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Community Spirit 

Like some of the area's best community-based restaurants, KENNER SUPERMARKET has become a meeting place for an ethnic group that also loves its food.

There's no category in restaurant guides or travel books -- in this newspaper, for that matter -- for community-based restaurants. Even more than neighborhood restaurants, community-based restaurants cater to a specific population of diners. And not only that -- they tend to act as the town square, the gossip hall and the people's court for their communities. In some community-based restaurants it's up for question which came first: the community or the restaurant. The recent hullabaloo at Galatoire's revealed how deeply it appeals to a particular community and its mores. The devoted regular dining community at Mosca's shares, among other things, a precise, nonconventional affection for family-style meals injected with garlic.

Oodles of ethnic restaurants also fall into this category, like Pho Quang in eastern New Orleans: on top of its mostly-Vietnamese clientele, the crowd that wanders in after-hours to cook its own fish is bigger than the dinner rush. There are communities of people who grew up eating Indian-style crepes, ramen noodle bowls and vegetables pickled in Russia who assemble in the scores of ethnic restaurants and shops out along Williams Boulevard. They don't necessarily share a zip code now, but a tight national bond between members of these groups continually draws them to a communal table.

It's on Williams Boulevard, between a Pizza Hut and a dollar store, where Kenner Supermarket provides the communal table and virtual soccer stadium for a certain Central American community. The members spend Sunday afternoons pulling deliciously chewy rags of conch from bowls of orange-colored coconut broth as soccer matches filmed below the equator play on televisions overhead. I'm partial to the soup for its starchy green banana, yucca and fresh cilantro leaves.

Stubs of corn, yucca sponges and beef parts poke above the lip of other jumbo soup bowls. Bushels of ripe plantains are caramelized to candy so that they may be dipped into a sweet, beige sour cream or eaten with refried black beans. And the Supermarket serves a mother lode of gallo pinto on the weekends, a cumin-spiced black bean and rice jumble that accompanies most entrees. As in New Orleans' favorite neighborhood restaurants, families come to the Supermarket for home cooking when they don't feel like cooking at home.

The all-day, everyday menu samples the Central American kitchen, offering egg-based breakfast plates, seafood specialties, tacos, meat-centric combination meals and "tipico" Honduran dishes. I bypassed the few Mexican choices, having learned long ago that Honduran-run kitchens possess other culinary strengths -- like pupusas, the soft, corn flour pockets that resemble small pancakes and are freckled from a few flips on the griddle. Filled with subtle white cheese or a mild pork paste, or both, these pupusas are not to be judged by their traditional side of marinated cabbage slaw (curtido), which is oddly dry and lifeless here. Simply eat them hot and snuggle up to the aroma of toasted corn crowding every cubic inch of your personal space.

A motherly Honduran woman who seems to be the only waitress calls everyone "baby" with such gentle authority that you believe her when she recommends the carne asada combination plate. The carne asada itself is a mystery strip of salty, flavor-charged beef; it will surprise anyone who usually scoffs when meat requires an extra bit of chewing. The 10-piece ensemble also includes squeaky, fried white cheese; yucca wrapped in a brittle, fried film; fried green and ripe plantains; greasy orange sausages; gallo pinto; hot chicharron, like fresh-out-the-vat cracklin'; and gristle posing as pork chop, which is the only thing you won't regret being too full to finish.

A whole, copper-colored fried snapper will only appeal to people who enjoy a lot of fin with their fish. And while baleadas (tortillas smeared with combinations of beans, meat and cheese) are puffed tortillas from heaven when served fresh and hot, the ones in Kenner are as tough as day-old baguette. In contrast, the ropa vieja ("old clothes") is utterly lovable; the Supermarket's version of shredded beef is synonymous with a sweet, tomatoey recipe that has apparently traveled the length of our continent (think sloppy joes).

The Honduran pork tamale, served free of the banana leaf it usually steams in, is a soft roll of corn dough larded with spicy pork, sweet peas, potatoes and green olives. With a strawberry-like mamay milkshake and a weepy Mexican soap opera, it's an idyllic lunch break for the working woman of any culture.

Besides the fruit shakes, there are multiple ways to indulge a fetish for unusual beverages. Try the milky horchata, made with pulverized nuts and cinnamon; cocoa, which tastes like horchata without the nuts; lychee-like bits of guanabana treading in guanabana juice; and generically sweet cherimoya juice (custard apple) with slippery black seeds. If you're just thirsty, there's also Modelo Especial poured into Styrofoam cups.

Many of the Supermarket's customers keep to the grocery half of the business. Some buy grease-stained bags of warm chicharron, some shop for greeting cards to express "feliz cumpleaño" with customary poetry, and some hang around whatever girl is trapped behind the cash register. Such is life in this local Central American community.

click to enlarge It's hard to tell the bigger reason for diners to flock to KENNER SUPERMARKET: for the delicious Central American food or the constant soccer matches shown on the overhead TV. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • It's hard to tell the bigger reason for diners to flock to KENNER SUPERMARKET: for the delicious Central American food or the constant soccer matches shown on the overhead TV.
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