Just how significant has Miami's Central American population become? In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, there is a small chain of cafeteria-style restaurants called Coco Baleadas. The first U.S. location opened quietly on Coral Way last month, and it's the busiest the small space (which once held a Peruvian and pan-Asian restaurant) has been in years.
The specialty (and namesake) is the baleada. The Tomasita ($3.90) is a taco-burrito hybrid packed with chorizo, red beans, avocado, sweet plantains, and a white cheese called cuajada, which has the tangy creaminess of queso fresco with the faint bounce of fresh mozzarella.
Most important, however, is the thick whole-wheat tortilla. Baleadas are thought to have first appeared in Honduras in the early 20th Century at the behest of U.S. fruit companies importing wheat as they ramped up the country's banana production. The shelf-stable staple led the expansion of the chewy tortilla and soon became the standard breakfast for field workers, according to a Cornell University study.
But a few years ago, Coco owner Karla Martinez had little experience with baleadas beyond making them at home. A former environmental consultant, she said she first ate one during a visit to Honduras six years ago, and a year and a half ago she decided to quit her job and take up the kitchen.
"There was no Honduran restaurant in this area, and since opening we've had tons of Hondurans coming in," she says.
If the thought of a Honduran import is off-putting, there's no shortage of individually owned places around town offering their own baleada varieties. Commonly stuffed with scrambled eggs, they are mostly a breakfast dish but are available at all hours. At El Gallito Coffee Shop just south of Calle Ocho, the $4, football-sized thing is stuffed with avocado wedges, crumbled chorizo, and black beans and comes with a sugary café con leche. Baleadas, tamales, and other dishes are served cafeteria style. Once seated and served, you can top your baleada with encurtido, an intensely spicy, tangy mix of diced onions and carrots that's also sold in small takeaway containers.
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At Paseo Catracho a little farther east, the encurtido is a bit less spicy and shredded, like a slaw. Here, the baleada ($4.25) comes with juicy, nicely charred bits of skirt steak but is missing the avocado. In North Miami Beach at Jennifer's Cafeteria, you go for the baleada ($4.50) with chorizo and crema. Don't be confused that it's served on a plate that might belong to your neighborhood Chinese place.
Next time you're out in the morning looking for breakfast, keep your eyes peeled for a sign with the word "catracho." It's how Central Americans refer to someone from Honduras, and a signal that your morning hunger pangs are about to disappear.