During my week traveling around Guatemala this past winter, I couldn’t escape the awe-inspiring natural beauty this Central American country presents no shortage of. The almost crayon- colored blue water of Lago de Atitlan in the country’s west with its handsome twin volcano backdrop mesmerized me for my two hours on the lake. It was a good thing I wasn’t our miniature boat’s captain. It’s even more captivating than Crater Lake.
I had never seen such a dramatic, scarred landscape as the area near the summit of the Volcan de Pacaya. The sweeping views of the impossibly charming preserved colonial town Antigua, like Lago de Atitlan guarded by formidable- looking volcanoes on two sides, force you to never let down your camera.
Then in eastern Guatemala, amidst the tropical lakes and jungles, are some of the most striking Mayan ruins anywhere to be found. After a full day of meeting monkeys, talking with toucans, and exploring the ruins and climbing the steep pyramids at Yaxhá and Tikal, I started to become that jaded tourist who gets “pyramid-ed out” from the relentless ancient splendor of this civilization who disappeared long ago. I still can’t wrap my mind over how these ruins still remain in these precious corners of the world, with numerous lessons we can still learn from many centuries later.
Nature and culture were the focus of this trip. Food was not. Wine and beer were not. This was not a wine-tasting in Bordeaux and Burgundy extravaganza. This was far from flying to Tokyo to sample meticulous sushi and yakitori bars.
Indeed, food and drink were not the purpose of heading to Central America. Neither was the weather, as outside of the jungle, the temperatures were essentially the same as my Northern California home at that time of year. In fact, the wind chill may have even been cooler in Guatemala than San Francisco.
However, one cannot appreciate new corners of the globe and the wonderful people that make up the fabric of these fascinating countries near and far, without sampling the local cuisine. That meant I was constantly in search of Guatemalan cuisine, particularly the country’s national dish: pepian.
Unfortunately it seems that in Antigua and Guatemala City, the former being the city frequented by tourists and the latter being the country’s capital and principal city, many restaurants of “Guatemalan” cuisine are geared towards tourists seeking novelty over quality. Not one of the traditional cuisine restaurants was particularly worth noting for their cuisine. At least a few were for their decor.
Then again, every local I would ask about “traditional” cuisine would say the same thing. They would explain how traditional food is very, very simple, and only served at homes. When Guatemalans go out to eat, it’s for American fast food, Chinese food, Italian food, or that ubiquitous Guatemalan favorite, Pollo Campero’s fried chicken. Just what I flew eight hours for.
Amidst sampling the more contemporary restaurants and bistros of Antigua, I did sample a few of these indeed very ordinary and tourist- driven traditional restaurants in search of the (not at all) elusive pepian.
At the three branches of the disappointing La Fonda de la Calle Real near Antigua’s central plaza, and the slightly more impressive Kacao in Guatemala City, the menus are nearly identical. At Kacao, you’ll remember the traditional Mayan outfits worn by the all- male wait staff in the tropical environs bordering on Polynesian. At La Fonda, you’ll remember asking yourself why Bill Clinton chose to eat here when he visited Guatemala. Over a decade later, the restaurant’s business still is clearly benefiting from the former President’s visit. Word is he’s a big pepian fan.
Like back in the days of the Mayan civilization, corn and beans are staple ingredients in the majority of dishes. Many of the starters and snacks share similar names with common Mexican dishes, but are actually quite different in reality.
Tamales are the most frequently seen, commonly called tamalitos de chipilin. These tamales are similarly steamed in banana leaves, but tend to be very wet as if cooked sous-vide, compared to Mexico’s more structured, drier tamales. Fillings vary, but usually are pork or beef in a “ranchers” sauce based on tomatoes and chiles. Unfortunately, the moistness of the tamales translated frequently to blandness. If you do want impeccable tamales, enjoy breakfast at Antigua’s elegant Meson de Panza Verde, where the red chile filled masa is much more in the thicker Mexican style, yet still perfectly moist.
