Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Eating in Antigua (Guatemala)

Sambuca shrimp at Como Como

I always try to eat local specialties when I travel, but I gotta tell you, comida tipica in Guatemala and Honduras gets pretty tired pretty quickly. In general, a meal consists of a plate with your choice of meat, along with rice or French fries, beans (usually a black bean puree), maybe some fried sweet plantains, and a half an avocado, accompanied by tortillas that are smaller and thicker than Mexican ones and generally dry and bland from lack of salt. From what I can tell there's just not the rich culinary tradition you find in Mexico, nor a significant range of regional specialties. In Honduras, but not Guatemala, you'll find pupusas, the stuffed corn masa pancakes that I know from Salvadorean restaurants in New York and San Francisco.

I did get to try a bunch of Guatemalan specialties my first day in the country, as Kacao, a tourist-friendly place in Guatemala City, has a copious Sunday lunch buffet (around $18) featuring a wide range of soups, appetizers, stews, grilled meats, salads and desserts. The stews (e.g. pepian, jocon, subanik and cack-ik) are perhaps the most specifically Guatemalan of the dishes. Maybe it was the preparation at Kacao, but I just didn't find any of them particularly flavorful. For me the grilled steak was highlight of the meal. Guatemala City, being a sprawling, populous capital, no doubt has a variety of good restaurants, but Kacao was my only meal in town other than a hotel breakfast.

In Flores (the town near Tikal) and in Copan Ruinas, Honduras I ate mostly local cuisine.

By the time I got to Antigua, I was happy for the great selection of international restaurants. In fact, it's probably easier to find a French restaurant in town than a Guatemalan one. If you do want typical Guatemalan food in Antigua your best bet is in the area near the outdoor market and the crafts market.

Most of the restaurants I visited in Antigua were somewhat upscale, but I'd say for the quality of food, service and decor, prices are about half of what they'd be at similar places in the states. There are so many appealing restaurants for such a small place that it would probably take weeks if not months to try them all.

Saberico, a very pleasant garden restaurant, does have Guatemalan dishes on their menu, but I opted for a spicy lamb stew with couscous for my lunch and it was delicious.

The first hotel I stayed at in Antigua may have been a dump, but there was an excellent restaurant across the street, La Pena de Sol Latino. I enjoyed their specialty, grouper filet with macadamia nuts over cubed vegetables. The restaurant features live music by band that plays Andean pan flute music, one of my least favorite of Latin American traditional musics, I guess the concept being "Inca, Maya, what's the difference?"

At Frida's, a Mexican restaurant with pictures of Frida Kahlo all over the joint, I had a very pleasant lunch of huitlacoche crepes with grilled vegetables.

Como Como is a charming Belgian restaurant where they play Django Reinhardt records. There was only one main course on the menu that really appealed to me (because I wasn't in a meat mood nor did I want the ubiquitous farmed tilapia), filet of dorado wrapped in serrano ham with tapenade and sun dried tomatoes, but alas, they were all out of dorado. So instead I ordered three appetizers, and ended up with one of the richest meals I've had in ages, all dishes heavy on the dairy. The shrimp in a Sambuca cream sauce is shown at the top. Then there were the 5-cheese croquettes and the escargots in a bleu cheese and pecan sauce.

Meson Panza Verde is a decidedly upscale, romantic place with a number of rooms, a mostly French-influenced menu, and live music nightly. There I tried the robalo panza verde. Robalo (snook in English) is a meaty, mild white fish common to the region. It was cooked in foil with white wine and tomatoes. Because I hadn't made a reservation I couldn't get a dinner table in La Cueva, the room with the live music, so I went to the bar after I ate and listened to pianist/singer Nelson Lunding (originally from Yonkers, and later New Orleans and the Bay Area, before relocating to Antigua), who plays New Orleans-style R&B and blues.

Without a doubt the best meal I had in Guatemala, and my best meal of the year so far, was at Nokiate. They describe themselves variously as Japanese-Peruvian and Asian fusion. They have a large sushi menu, other traditional Japanese items, ceviches, and a number of dishes on the Asian fusion portion of the menu. From the sushi menu I ordered a dragon roll, which was quite good, but the highlights were the two hot dishes from the fusion side. The fried dumplings (and they called them dumplings, not gyoza) were amazing, among the best I've ever had. The skin was on the thick side, but perfectly browned with a filling of minced (not ground) pork and herbs that was absolutely fabulous. Even better, one of those dishes for the taste memory, was the Pulpo Don Robbin, octopus sauteed with capers, garlic, amazingly aromatic black peppercorns and lime juice. For "dessert" I tried the Ron Zacapa Centenario, considered one of the world's great rums, but to my taste it was much too sweet.

The Italian-style gelato at Cafe Gelato, on the west side of the Parque Central was great,

much better than the somewhat watery ice cream at Helados Marco Polo, about a block further north.

But the best sweet thing I had during the entire trip was a slice of pie at a bakery and cafe called Panaderia y Pastelaria Dona Luisa Xicotencatl, down the block from Hotel Aurora. American-style pies aren't that common in Latin America, but they seem to be so in Guatemala. In fact they've borrowed the word from English, changing the spelling to "pay." I had a piece of the pay de miel con pasas (honey pie with raisins) my first morning in Antigua, but I had left my camera at the hotel, so I went back a couple of days later for another piece, for purely journalistic purposes, of course. Though it was called a honey pie it was pretty much a custard pie, and a fantastic one at that.


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