Venue Review: La Cacerola Cafe and Restaurant
La Cacerola’s location, in an aging strip mall on a busy commercial street near I-85 in Durham, is not exactly what you’d call prime. Park in the tiny lot in front of the building at your own risk; you’ll be backing out directly into that traffic when the meal is over. (Word to the wise: Use the parking lot behind the restaurant.)
In the dining room, folk art paintings of parrots and coffee bean pickers are colorful clues that the food is Honduran. Otherwise, the decor is a generic shoestring-budget hodgepodge of vinyl tablecloths and lighting (a mix of fluorescent tubes and faux Tiffany chandeliers) that’s a little too bright.
Rest assured that within minutes you’ll find yourself feeling like you’re dining in someone’s home. That’s thanks in large measure to the warm hospitality of manager Ethel Sorto – who, in all likelihood, will also be your server. Sorto is the daughter of the mom-and-pop restaurant’s native Honduran owners, Rosa (she does most of the cooking) and Randolfo (he lends a hand wherever he’s needed) Sorto.
Rosa Sorto’s homestyle cooking also plays a big part in putting you at ease. Her chilaquiles – tortilla chips fried to order, tossed in a mild red chile sauce, topped with shredded chicken, melted cheese and a sunny-side-up egg – might well qualify as the universal comfort food.
Pupusas – thick hand-made corn tortillas filled with your choice of cheese, beans, chicken, chorizo or a combination, then griddled to a lacy-crusted turn – are rustically satisfying. At 3 bucks a pop it’s tempting to order a sampling of several, but you’ll want to pace yourself if you want to leave room for an entree.
That goes double for the yuca con chicharron. It’s listed among the appetizers (or, as the menu puts it, “All Time Favorite Snacks”), but be forewarned that a single order will produce a plate-eclipsing mound of yuca (steamed or fried) topped with a tangy cabbage salad, chismol (think pico de gallo without the jalapeños), tomato sauce, shredded queso blanco and chewy-crisp nuggets of fried pork. Plan on sharing.
Follow any of these with an entree order of beef steak encebollado, and the soothing combination of grilled rib-eye and creamy onion sauce might have you nodding off at the table. Like all entrees, this one comes with your choice of three sides. The list of 16 options – more than you’ll find at many a Southern meat-and-three joint – covers the spectrum from plantains (sweet or green) to scratch-cooked black beans to sliced avocado. Spicy pickled vegetables are such a popular option that you can buy them by the jar to take home. (But leave a jar for me; mine is almost empty.)
A culinary instructor would no doubt pronounce the sauce “broken” in La Cacerola’s rendition of camarones al ajillo. The rest of us would recognize it as homestyle gravy – a little like Mom used to make, but with the bonus of a rich, toasted garlic flavor.
Mom probably didn’t cook chicken quite like Rosa Sorto’s pollo con tajadas, but that doesn’t mean you won’t appreciate its savory comforts. Fried without batter or breading to a crunchy-skinned deep brown, it’s served with traditional accompaniments of fried green plantains, cabbage salad and a “unique pink sauce” that’s popular in Honduras (and may well remind you of the mayo- and ketchup-based Russian dressing of your childhood).
Breakfast – both American and Honduran style (such as the rib-sticking Tipico La Cacerola: choice of chorizo, beef or pork with eggs, crema, cheese, sweet plantains and beans) – is served all day. A lunch buffet, served from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., is a steal at $6.50 for your choice of one meat and three sides. The buffet has quickly won a devoted fan base since La Cacerola first opened its doors in March of last year.
Even so, I prefer to go in the evening and order à la carte. Prices are still a bargain, with entrees ranging from $7.49 for pollo con tajadas to $13 for fried whole tilapia. That’s with three generous sides, mind you, and full table service.
The dining room is generally less crowded in the evening, too, and the atmosphere is more relaxed. If it isn’t too busy, you might even spot Ethel Sorto’s 4-year-old daughter, Sofia, quietly playing at a table in the corner. It doesn’t get any more homelike than that.