Papagayos in St. Louis – a Honduran Food Oasis


I’d just sat down to lunch at the Honduran restaurant Papagayos located at 4658 Gravois Avenue St. Louis.  When the front door banged open and a high-school Spanish class stormed the dining room. At least, I assumed this was a Spanish class. I didn’t hear much Spanish being spoken. Actually, all I heard was this:

Teacher: “Do you want water?”

Student: “I only speak Spanish, sorry. I need agua.”

The staff brought the students glasses of aqua fresca — “It’s like orange soda, but not carbonated,” a young woman seated by me described it — and platters of food to share. The savviest students knew to grab their phones and take photos of the food before they ate to post on whichever app today’s kids think is cooler than Instagram.

I took a bite of my baleada while I pondered my own mortality.

Baleadas

Baleadas Catracha
Photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte, cfletes-boutte@post-dispatch.com

If you love Honduran cuisine, then you’ve likely already found Papagayos. Owner and chef Irma Montiel, a native of Puerto Cortes, Honduras, first opened the restaurant (and small grocery store) near the intersection of Manchester and McCausland Avenues. A couple of years ago she relocated it to Gravois Avenue in Bevo Mill.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Central American country’s fare, then a field trip here is in order. This restaurant is, as far as I know, the only Honduran spot in town.

(The restaurant also serves tacos, tortas and other Mexican taqueria fare. For this review, I concentrated on the Honduran food.)

The Bevo Mill location is a no-frills affair: dining tables, a bar, a few TVs showing La Liga soccer matches and highlights. The grocery store’s merchandise — votive candles and piñatas as well as food and drink — is the most colorful décor.

The store at Los Papagayos on Friday, Oct, 31, 2014.  Photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte, cfletes-boutte@post-dispatch.com

The store at Papagayos
Photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte, cfletes-boutte@post-dispatch.com

A crash course in Honduran cuisine could begin with baleadas: flour tortillas as thick as pita bread folded over a filling of refried beans, crumbled cheese and crema. You can add scrambled eggs or, as I did, both scrambled eggs and steak. This baleada especial ($5.99) looks like an oversize taco and is as filling as a moderately plump burrito. The cream’s sour tang is what sells it, though a dash of the sharp salsa verde that accompanies any order here doesn’t hurt.

Pupusas aren’t strictly Honduran — El Salvador also stakes a claim — but you should order one of these griddled masa cakes stuffed with cheese and chicken or pork anyway. After all, the pleasure of a crisp-spongy corn pancake and gooey melted cheese is universal.

A pupusa at Papagayos, with side salad.  Photo: Ian Froeb

A pupusa at Papagayos, with side salad.
Photo: Ian Froeb

Honduran-style tacos ($5.67 for three) resemble taquitos or flautas: thin tortillas rolled around chicken and then deep-fried. A drizzle of an aioli-like dressing adds a slightly sharp accent, but these definitely benefit from a dollop of the house salsa verde. An order of a Honduran tamale ($3.29) arrives with its banana-leaf steaming vessel already opened. Inside the masa cake is gently spiced pork with potatoes and peas.

Among the larger plates, two fried dishes stand out. Honduran fried chicken ($9.79) brings a breast, with wing attached, that is quite tender underneath its breading. It doesn’t need additional seasoning, but that aioli-like sauce makes another appearance.

The Pollo Catracho at Los Papagayos Photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte, cfletes-boutte@post-dispatch.com

The Pollo Catracho at Papagayos
Photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte, cfletes-boutte@post-dispatch.com

The crisp exterior of a whole fried tilapia ($15.99) gives way to easily flaked flesh. Yes, tilapia isn’t the most flavorful fish in the pond — it’s mild, if we’re being polite — but here you can deploy a full arsenal of condiments: that salsa verde again, pickled onions, fresh lime juice.

Tilapia at Los Papagayos  Photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte, cfletes-boutte@post-dispatch.com

Tilapia at Papagayos
Photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte, cfletes-boutte@post-dispatch.com

Both the chicken and the tilapia (and many other dishes, too) are served with fried plantains and a sort of vegetable slaw. The plantains are cut into slices thick enough to retain a soft chewiness, but their flavor is, well, mild. The slaw is much more interesting, pleasantly crunch, with a bright, tangy essence.

Did you notice that the slaw that accompanies the tilapia — which, as mentioned, needs a flavor boost — is sauced with a tomato salsa, while the slaw alongside the fried chicken — which requires no boost — is plain?

Make a note of that, class. There will be a quiz later.

By Ian Froeb (@ianfroeb) is the Post-Dispatch restaurant critic and Hip Hops beer columnist.

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