If I judged most of the Mexican and Latino eating establishments in the Phoenix area based on their outer appearance, I would hardly ever eat out.
The expression "Never judge a book by its cover" is true at Restaurante Centro Americano in Phoenix.
Turnoff Number One: Located just south of Camelback on Seventh Avenue, the restaurant sits on the corner of a nondescript strip mall. Definitely no curb appeal.
Turnoff Number Two: The sign outside reads "Central American and Mexican Food." Most restaurants have a hard time dealing and mastering one style of cuisine. Central America is a large area with many complex cuisines. Mexico is a whole other deal, with a diverse spectrum of foods. Claiming to do them all is a tall order to fill. Makes me wonder.
Turnoff Number Three: You walk into a dining room filled with cheap red booths, little decor except for a map of Honduras poorly painted on a wall and some sad-looking Panama hats all painted with little Honduran flags. The carpet looks like it once was at a seedy hotel on Van Buren.
Turnoff Number Four: The aguas fresas are really bad.
I probably would have left and never written a word about this little hole in the wall. But the menu sounded very different from what we are used to here in the Valley, and the prices were way too low to pass up ordering just about everything on the menu. And that is exactly what my partner and I did -- ordered lots of food.
From that point on, it was culinary magic. The owner, cook and server is Mercedes Suazo from Honduras, and her business partner is Roberto Hernandez from Mexico. Hence the two cuisines. But Honduras is not all of Central America. At this point, however, I really didn't care where the food was from -- what I ate was delicious.
I highly recommend the fried plantain stuffed with beans and topped with a cream and a heavy dusting of fresh farmer-style cheese. An array of flavors and textures creates a flavorful and bold dish that will keep me going back to this hole in the wall.
Many dishes are made with yucca root. Yucca tends to be hard to cook and most who attempt to cook it leave it hard or too soft. At Centro Americano, the yucca was cooked and seasoned to perfection. Yucca and bananas of every type are prominent ingredients on the menu. After trying them, I can understand why.
For $1.50, you get a delicious slice of tres leches cake or a slice of banana bread made in Honduran fashion.
With food this good, I have a feeling that Mercedes is going to need some help real soon so that she can stick to what she does best -- cook!
Silvana Salcido Esparza is a local chef and restaurant owner.
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