by William Albright
Café Red Onion serves south-of-the-border cuisine, but it’s not a Mexican restaurant, as foodies will figure out from the name (white onions are most commonly used in Mexican cooking). Its culinary roots extend farther south than Mexico. Rafael Galindo — who with wife Barbara co-owns the homespun original U.S. 290-at-43rd Street Café Red Onion and the more deluxe Kirby-at-Southwest Freeway location discussed here — is from Honduras, so the fare focuses on his native Central America with some South American and even Caribbean influences thrown in just for fun.
The Galindos’ offerings aren’t all that exotic, though, especially if you are familiar with authentic Mexican food, which is subtler and less fiery than Tex-Mex. Many of the ingredients, if not the combinations they are used in, will be familiar to you, and the alternation or juxtaposition of moderately hot and delectably sweet should be a refreshing surprise.
The frisky pairing of warm and sugary is established at the very start of the meal. The complimentary basket of chips is accompanied by two kinds of salsa. One is red and packs some heat. The other is bright yellow and not hot at all because it’s crushed pineapple tweaked with a little non-red onion. Both are addictive.
Quesadilla-like pupusas revueltas offer a tasty introduction to Central
American cuisine. Consisting of shredded pork tenderloin mixed with Monterey jack cheese, sandwiched between two thick, pancakey corn tortillas and topped with a red cabbage slaw, they are offered as an entree with fried plantains, refried beans and rice but also make a splendid starter for a pair of diners.
Sweet and hot team up very winningly in Chicken Choluteca. Here, a boneless chicken breast is marinated in beer, flame-grilled, tucked into a roasted poblano pepper with some Monterey jack cheese, topped with a crunchy corn and fruit relish and doused with barbecue sauce in which some diced peaches cool down the dash of incendiary habanero peppers a bit. Some black beans and fried plantains complete the picture with tropical flair.
For hearty appetites, there is the Papantla Pork Steak. Accompanied by rice and beans, this sturdy dish is a large charbroiled pork steak floating on green tomatillo salsa and crowned with a thatch of grilled onions. The mellowness of the pork, the tang of the salsa and the zip of the onions harmonize in a winning combination.
Guava empanadas are listed as appetizers on the menu, but they sound like they would be good for dessert, too. I opted for a slice of tres leches cake, though. It was moist rather than sopping with the three milks that give the classic confection its name, and the lightness of the whipped icing and the cake itself was most welcome after my plateful of pork.
Enhanced with some South American and Caribbean touches, Café Red Onion’s Central American food is close enough to Mexican to seem like an old friend and different enough to offer some tasty surprises.