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Just like being at home in Honduras

January 24, 2007|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

THE little family-run restaurants clustered near railway stations in any Honduran town -- called comedores -- could be a template for El Katracho, an easy-to-miss 10-table Honduran restaurant that opened several months ago on a nondescript stretch of Burbank Boulevard.

Here, as promised by the slogan on the paper placements, you can enjoy authentic Honduran meals "como si estuviera en casa" (as if you were at home), savory though not spicy-hot and full of wondrous contrasts. Dishes combine soft, crisp and crunchy textures and tastes of tart pickled vegetables with sweet ripe plantains and smoky grilled meats.

Like its Honduran predecessors, El Katracho concentrates on breakfasts, light meals and short-order antojitos, or snacks. But sopa de caracol, a voluptuous Caribbean-style coconut milk-based conch soup -- the national dish -- is a specialty.

From a bowl nearly the size of a powder-room sink, you take a bite. Rich, comforting mouthfuls of green and sweet banana contrast with slightly chewy slabs of conch meat. Buttery chunks of plantain and logs of potato-like yuca absorb the creamy broth, which can be revved up with squirts of fresh lime juice and pickled jalapenos from the jar on the table.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
The Find: An article in Wednesday's Food section about El Katracho did not include the restaurant's Sunday hours; it is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Also, the article stated that family-run restaurants called \o7comedores are clustered near railway stations in any Honduran town. In fact, they dot urban neighborhoods and are strung alongside highways.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 31, 2007 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
The Find: A Jan. 24 article about El Katracho did not include the restaurant's Sunday hours; it is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Also, the article stated that family-run restaurants called \o7comedores are clustered near railway stations in any Honduran town. In fact, they dot urban neighborhoods and are strung alongside highways.

The soup comes in several versions: one with shrimp and conch, and another with fresh blue crabs that have been quartered, making it possible to suck out their briny meat. I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't fall in love with these hearty meals.

Although Honduras has two coasts -- the country stretches from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean -- most of the area is mountainous farmland. So in addition to a tropical aspect, the cuisine includes many dishes based on the traditional Mayan trilogy of corn, beans and cheese, illustrated by El Katracho's breakfasts (hunger-killing plates of fried green plantains, fried beans, cheese and handmade tortillas) and its baleadas.

Often compared to burritos, baleadas are more like distant cousins. These slightly puffy, soft, thick handmade flour tortillas are folded over a variety of fillings that can be as simple as a smear of mashed beans or as baroque as the combination of eggs, avocado, beans and crumbly aged white cheese, drizzled with rich Honduran cultured cream. Served in threes, even the simplest $2 version can quickly satisfy; order them as an appetizer only when you can share.

El Katracho's decor seems to be of two minds. On one hand, dark wood tables and chairs and a tiny bar at the rear lend a welcoming, homey feel. By contrast, glossy wall photos the size of jumbo plasma screens seem like promotions for Honduras tourist sites that might be displayed in an airport waiting area. A karaoke device has mercifully stayed silent whenever I've eaten here. One night, though, the sight of scantily clad dancers in the music videos flashing across its two flat screens distracts my group as we try to order.

But the moment the first antojitos arrive the dancers are forgotten in a frenzy of plate passing and requests to "try this."

Pastelitos, the first antojito to arrive, are deep fried rice-and-meat filled turnovers with an eggshell-thin corn crust that crackles as you bite in. The accompanying thatch of Honduran coleslaw called curtido, shredded cabbage tossed with a light vinaigrette, also accompanies almost everything at El Katracho.

The hit of this meal, platano frito con carne, is fried ripe plantains cut lengthwise to open like a checkbook, with seasoned ground beef heaped into their centers. The combination of caramel-y sweetness and savory saltiness is an unbeatably wild, flavorful ride.

Other dishes score well too. Salpicon, a mound of skillfully seasoned shredded beef, sits among contrasting mounds of curtido, diced tomato salsa, rice, fresh white cheese and burgundy-colored red beans. You can simply plow in or make mini tacos using the tortillas served with the plate.

A taste of El Katracho's fried chicken lends credence to the rumor that American fast-food chicken chains couldn't make a go of it in Honduras. The bird is meaty, juicy with an unobtrusively light coating and finished with a judicious drizzle of cultured cream that tastes a bit like creme fraiche.

Tajadas, crunchy disks of fried green plantain, another Houduran staple, accompany many dishes. Try them with the rich fried pork skin, chicharrones.

Beers are available and sold six to a bucket at a discount. Maracuya, passion fruit juice, also works well with these meals.

So far I've seen only one dessert at El Katracho -- whose name is the owner's way of spelling Catracho, the slang term for someone or something from Honduras (including the soccer team). It's a cake and ice cream sundae, fun but not quite in sync with the sumptuous earthiness of the restaurant's carefully made food.

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food@latimes.com

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El Katracho

Location: 14838 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 780-7044.

Price: Baleadas, $2 to $7.50; antojitos, $6 to $7.50; entrees, $8.75 to $17.

Best dishes: Sopa de caracol y camarones; platano frito con carne (stuffed plantains); fried chicken; salpicon.

Details: Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Street parking. Beer and soft drinks. Visa, Mastercard.

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