Honduran Holiday

Dance and eat snail soup at La Glorieta

Photo by Jessica CalkinsHonduras' greatest entry in the Latin American songbook is "Sopa de Caracol" (Snail Soup), a relentless punta piece that's the German Chicken Dance of a Latin American tropical-party music set. It's all tumbling drum lines, chintzy horns, Dada-esque lyrics and an always-shouted-in-unison chorus that translates as "If you want to dance/snail soup! Hey!"

But few who dance to the standard have ever slurped a bowl of the stuff since it's unattainable outside of Honduras and its Honduran-American enclaves. The country's national plate, sopa de caracol is a Caribbean tempest of earthy yucca and plantain treasures bobbing in ardent coconut milk and sprays of lemon juice. The mollusk lies at the bottom of the plate—thinly sliced, firmer than escargot, a healthy pink. Sopa de caracol is the reason God made snails edible.

Sopa de caracol is also the weekend delight of La Glorieta, a Honduran restaurant occupying a former Taco Bell adobe in Santa Ana. Its owner is 31-year-old Marvin Almendárez, who's a jack-of-all-trades for the county's surprisingly sizable Honduran community. Almendárez helps his sister run a music store on McFadden, and he's the resident DJ at a Honduran festival held every month in Stanton since early 1995, where, yes, "Sopa de Caracol" is the most requested track. The event helps raise funds for the patria, but most of the money supports an all-Honduran soccer team that competes in a Santa Ana fútbolleague; Almendárez is their difficult-to-score-against goalie.

Each feast at La Glorieta begins with a basket of chips baked in salty cheese and a mild sauce. An adjoining not-so-hot "hot" salsa sears little; the chile gods of Mexico must have skipped over Central America on its way to Peru. The region's culinary obsession with yucca con chicharrón—the starchy root surrounded by greasy-good pork skin combo eaten from Guatemala to Panama—appears on La Glorieta's menu as do buttery tamales of potatoes, rice and salsa-spiked chicken.

The bully of the North—Mexico—heavily influences Honduran cuisine. La Glorieta's enchiladas come smeared with beans and fresh chicken bits but are more akin to tostadas than the cheesy cylinders revered by generations of Southern Californians. La Glorieta's carne asada is slightly rawer, many times chewier and generally more succulent than the charred crisps Mexican families burn every weekend.

The tajaditas de guineo verde reminds of the Salvadoran salpicón salad except raw plantains replace the onions; the juicy, stir-fried ground beef remains. Baliadas, meanwhile, is the country's version of gorditas. Play-Doh-thick tortillas envelop smooth beans, sour cream and silt-fine powdered cheese. La Glorieta prepares them three per serving.

Most of La Glorieta's menu, however, owes nothing to Honduras' neighbors. The platano relleno is even more peculiarly brilliant than sopa de caracol. An entire banana stuffed with juicy ground beef, platano relleno's clashing tastes of sweet and meaty is the stuff upon which chefs build enduring reputations. All the soups—the caracol, jaiba (a whole blue crab exuding bitter beauty), mondongo (good, chewy tripe)—are ocean paradises accentuated by the country's tropical fruits and vegetables. The pollo frito lives up to its descriptive name, featuring fried skin that breaks into shards when bitten and topped with pickled red onions that accompany nearly every meal here.

And the drinks are even better. Central America outdoes Mexico (except for Oaxaca) in the richness of its horchata, and La Glorieta's hint-of-chocolate take is no different. But pass up the sweet rice water in favor of the pulpy guanávana, the powerfully woody nancé, or a passion fruit-derived libation called maracuya that's worth the trip to Tegucigalpa alone. Pray to God that bottles of banana soda are frosting in the fridge—they usually aren't, but when they're there, you'll want to buy an entire case.

La Glorieta, 1604 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-7111. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $10-$18, food only. Cash only.
 
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