There are no true cooking wunderkinds.
No one wanders into a kitchen in their footie pajamas and just knows, in their bones, the secret to a good soft boiled egg. There aren’t any YouTube videos of 6-year-olds going all “Rain Man” on a souffle on their first try.
Good cooking is a fist-fight in the dark behind a bar.
Nothing can make you spectacular at it except stumbling into it over and over again and getting walloped. Falling out the other side, hopefully, a little less scuffed up each time.
On those terms, Wendy Suazo of Mi Bella Honduras has taken her licks.
“I used to watch my grandmother cook when I was 7,” she tells me at the counter of her restaurant on Pacific Highway. “I made these ugly little tortillas.”
The memory drags a laugh out of her that is as bright and unabashed as the tropical decorations on the walls and the spices in the food. Suazo moved to the United States with her family when she was 16, and they planted themselves in New York City to join the sizable Honduran population already there.
“How’d you get started selling food?” I ask, picking chunks of perfectly cooked gold out of my teeth like a caveman.
“I sold Honduran food out of a shopping cart in Crotona Park in New York,” she says.
She describes pushing a busted little cart around during the day, selling her homemade food to the people of the Bronx, taking her licks. Learning her lessons. She moved to Federal Way a couple of years ago and opened Mi Bella Honduras with the money that she’d made working the park as a street vendor.
“Why Federal Way?” I ask.
“It just made sense,” she says.
“Is there a big Honduran population here?”
She shrugs a saintly shrug.
“If you make good food, people will find you.”
If this idiom is to be believed, then people must be finding her like sand at a beach. The first time I wandered into the place and wiped my plate clean with the bottom half of my face, all I could think was, “How have I never been here before, and when can I be here again?”
It’s the kind of food that sends you off the rails, just a little bit. I was gnawing the buttery, musky meat off some stewed oxtail, picking little savory chunks of it off the bone while I held it in my sauce-slathered fingers. At one point, I wiped my hands on a napkin and watched the sauce come away on the paper and this thought sincerely inhabited me: “Stupid napkin. Getting all that sauce and it can’t even appreciate it.”
I was appreciating it. I was appreciating everything on that plate. The plantains, sliced thin and fried, then salted lightly. Every wafer-thin bite infused with that fry oil, like a french fry, but different. The rice and beans and the coleslaw working together, tying everything into one cohesive unit. An extremely well-rounded dish. A meal that is expert, but not pretentious about it. Absolutely dripping with that home-cooked feeling that you only experience in the presence of professionals with both feet on the ground.
Even as I write this, I have to consult the photos I took while I was there to remind myself that I didn’t serve myself the food from a stockpot on the table. That the interior of the place was decorated as a restaurant and wasn’t just someone’s kitchen at home.
All that care and expertise doesn’t just come made-to-order, though. Be warned, you may have to wait for your meal. Clicking through the Yelp reviews that led me to Mi Bella Honduras in the first place, the wait time was something people seemed to have qualms about. So if you’re one of those who likes a drive-thru window and a kitchen with a stopwatch running on a wall, go to a McDonald’s. Get yourself a Big Mac. Think about your life.
At Mi Bella Honduras, Suazo will be in the back making everything from scratch with her bare hands. Sit back and wait for it. Enjoy the ambience of the place. Appreciate the fact that you’re in the presence of someone who has worked hard to get where she is, and who knows exactly what she’s doing.
A woman who went from ugly little tortillas, to a meal that’ll make you curse your napkin.