52 W. Merrick Rd., Freeport
SERVICE: Warm and welcoming with a husband-and-wife team eager to share their Central American cuisines with customers.
AMBIENCE: Looks like a no-frills, steam-table restaurant, but ask for the menu and they’ll happily oblige.
ESSENTIALS: Open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Handicapped accessible, but interior is somewhat tight for wheelchairs. Ample parking in the back of the restaurant, though the lot is not clearly marked and can be difficult to find.
At this Central American restaurant in a Freeport neighborhood that’s become a Latin food hub, a husband-and-wife team serves a taco named the “Goliath.” It was created in a tiny city nestled in the Honduran mountains and aptly lives up to its name on Long Island.
You won’t see this taco, a crispy tortilla the size of a slugger’s forearm, among the dozens of items on Cafe Bethel’s long steam table, where the selections are more traditional, including meaty stews, roast chicken, empanadas and multiple types of beans.
Regulars have become accustomed to the grab-and-go nature of the place, a holdover from when the restaurant was Señor Cafe. But in the five months since Donnie and Wendy Giron took over the narrow space on Merrick Road, they have added several banquettes and a sit-down menu that for now is only available if you ask.
This is where the Goliath taco lives, a rolled tortilla that’s open at both ends, and whose construction involves going from one kitchen to another and then back again before it ends up on the table.
Corn flour batter from a large metal bowl on the counter is used to make a 12-inch tortilla that spends a few moments on the griddle so it doesn’t fall apart, then is whisked away beyond the diner’s view.
It returns rotund, rolled and stuffed with tender shredded chicken and secured with three toothpicks to keep the whole thing from unraveling. It’s then gently placed in a deep fryer to bathe in hot oil for several minutes until it emerges with a deep-brown brittle shell.
Topped with vinegary cabbage, a piquant mayo-based sauce, a relatively mild pico de gallo and crumbled white cheese, diners greet the Goliath taco with a sense of awe: This baby can easily feed two people, and arguably three.
Taco Goyiat, as the Goliath is known in Spanish, was born at a restaurant in Siguatepeque, a small Honduran mountain town where Donnie learned to cook the dish from the owner — his father.
At Cafe Bethel, the Goliath anchors the menu of Central American dishes that take their cue from Honduras, and also El Salvador, where Wendy was raised.
The food is made by a team of skilled cooks, as the Girons move between the kitchen and dining room, excited to lead customers on a journey of their cuisines.
The corn batter returns for pupusas, stuffed corn cakes that are packed to order. They come in a rotating selection of flavors, including a jalapeño and mozzarella version that pairs stringy melted cheese with flecks of fresh chili pepper, and a chicken and cheese that pairs the same mozzarella with shredded chicken.
Soups are a mainstay no matter the weather, and change day-to-day between chicken and beef, a slow-cooked medley of bone-on-rib chunks, corn on the cob, tender sheets of cabbage and root vegetables in a broth that takes its heartiness from the ingredients.
You’re fine to skip the Bethel steak, which is well-cooked, but an otherwise bland match for the pollo con tajadas, or fried chicken, crispy pieces that are slathered in a marinade of mayo and mustard, bathed in flour and fried to order.
You’ll be given options for sides. Pass on the flavored rice, which is too soft and in need of salt. Instead, insist on the plantains, which are halved and deep fried until they develop a blistered crust that gives way to a sweet velvety center. Ask for a side of crema for an added depth of tartness.
There is no alcohol here, but along with a grab-your-own-drink refrigerator, fresh juices are made daily, including a chartreuse-tinted nectar from the cashew fruit, which is subtly sweet and refreshing.
With summer in full swing, the restaurant has set up a snow cone cart complete with a machine for shaving ice that draws kids for flavors that include strawberry, blueberry, fresh lime and passion fruit. The cones come topped with tart tamarind and sweet condensed milk. Just say, “yes,” if Wendy suggests a traditional cholado, a half snow cone topped with fresh fruit, whipped cream and a cherry on top.