My favorite thing to eat in Little Rock right now is the baleada con todo from El Sur, Luis Vasquez’s Honduran food truck often found (in normal times) in the South Main neighborhood. In northern Honduras, where it’s a popular street food, the simplest version of the baleada is a flour tortilla filled with refried red beans and cheese and then folded over. You’ll get that, along with your pick of protein and Honduran crema, from El Sur when you order a sencilla baleada.
But when I witness someone order a sencilla, I feel the same sort of mild contempt as when I encounter an adult who still eats, like a child, only food that’s brown, beige or white. Because the immense delights of eating a baleada con todo are all about the con todo (with everything). On top of the base of refried beans, crema, cheese and meat, the con todo comes with pickled onions, chunks of fresh avocado and the pièce de résistance, fried plantain. I usually get mine al pastor —with pork that’s marinated in pineapple juice and other spices and then cooked on a vertical spit. Vasquez slices the meat off the spit and then briefly cooks it on the griddle. All that gets wrapped tightly like a burrito and sliced in half. The combination of those flavors and textures — the rich, creamy beans and avocado; the slightly sweet mush of plantain; the char on the tender, sweet and spicy pork; the sour pop of the pickled onions; the tart crema and gooey cheese — is so complex and satisfying I always find myself stopping midway through a meal to study it and try to figure out its secrets.
Vasquez, a 29-year-old native of Honduras, opened the food truck in April 2019 with his husband, Darren Strayhorn. Six years ago, Vasquez came to Perryville to volunteer for Heifer International’s ranch and work on his English. He stayed for two months, during which time he met Strayhorn, who lived in the area. After some time back in Honduras, Vasquez returned to Arkansas, where Strayhorn connected him with a lawyer who helped him successfully petition for asylum. “Honduras, after Russia, is the most dangerous place to live and be gay,” Vasquez said. “When I came to Heifer, it opened my eyes to how different people are here. People talk bad about how conservative the South is, but to me it was 360 degrees different.” He and Strayhorn married in 2016.
After working in construction, Vasquez got a job at The Root Cafe washing dishes. When a line cook quit, he asked to move to food prep. It was during a time when The Root was expanding into dinner service and shifting employees around. A spot cooking breakfast opened. “I never flip an egg before, but if you train me, I’ll do it,” Vasquez said he told management. After two years working at The Root, he helped create the menu at owners Jack and Corri Sundell’s Latin American restaurant, Dos Rocas (now Mockingbird Bar & Tacos after the original co-owners departed in 2019). Shortly after Dos Rocas opened, Vasquez left to develop El Sur. He bought the food trailer from Richard Glasgow, who used it when he began kBird before he opened his brick-and-mortar restaurant. The trailer had been sitting for years behind kBird. Vasquez used his construction background to completely restore the truck himself over the course of four months.
“In the beginning it was so scary to have [the baleada] out,” Vazquez said. “People were very scared of the plantains and pickled onions.” But Hondurans in Central Arkansas flocked to the truck as did other customers with stories of vacationing in Honduras or being deployed with the military there and craving baleadas ever since. The baleada quickly became El Sur’s bestseller, and the truck has developed a devoted following.
But don’t sleep on the rest of the menu. Everything is made from scratch. There are also street tacos and arepas, each of which you can get with familiar Latin American options: al pastor, carnitas, pollo asado, carne asada, birria, nopales (cactus) and cauliflower chorizo. The tacos come on a corn tortilla made fresh as soon as you order and topped with cilantro and diced onion. The arepas come wrapped in a thick corn pancake and filled with your choice of guacamole, cheese or pico de gallo in addition to the chosen meats or vegetable stuffings.
Ask about specials, too. Vasquez recently served pupusas and has lately been offering Honduran-style tamales de cambray, which are masa heavy, filled with shredded pork and beef and diced carrots and potatoes and cooked in a banana leaf.
Maintaining authenticity is apparently a family affair. Vasquez said his mom came to Little Rock to make sure he was making the beans right. “The beans are very important,” he said. What’s the secret ingredient? “Love,” he joked. “Lard?” I countered. Nope — they’re vegan. “I try to make the food at a point that everybody could enjoy it,” he said. “It’s very authentic, but I figured out a way that vegans or people that are allergic to garlic or gluten or other things can still enjoy it.” He said a lot of people order a deconstructed baleada without the tortilla.
El Sur’s customers follow the food truck on Facebook (facebook.com/elsurstreetfoodco) and Instagram (@elsurstreetfoodco). Regular locations include The Bernice Garden, The Bramble Market, Rocktown Distillery, Stone’s Throw Stifft Station (in the parking lot of Jett’s service station), The Rail Yard and Flyway Brewing.
After El Sur (translation: The South) had been in business for six months, Strayhorn quit his longtime job as a manager at Sleep Number to join Vasquez in the truck this year. “It was the plan from the beginning for us to create something we could both do together,” Strayhorn said. “I wasn’t going to step away until it got to where it needed to and that’s where it’s at.” We spoke in mid-March before the coronavirus had halted a lot of daily life for many in Central Arkansas. But El Sur planned to continue serving and asked on social media for community support. (Vasquez later announced that he would close the truck until further notice. He was taking orders Build Your Own Baleada kits through Facebook message or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
As for long-term plans, Vasquez and Strayhorn say that friends and family are constantly asking them about a brick-and-mortar restaurant. “I’m 29 years old,” Vasquez said.” I’ve never owned a small business before. Right now I’m just going to keep learning. It is a lot of work involved, from the food to the paperwork to social media. Right now I’m just learning and making every skill work for me.”