by David Cecelski
I spent this past weekend at a soccer tournament in Charlotte and did all my eating in the Latin American neighborhoods around South Boulevard. They were the closest places to get a bite between my son’s games and I couldn’t have been happier. Over the last 15 or 20 years, roughly 90,000 Latino immigrants have made Mecklenburg County their home and many of them have settled in that south/southeast corner of Charlotte. Along South Boulevard you’ll now find a host of purveyors of Latin American traditional cooking.
I bet that I saw 15 or 20 Latin American cafes, take-out stands, and markets just between Tyvola and Arrowhead Roads. Most are probably run by Mexican families, but I also saw a Dominican restaurant, Punta Cana (5230 South Blvd.), and several Salvadoran and Honduran cafes, including one called Restaurante Comalapa in a strip mall at 6117 South Boulevard.
I had a very fine breakfast at Comalapa this morning: eggs, sweet plantain, black beans, and fresh, home-made tortillas. The coffee was to die for, too—a strong, rich brew served with a generous portion of steamed milk that you stir into your cup at the table. And, while nobody there spoke English, they were very patient with my worse-than-halting Spanish.
I was at Comalapa too early to order the Sunday special, but I noticed that it was sopa de caracol, a conch stew for which Honduras’ Caribbean coast is renowned. The conch is cooked with cocoanut milk, simmered with yuca and green plantains, and seasoned with cilantro and spices. Made famous by a hit song performed by the Honduran punta-rock band Banda Blanca, the dish is unique to Honduras, I am told, which made its presence on South Boulevard even more fantastic.
There’s also a Salvadoran market, Más Por Menos (4805 South Blvd.), on that stretch of South Boulevard and, a little ways down the road, Romero’s Supermarket, which boasts that it carries products that come from Mexico all the way to Peru. The crowded little store has a butcher shop, bakery, and a taquería, and also carries groceries, movies, music, and other antidotes for homesickness from across Latin America.
Up the road, there is also a pair of Mexican bakeries, Panadería la Mexicana and Panadería and Pastelería Odalys, the latter, I’ve heard, a great place to buy pan de muerto, the traditional bread for Day of the Dead. Nearby, there’s alsoa butcher shop, Carnicería la Mexicana, seven or eight taquerías, and maybe a half-dozen take-out stands in parking lots. A lot of the take-out stands seem to be Central American.
One of my favorite places on South Boulevard is a Colombian restaurant and bakery called Delicias Colombianas. It’s in a little strip mall at 212 N. Polk Street, near the intersection with Highway 51—South Boulevard becomes Polk Street when you leave Charlotte and enter the Pineville town limits.
When I was there, this little café was full of Colombian families. Some were having big mid-day meals, others were having a traditional Colombian breakfast plate for supper (desayuno antioqueño), and others were just passing the time nibbling on sweet round little cakes calledbuñuelos and drinking steaming hot cups of hot chocolate.
I had never had Colombian food before, so everything was new and interesting to me. The bread counter was full of pandebono, which, I was told, is a very typical Colombian round bread stuffed with white cheese. A little hot-food counter to the left of the cashier was full ofaborrajado (deep-fried plantains stuffed with cheese) and cornmealempanadas, thin-crusted pockets filled with meat and herbs and usually served with salsa picante. I settled on an arepa de choco, a very tasty griddled corn cake made with fresh corn and served warm with a white cheese.
Another highlight of my trips from the soccer fields to South Boulevard was a little Honduran take-out stand called La Palma. It’s actually a few blocks off the boulevard, behind a gas station at the corner of Arrowhead and Tyvola Road. One day, I had a very tasty chicken and plantain stew there, as well as a very good tamale unlike any that I had before.
Apparently, traditional Honduran tamales are made with cornmeal (maseca, usually, a cornmeal dough mix) and pork and/or chicken, like other tamales I’ve had. But they also have potatoes, peas, onions, and sometimes other vegetables in them, maybe rice, and, in their classic rendition, they’re usually flavored with fresh cilantro and cumin. Wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, La Palma’s tamales were delicious.
I also tried La Palma’s menudo, the classic Mexican tripe stew. This was a menudo rojo served with onion, fresh cilantro, and lime, and the broth looked out of this world. I’ve never really developed a taste formenudo though, and I’m afraid La Palma’s didn’t convert me either. Everybody else in the parking lot was having a bowl and they looked really happy though, so I figure menudo is an acquired taste.
For me the real treat at La Palma was a dish called plátano relleno. It’s a Honduran specialty: two whole, sweet plantains fried until golden brown, slit and over-filled with beef picadillo, and sprinkled with white cheese and baked. I love fried plantain and La Palma’s rendition of this dish was just the ultimate comfort food for me. I know that’s a strange thing to say for a boy who never saw a plantain or a soccer ball in all the years that I was growing up in eastern North Carolina. The meaning of home is always changing though, and there I was this weekend, watching soccer and feasting on Latin American dishes from morning until night.
photos by David Cecelski