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Food

El Katracho: A Honduran Hideaway

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The San Fernando Valley has possibly one of the most astonishing arrays of Latin American food in the entire country: you can't go a single block down Van Nuys Boulevard without passing any number of taquerias, pupuserias, casas de mariscos, and carnicerias. And it's not just Mexican food, either: one of the best little spots I've eaten at recently is a Honduran restaurant on Burbank in Sherman Oaks: El Katracho. The LA Times called it a dining "find" recently, but it still doesn't have much web presence (where you at, Yelpers??). If you're around this stretch of the Valley on a weekend looking for lunch, you definitely can't get much better than this place.

Honduran food betrays the influences of both Latino and Caribbean cultures: you'll find tortillas, enchiladas, tacos, and plenty of rice and beans, but you also get fish soups thick with coconut, the use of conch and crab meat, and lots of bananas and plantains. The menu at El Katracho also specializes in hearty breakfasts, with several different varieties of fried plantains, beans, eggs, and cheese.

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The meal begins with fat, slightly crisped tortilla wedges which have been doused in a mild chile sauce and lots of cotija cheese. It's a fantastic alternative to chips and salsa, and a big enough order of these could almost count as a meal. Honduran tortillas are thick and floury, and the ones at El Katracho are warm and spotted with charred bits.

Don't forget to order a side of baleadas to accompany your lunch: this popular Honduran meal-on-the-go is kind of like a quesadilla, a tortilla folded around a cheese, bean, and sour cream filling, but you can also get them with avocado and egg. I would like to erect a Honduran baleada shack right outside of my office door. I would happily eat an egg baleada every morning, and I imagine it would go great with a big mug of coffee.

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We arrived at the restaurant just a few minutes after noon: for the first ten minutes or so, it was just us and a four-top of guys enjoying a late Saturday brunch, but soon the place was packed with families and friends enjoying a leisurely lunch. Your Spanish skills will definitely come in handy here, although I always appreciate being the only Anglo kid in a busy restaurant -- it's gotta be good if the place is packed with actual Hondurans, right? Plasma TVs mounted on the walls broadcast Galavision and Honduran tourist videos -- look at all the happy people kayaking down the Rio Cangrejal and promenading through the streets of Tegucigalpa! I don't usually need much help figuring out what tastes good, though: and El Katracho gets right to the sweet spot.

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The entrees are excellent, and a party of two can enjoy a meal with drinks and an appetizer (TRUST me that $2 order of baleadas will fill you up pretty quickly, even if you split them --) for about $35 with tax and tip. The restaurant offers fish, shrimp, conch, and crab soups that steam with coconut essence -- or you can get your fish grilled or your shrimp on skewers. Oh, did I mention the drinks? Oh the drinks! Get yourself a bucket of beers - 6 for $15, or indulge in a mango margarita - only $4, made from real mango puree, and it even packs a punch.

The fish and shrimp meals come with white rice and a heap of Honduran cabbage salad, curtido, which adds a nice fresh crunch and texture to the meal. The shrimp itself is still in the shell, and I for one relish the act of ripping off the legs, picking out leftover bits of "vein," and digging into tender, well-seasoned crustacean flesh. I didn't get to try the conch soup, but it's on the list for next time: conch (pronounced "konk") is a shellfish that is distinguished by its large, beautiful pink shell (the kind you can make great big blowing sounds with) and chewy, squid-like meat. Or, you could go balls-out (er, guts out?) with the sopa de mondongo, a hearty soup made from slow-cooked tripe and lots of vegetables.

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If you're not feeling up for fish or guts, you can enjoy little savory bites like pastelitos, small meat-filled dumplings topped with chile sauce. The ground beef entree and beef enchiladas are also excellent: the enchiladas are piled high with specially seasoned beef, more curtido, and cheese. Those thick, hearty tortillas come in handy here; they have enough weight and structure to stand up to great big slops of ground beef, as well as the juice that gathers from the cabbage slaw and freshly sliced tomatoes. I'm not sure what "spaghetti Honduras style" entails, but I'll bet it's pasta covered in that spicy meat mix.

The place itself is a bit of a hole-in-the-wall -- drive slowly down the block, otherwise you might miss it, but be sure to look for the Honduran flags posted above the storefront. The room is clean and airy, but small and apparently tightly packed on an early Saturday afternoon. It has a family-run feel to it, and most of the patrons linger for a while over their beers or fruit beverages. Take your leftovers home and enjoy that extra baleada for breakfast -- I know I did.

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El Katracho
14838 Burbank Blvd.
Sherman Oaks
(818) 780-7044

M, W-Th 9a-9p
F-Sa 9a-10p
Visa, MC, but no AmEx.

All photos by Carrie Meathrell for LAist.