Over the hill for Honduran:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
El Katracho’s paper placemats try to trace a convoluted tale of Central American civil wars and miscellaneous military advancements, all in an effort to clarify the Honduran restaurant’s name – which, those placemats eventually explain, derives from a jungle general whose name became a word (catracho) used to describe all things Honduran. But even with that helpful history lesson, the restaurant remains as undefined as ever.
A lot of El Katracho’s identity is lost to location – the restaurant sits on an unremarkable strip of Burbank Boulevard that serves as a blurry border between Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys. As a result, those with freeway fatigue hardly ever haul themselves over the hill to try it. That unwillingness is unfortunate – with a couple years of experience behind them, El Katracho is now home to some of L.A.’s best Honduran cooking.
The restaurant is divided into two dining rooms, both of which draw on the same postcard décor: landscape paintings so lush they verge on neon, wooden masks whittled down to animal-like faces, and a collection of flat-screen TVs permanently tuned to talk shows and mile-a-minute telenovelas. Similar as they are, the smaller of the two rooms is more interesting – its walls are striped with mirrors reflecting into infinity.
El Katracho starts early with about a half-dozen Honduran breakfasts. Most simply scramble up eggs with sides of beans and cheese, but there are also tastier plates built around fried sweet plantains and the like. However, El Katracho’s morning meals aren’t the best representatives of Honduran cuisine, which touches on tropical tastes far more often than neighbors like El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Baleadas – thick, handmade flour tortillas folded over spoonfuls of mashed beans and cheese – are the staple starter here. To the American palate, the closest edible reference to a baleada might be a bean and cheese burrito. But El Katracho’s baleadas easily outclass that cheesy competition thanks to the restaurant’s wonderful tortillas – fat, fluffy discs pockmarked by charred black craters.
The definitive dish at El Katracho (as with any Honduran restaurant) is sopa de caracol, a conch soup that’s the pinnacle of Honduran tropicalia: an intimidating bowl of plantains, yucca, chayote, carrots and conch meat. What separates the soup from other Latin American options is the broth, a golden stock cut with coconut milk for a sweet heat like Thai curry. The conch itself can often turn tough, but not here – El Katracho’s sopa de caracol (which can also be ordered with shrimp) is a supreme example in every spoonful.
Those hoping to keep their appetites on land will also be plenty happy here. The carne asada and pollo guisado aren’t unfamiliar dishes, but at El Katracho they’re exemplary ones – both the steak and the chicken are cooked so tenderly that they eliminate any need for knives.
Chasing every meal at El Katracho should be a sip from one of the restaurant’s buckets of beer – both domestic and imported six-packs are available on ice. Non-alcoholics, meanwhile, should order either a cool cup of passion fruit juice or a banana soda – a cadmium-colored drink that complements El Katracho’s almost-equatorial flavors.
As foreign a place as the Valley can be for those who don’t often stray from La Brea, diners devoted to the dishes of Central America know that El Katracho is a second home. Nearly every aspect of the tropics is well represented here – all you have to do is pull yourself over the hump.
El Katracho, 14838 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 780-7044. Open Mon.-Thur. 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Tue. Street and lot parking. Food for two: $10-$25.