Coming of age in NYC kitchens I had met countless Mexicans typically from Puebla and occasionally some cooks from Guatemala. The Poblanos always seemed to chuckle whenever another cook would say he was from Guatemala, not sure what sort of hierarchy was going on but I did notice how incredibly sweet and nice the Guatemalans were. I can tell you that rang true immediately upon entering the country as well. As with most places I have been, you can learn a lot about a culture by first getting to know their food. Much of the day revolves around food, markets are the liveliest places. Women walking through alleys with dried maize, perched in buckets balanced casually on their heads, babies tied up in textile bundles on their backs. Masa being hand patted into tortillas for the griddle, steam rising from bowls of atol de arroz.
This beautiful ancient town surrounded by volcanoes in the Sacatepequez department is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is getting a bit more touristic yes, but if you know where to look you can still find some great eats.
Rincon Tipico-sometimes the best part about a restaurant or food stall isn't solely the food, a joint can have a vibe that just feels good and the food can slip a little and it's still ok, this is one of those places.
I believe the menu changes a bit but at the time they had sopa de gallina, a hearty reddish chicken and chile soup in which squash, corn and potatoes are poached in, then served on the side. Pollo asada, the whole chickens hung to smoke and cook above the fire with grilled potatoes, puerco adobado, grilled pork in adobo sauce. Everything is served with a super creamy and delicious potato salad and a shredded lettuce salad with tomato and cucumber. To drink they have a changing selection of frescas, tamarindo and limonada. No menus, no english, few tourists, enough said.
Rellenitos de Platano guate style-you can find these little bad boys being sold by a Mayan woman and her cute little girl around the Parque Central. Essentially they are fried mashed plantains with black beans inside and dusted with sugar, win win.
Street Food Antigua
If you head up 5th ave North to the Parque la Merced at night you will run into the street food vendors. Here you can find myriad of excellent snacks from tortas to tostadas and atol, a comforting corn or rice drink. Our favorite of the night was probably the dobladas, a masa empanada fried or griddled with pork, beans, avocado, cabbage and tomato salsa on top. Damn good stuff and nothing more than 10 Quetzales (7.4 Q to the dollar).
If I could pick just one type of place to eat in Guatemala it would have to be at the comedores. Conveniently located within or around the central mercado of every single town no matter how small, this is the place to get a great plato tipico. During our entire 9 day stay I saw one other foreigner inside a comedor, so that right there tells you you done right. Usually no menus, about 4 or 5 items to chose from, all come with rice and beans and tortillas. In Antigua they are located in the West end of town by the bus station. When you enter you will be hounded by numerous vendors trying to get you into their stall, but take your time and look who has an actual kitchen behind them as many pre cook and bring to the market so their food is not made fresh. Simply locate the stalls with kitchens and then select the busiest one, done.
Comedor Coralia Antigua-You probably won't find anything written about this wonderful comedor as most tourists aren't venturing into the comedores, however do not be fooled this food is amazing. I spoke with the chef for a while about the carne guisada, a rich black sauce of tomato, charred chile guaquer and chile pasa, cinnamon, pepper, garlic and onions, needless to say it blew my mind. You could tell some serious love and time went into this food.
Day of the Dead Kite Festival, Sumpango Guatemala
All things food aside this is a must see event. Held annually on November 1st for centuries, the town of Sumpango holds a kite decorating and flying contest. Teams of kite flyers take turns trying to loft huge decorated kites into the air often to the demise of onlookers as they come crashing down. The goal to loft the kite high for the remainder of the day. The nearby cemetery is also adorned with fresh paint and offerings for the dead. What you seldom if at all hear about though, which of course was my favorite part, is the food. Winding up narrow, steep and crowded town streets you make your way to the top of the hill to the festival. The whole way up in every direction are hordes of residents and visitors from afar grilling whole pigs, frying snacks, ladling warm drinks, beer, elote you name it. The street food scene here is just as much a sight to see as the kites themselves.
The highlights were definitely the elote, long cobs of irregular shaped kernels of corn, blistered dark and served with salt, chili powder and lime. Whole roasted pig grilled over coals and sliced until its gone, served with tortillas, refried beans, cabbage, ranchero sauce and salsa. Also common are papusas native to El Salvador, these are layered with cheese and black beans or with chicharrones. After noticing a gathering crowd I stopped to ask what was being served, and a local woman bought me a steaming cup of fruit soup, beautifully delicious on that cool day; various types of fruit simmered in a syrup of panela (evaporated sugar cane juice) and canella (cinnamon).
Lake Atitlan, San Pedro
Breakfast in the Mercado-when visiting the villages surrounding lake Atitlan it is helpful to know that the closer you are to the lake front the more touristic it becomes, and generally that means the worse the food. San Pedro is no exception. Disembark the lancha (commuter boat) and head straight up the hill to the mercado. In the center of the market in the morning you can find some amazing breakfast treats. Some favorites were chicken tostadas, a cheese and chicken spread with cotija, white onion, avocado, cilantro and hot sauce; chicken and veggie tortas, the veggie one had beets, avocado and onion, and to drink the ubiquitous atol. Atol has many forms, one is a warm drink made with different ingredients and flavorings like banana, rice with milk, masa and chocolate. Atol porridge, a warm breakfast soup of rice and milk with black beans and chili came to be my preferred breakfast. On the side you have a bottle of dried, ground chilies reconstituted in water for added heat and smoke, and palitos, little stick crackers that you pour on top of the porridge for crunchy texture. Similar latitudes always seem to have similarities in cuisine and I can't help but be reminded of the rice porridges in Cambodia and Vietnam, also like Chinese congee.