For Melissa Araujo, food always has held a nostalgic and transportive power — the aroma of beef and onions sizzling slowly on the stove usually does the trick. One moment, she'll be sitting in a brightly lit Kenner restaurant, and an instant after the smell hits her she's right back at her childhood home in La Ceiba, Honduras, watching her mother slicing onions and pounding steaks for her favorite dish, bistec encebollado.
For Araujo, who was born in Honduras but grew up in New Orleans, the savory beef dish smothered with caramelized onions is more than just a memory — it's a calling. The chef and owner of Saveur Catering, a farm-to-table catering company, has worked at restaurants all over the city, but it's at her Honduran-themed pop-up, Alma, where Araujo educates diners about the dishes of her homeland.
At Alma, Araujo hosts events that include pop-ups and multi-course chef's dinners where she prepares traditional Honduran dishes with the finesse of a tenured chef. That might include her version of bistec encebollado, fresh ceviches and a tres leches cake.
"There's a misunderstanding of what Honduran cuisine is, and it's not that simple," Araujo says. "To really get Honduran cuisine is to understand the way we were colonized, from small Mayan tribes, to the Spanish, to the African slaves who populated the coast, and even the English who colonized (neighboring) Belize."
The result is a diverse, multifaceted cuisine that's as varied as the Central American country itself, from the corn — and masa-heavy dishes of the mountainous highlands to seafood and the coconut-rich soups of the north coast and Bay Islands.
New Orleans is home to an increasing number of Honduran restaurants, the result of a boom in the city's Central American population over the past decade. Since 2000, the percentage of Hispanics in the city increased from 3.1 percent to 5.6 percent. Nowhere was that as evident as in Jefferson Parish, where Hispanics now represent 14.2 percent of the total population, according to The Data Center, a New Orleans-based data analysis group. At 34 percent of that total, Hondurans are the most populous Hispanic group in the metro area, according to the Data Center.
Though the most recent wave of Hondurans immigrated to the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures, New Orleans traditionally has been an attractive hub for immigrants from that country.
Mayra Pineda, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Louisiana and a native Honduran, says the current population is the result of at least three generations of Hondurans, beginning with workers who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s with companies like Standard Fruit & Steamship Co. and United Fruit Company, both of which had headquarters in New Orleans.
"[The first wave of Hondurans] started establishing ties here and having kids. That's the second generation," Pineda says, adding that Hondurans came to New Orleans for a variety of reasons in the following years. The later wave was more "need-based," she says, with immigrants arriving to pursue the American dream and a better job, or fleeing a country that throughout the years has seen an increasingly volatile political atmosphere rife with corruption and violence.
Repairing damages from Hurricane Katrina created a new demand for workers, and as part of the rebuilding effort, the city saw another large group of immigrants from Central and South America move to the city to take construction jobs in the years following the storm. Restaurants catering to those workers were quick to follow.
Marlen Nunez remembers the days after the storm, when construction workers would line up at dawn outside her tiny Honduran restaurant Beraca, which is tucked away on Arnoult Road in Metairie.
"Sometimes there would be fights outside, people trying to get in before the others," Nunez recalls. "Back then, we had 20 people working at the restaurant and we were so busy we could still hardly keep up."
Now, more than a decade later, Nunez's restaurant still serves as a hub for Hondurans seeking familiar and comforting cuisine. A small window opens into the kitchen, where women stretch dough for tortillas. In the dining room, families gather at tables over giant plates of pescado frito, a fried whole fish (often tilapia or redfish) served with rice and refried beans, salad, sweet plantains and a shower of pickled jalapenos, carrots and onions.
It's one of several places Araujo frequents when she's feeling homesick. Her other go-to, La Cocinita, sits on a nondescript stretch of Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Kenner, sandwiched between an electronics store and a tattoo parlor in a strip mall.
At La Cocinita, brothers Ricardo and Raul Ortiz run the show, carrying giant plates of crispy-fried pollo con tajadas, chicken plated atop fried green plantains and tucked under a mountain of pickled cabbage and queso fresco.
Like the ubiquitous pickled vegetable mix — a bright, tangy mix made with an apple cider vinegar brine — most dishes at many of the Honduran mainstays are accompanied by an addictively creamy, light pink sauce (which Araujo playfully calls "crack sauce"). Similar to Thousand Island dressing, but thinner, it's made with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and herbs and complements just about everything.
Pop-up Alma shares recipe for corn waffle BLTs
A couple of weeks ago, I met the farm-to-table chef Melissa Araujo, who was working with a group of volunteer chefs to feed flood victims in the Baton Rouge area. My mouth literally started watering when Araujo described the corn waffle BLTs and other meals she's planning for Alma, her pop-up that feature her own Honduran cuisine infused with Cajun/Creole twists that she absorbed working in some of New Orleans' best restaurants.
She shared the waffle recipe, below. And this week I had a chance to taste her shrimp and grits made with Creole barbecue sauce (made by cooking down 2 cups Crystal hot sauce with 4 cups Worcestershire sauce with aromatics and herbs), fig and burrata appetizers and, most spectacularly, deviled eggs made with smoked trout.