Speaking of breakfast for a moment, in addition to those fluffy tamales, you’ll find beautifully fluffy sweetened breads as often as you’ll find bagels in New York. You can have a sugar-based glaze with the breads, or cream cheese or farmer’s cheese. Bountiful, colorful fruits are easy to find, especially plantains, pineapples, and of most importance, our beloved papayas. If you’re into the heavy breakfast sort of thing, there are always eggs, steaks, and sausages, and plates with all three. Never worry about that.
Back to lunch and dinner now, enchiladas happen to actually be fried tostada shells topped with vegetables, ground beef, and salad, not at all like Mexico’s rolled tortillas filled with meat, melted cheese, and sauce. Quesadillas are a sweet- savory dish of sweet bread with a farmer’s cheese filling, not the tortilla grilled cheese- like sandwich you expect.
Guacamole is a common sight, though served with soft corn tortillas instead of tortilla chips. In fact, tortillas also serve the function of bread for the meal. Salads are not anything to write home about, just your garden variety lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Occasionally, an intriguing salad of pickled vegetables may arrive at your table.
Soups and stews are much more important than greens to the country’s cooking canon, similar in thin broth- full of meat style to Mexico’s guisados. At the plain end, there is the classic black bean soup topped with sour cream. It’s as riveting as it sounds.
An often found three part lighter caldo incorporates either chicken or hen with a starch such as rice or potatoes, then lightly enhanced by cilantro and mint. Consider it a palate cleanser.
Pay more attention to the Kac-iq, a dense roasted tomato broth that is surprisingly spicy, full of moist shredded turkey meat, done particularly well at Kacao. I would order again La Fonda’s Gallo en chicha, a sweet and sour rooster stew given complexity from brown sugar, ginger, anise, and clove. It’s actually a dish native to the region right around Antigua.
If you enjoy the funk of pig liver and gelatinous texture of pig tongue, then the tomato sauce based pork stew Revolcado de marrano is for you. It will be repulsive for everyone else. I was on the fence in the middle. For those preferring seafood, there is the coconut milk based “Guatemalan Bouillabaisse” full of white fish, crab, squid, and shrimp called Tapado, garnished with raw plantains. The dish hails from the eastern Guatemalan coast along the Caribbean seaboard, with origins in Africa from the slave trade centuries ago.
Personally, the most well-rounded, palate- exciting stew was a dish native to Chimaltenango, the Subanik from Kacao, involving both chicken and pork in a broth given life from various chiles, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and tomatillos.
Sides will almost always be two or three of rice, puréed black beans, and forgettable plain tamales.
Chiles rellenos , unlike enchiladas and quesadillas, are just like you’d find in Mexico, with the batter covered roasted bell peppers filled with ground beef, cheese, and vegetables. It’s more than o.k. to skip La Fonda’s banal rendition with a soggy egg batter that had to have been microwaved.
Of course the King of the Stews would be pepian. The Ancient Mayan stew features myriad parts of a chicken, various vegetables (almost always potatoes and carrots are found), in a roasted tomato sauce given depth from toasted bread, pumpkin seeds, chiles, and lots of cinnamon. Think of pepian‘s broth as a lighter mix of Spain’s romesco and Mexico’s mole negro. You expect the stew to be thick, but it gets watered down by chicken broth, causing most versions to underwhelm. Both La Fonda and Kacao’s versions, along with an even less stellar, college dining hall style number at the Casa de Don David near Tikal, shared the same chewy, sinewy chicken meat characteristic with a clear broth no more thrilling than Earl Grey tea.
The search for pepian was not going well.
