Honduran chef opened his own restaurant to get the comforts of home
Sometimes you stumble into your passion through the back door. That’s how it worked for Elvin Lainez, at least. Coming from the remote village of Orica in Colon, Honduras, a place where many of the working roles in the culture are delineated by gender, Lainez certainly never saw himself cooking for a living, let alone running a restaurant. “In Honduras, I didn’t really learn how to cook,” he says. “The culture there encourages men to go work while the women cook. But living there I got to know the flavors of what Honduran food is like.”
After moving to Western North Carolina in 2012 at the age of 19, Lainez began working in a restaurant as a dishwasher. “When I first started washing dishes and I’d see the cooks working, there was a natural attraction there. I really enjoyed the work and something about it just made me want to learn what they were doing. That’s when the dream began to own my own restaurant and I started saving money,” he says.
His boss eventually moved him to the line to start cooking, and he really took to it. He started learning more and working his way up the ranks. He went to work at Koreana, making Korean food for eight years and saving money, with the goal of eventually opening his own place. And when the owner of Koreana offered him the restaurant, he wound up buying it.
“The food was really different, but it was a really important experience,” he says. “I learned how to manage a restaurant, how to create a menu, and how to juggle everything that happens when you get busy.” But all the while, he was still missing that taste of Honduras.
“My friends and I really missed the food from home, so we would try to cook it,” he says — but it never came out quite right. Nevertheless, recapturing the flavors from home became an all-consuming mission. Lainez’s wife Maria Mercy Ramos and brother Marvin Lainez Diaz helped him remember recipes, and they scoured the Internet and YouTube. During the pandemic lockdowns, when they had to shutter Koreana, he began testing recipes at Smiley’s Flea Market, selling pupusas and other staples to passersby. “We were always talking about how it was such a shame that there was nowhere you could go to get food from home,” he recalls. That’s when he started thinking about opening his own place. “There wasn’t anyone doing Honduran food, and I saw an opportunity there.”
Lainez flipped Koreana, closing the Korean kitchen and reopening as El Aguila, “the Eagle,” serving Honduran standards and other Latin classics with the help of his brother and wife, including pupusas, skillet-fried tortillas stuffed with cheese and sometimes beans, and baleadas — fresh, thick flour tortillas topped with refried beans, cheese, and eggs. It’s a common street food in Honduras, and they are given the same treatment here, affordable and hearty. And then there are the tajadas: green bananas cut into flakes and fried. “It’s a bit different, but we use it in a lot of our dishes,” he says.
The Mojarra con Tajadas — a massive, whole fried fish served with the crispy plantain chips, rice, beans, pico de gallo, and pickled onions — is highly recommended.
Lainez says he’s seen Honduran expats come out of the woodwork to seek out the food of their homeland, showing him a much larger Honduran community than he knew existed. “We’ve been finding more and more people every day,” he says. “Some [of them] even cry because they get so emotional eating food that reminds them of home.”
— Translation assistance from Megan McLeish at Rev Local
El Aguila Honduran Kitchen, 221 Airport Road B, Arden, open 11am-9:30pm daily. www.elaguilahondurankitchen.com. 828-676-1010.