Alma is moving on Saturday, Sept. 3, to a regular gig at the French Truck Café location, 4536 Dryades St., from 5 to 9 p.m.
St. Charles Magazine
On July 9, from 6-9 p.m., chef Melissa Araujo of Alma will serve a five course dinner of her native Honduran cuisine at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. The evening will begin with cocktails from 6-7 p.m., and each course will be paired with wine. Born in La Ceiba, Atlatidad, a small beach town on the Atlantic coast of Honduras, Araujo pays tribute to her grandmother’s cooking through her life’s work.
“I had no choice but to fall in love with food. I grew up with a family, and food was the center of everything. My mother Angeolina Araujo is Sicilian-Italian, and my father, Oscar Araujo, is Honduras-Maya with Portuguese. I was a locavore by birthright, and my early immersion in fresh, local, seasonal ingredients has informed and influenced my culinary philosophy. I love to re-create the story people share with me with the food I cook.”
The meal will include a Tomato Celebration of four varietals of tomatoes, egg yolk, Manchego, fresh herbs and olive oil; a Ceviche Atlántico with sea bass, red onions, chile habanero, teardrop tomatoes and lime; a Traditional Honduras Arroz con pollo; Camarones al Ajo-roasted Gulf shrimp with tomatoes, shallots, garlic and sherry vinaigrette; and Arroz con Leche.
The cost is $75 per person. Twenty percent of all proceeds are being put aside to establish a fund for the education and care of impoverished children in Honduras. Tickets may be purchased atAlmaNola.squarespace.com.
3-Course Interview: Melissa Araujo on Honduran cuisine in New Orleans
The owner of Saveur Catering runs the Honduran pop-up Alma
Chef Melissa Araujo has cooked all over the world, including at New Orleans restaurants Mondo, Restaurant R'evolution and Doris Metropolitan. Araujo is now the owner and executive chef of the boutique catering company Saveur Catering (www.saveurcatering.com). Last year, she launched the pop-up Alma (www.almanola.com), featuring the food of her native Honduras. Her next event is a five-course meal with wine pairings on July 9 at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Araujo spoke with Gambit about Honduran cuisine and why it's hard to find in New Orleans.
Where did the idea for Alma come from?
Araujo: I've been cooking since I was 18 and I haven't looked back. I worked in New Orleans since 2011 and I worked in Mexico for fours years, and 10 years in Italy.
I started my (catering) company in 2013 and that gave me the opportunity to do some work on the side, and like every chef in the city, I hustled. I kept my fine-dining career going until the catering business could pay the bills by itself, and that took about two years. I had a lot of friends that kept on asking me when I was going to cook Honduran cuisine. I would tell them, "That's labor intensive," but they kept pushing me. My ex-girlfriend was the one who pushed me to explore more of my heritage.
Food for me is memory. I was spoiled growing up. My grandmother was an amazing cook and my mother was also an amazing cook. Every time I would go eat at a Honduran restaurant in the city, I'd end up sending the food back. (Most Honduran restaurants) don't specialize in one cuisine; they're all mixed together — Honduran, Mexican and so on. They're not focused on the quality ... and it's not a good representation of the cuisine.
(In Honduras) I used to go with my mother and my grandmother to the fishermen's market and we could get anything and it was cheap. I didn't have the memories growing up of going to a supermarket; it was all local and fresh. Everything came directly from the local fisherman, the local farmer.
One of the things I also wanted to do was to cook the way I was taught from my mother and my grandmother. I thought, "This is very personal to me. I want to do it right."
Why is Honduran food underrepresented in New Orleans?
A: Louisiana is very similar to Honduras — Honduras was also conquered by the Spanish. Honduran cuisine is a lot like Creole (cuisine); it's a mixture between Spanish and the native tribes of Honduras, and there's an abundance of seafood. It depends on where you go, but if you go to the coast, by La Ceiba, where my father is from, you'll get amazing seafood.
The (Honduran) population has mixed in well here. ... But Hondurans are very private and they keep their culture confined to their house. If you really want Honduran food you have to go to (someone's) house. It has not made as big of an impact as some of the other cultures have on New Orleans cuisine.
The biggest thing I've found in New Orleans is that (diners) don't think Honduran cuisine can be fine dining. Of course it can; it's all about the cook's perspective.
How do you balance running a catering company and a pop-up?
A: It is a lot of work. I'm literally sleeping about three or four hours a day. It's a lifestyle, but you get used to it. When you become a cook, you come to this profession because you have a lot of passion for it and because you're a workaholic. It's not because of the money. You sacrifice a lot of things. You have to be well-organized. I organize as much as I can in advance. I'm not perfect, but I try to look for people who are as passionate and good at what they do. I try to find people who share the same vision that I do, and that helps.
In addition to the Old Portage’s June residency, 323 will also host a pop-up from chef Melissa Araujo called Alma this month. Araujo runs Saveur Catering, and she said Alma is a way to explore her own Honduran heritage. At 323, she’ll serve a street food menu of enchiladas, meat pies and yucca con chicharrón as a user-friendly introduction to her flavors.