas de guineo verde con pollo frito, sopa de caracol, pastelitos, montuca.

Details: Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. No alcohol. Parking in the mall or on the street. Cash only.

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