In fact, the only satisfactory pepian I found was way out at Francis Ford Coppola’s La Lancha Resort’s dining room along the Lago de Péten Itza near Tikal. Here, the spices really came forward and the roasted chicken morsels were tender had pleasant gaminess to let you know it’s real meat. In reality, the best dishes at La Lancha were a whole white fish from the lake, served simply with a chimichurri, and a gigantic slab of tender beef from Argentina, adorned with a little salsa on the side. A sweet potato brûlée and plantains in a ravishing salsa verde (spice and sweet for dessert works wonders) at the end were a perfect finish. Yes, the fish and steak made La Lancha close to a dinner I once had at a parilla in Mendoza, Argentina. It might not be traditional Guatemalan, but that’s fine by me.
My search for pepian finally found a worthy bowl to report back about.
To drink at La Lancha? Well, this is Coppola territory, so enjoy one of his California Chardonnays or red blends.
I’m told if you’re in Antigua, the pepians worth seeking out are at the restaurant version of Sobremesa (I thoroughly enjoyed the fig flavored helado at their ice cream parlor around the corner) and the in the lush garden patio of SabeRico (had a terrific pepian– less lunch here, much praise goes to the not very traditional portobello mushroom sandwich, pesto pizza, and homemade chocolates).
What was the best dish of the trip? I would have to say a tuna melt I enjoyed at a friend’s home in Santiago de Atitlan. Seriously masterful sandwich-making. Or, perhaps the robust basil pesto with spaghetti from an Italian expat chef and hotel owner at the El Sombrero lodge near the gate to Yaxhá. I haven’t found such a vivid pesto outside Santa Margherita. The Yaxhá Lagoon isn’t quite the Riviera. But, the Italian cooking there is just as molto béné.
Another contender: a pepperoni pizza cooked in a thermal oven on the side of Pacaya. Tourist trap? Of course. You’re captive and starving here after hiking for an hour.
Maybe you’ve been to Bianco in Phoenix, Di Fara’s in Brooklyn, and spent a week training as a pizzaiolo in Naples, but you’ve never had pizza like this before. And you won’t, either. Volcanic ovens are a little harder to transport than brick ovens or wood-fired ovens I would think.
To drink with your pepian, there is always Gallo cerveza, Guatemala’s Miller- Coors- Budweiser- in one blonde lager. If you actually want a real beer, try Gallo’s “Dark,” a very impressive Black Lager. Wine lists veer towards Chile and Argentina labels. I was brave enough to try the “white” from the one Guatemalan winery, Family White. Imagine a hostile Riesling and you get the idea. Fresh fruit agua frescas, horchata, and fresh fruit smoothies are common at lunch. I could easily enjoy SabeRico’s papaya smoothie each day at lunch. This being Guatemala, coffee is of course everywhere. The coffee beans themselves, however, are sadly imported since Guatemala’s beans are mostly premium and charge too high a price for domestic roasting and consumption. We’ll have more on that next week when we go into details about Antigua dining.
Straight spirits are the common choice for locally made alcoholic drinks not named Gallo beer. You probably know the world famous Ron Zacapa (dark rum) and the (in) famous Ilegal Mezcal, best enjoyed at the ever- popular Antigua expat bar Café No Sé, owned by the same people as Ilegal Mezcal. We’ll cover their story about how Mezcal is illegal in Guatemala, yet Ilegal Mezcal exists, a little bit later.
My search for pepian found many versions, with most being middle of the road chicken stews at best. However, if I were to serve one dish from Guatemala at my future restaurant with the defining creations from cultures around the world, it would have to be molé de platano. Every night I finished with this majestic dish and it never seized to amaze me. Caramelized, soft plantains bathe in a pool of profound molé crafted of bittersweet chocolate, a little tomato, a faint spice kick of chiles, and plenty of cinnamon, finished with a sesame seed flourish on top. What an enchanting sauce. It’s seductive and alluring at first from the smell, then inescapable after a few bites. Consider it the elegant Mayan cousin to a Grand Marnier soufflé.
What a dessert, giving new meaning to chocolate and bananas. Who needs banana with nutella in a crêpe when you can have molé de platano?
Next trip to Guatemala, I’ll be in search of that instead of pepian.