Over pulpy hunks of plantain blanketed with sweet, brown mole, Agustin Gaytan describes the earthquake-jumbled colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, as if he's channeling some past-life recollection of pre-bust Atlantis. "There are volcanoes all around the city," he says in a tone pregnant with rapture, sucking one of the slivers of cinnamon bark that bristle from the plantains like delicate, irregular toothpicks. "And at night you can see the red of the lava. It's magical."
Through the windows of cheery little San Miguel restaurant, onto the traffic-scoured stretch of International Boulevard at the southern edge of Fruitvale a new pocket of Guatemalan settlement there was hustle, not molten lava, in the air. Gaytan, a chef and cooking instructor from Mexico who lives in Fruitvale, described how just the other day a shy young woman in this very block politely offered him a sexual favor. A sign, the chef suggested, that the vigor of Fruitvale is seeping south into this new enclave, bringing all kinds of practical services to the Guatemalan laborers called chapines who hang out here.
Gaytan says the neighborhood is changing, losing its exclusive tang of Jalisco the birth state of many residents in favor of newer tastes from El Salvador and Guatemala. It's obvious in the markets, where shelves are filling with the seeds, grains, and flours of the Central American kitchen, ingredients for the earthy cuisines that trace back to the pyramid-crazy Maya. Call them the building blocks of Fruitvale's growing monument to the chapin table.
In front of San Miguel on a bright Sunday afternoon, a whole bunch of young chapines short, in boxy polos and the bills of baseball caps set off-kilter could choose more wholesome services than the one Gaytan was offered. Wafting from the open windows at Cristo El Libertor storefront church, the woolly rasp of the PA system floated salvation as one option, while at Chapinlandia Panaderia, the warm-sugar whiff of pan dulces seemed to promise luxury as palpable as the velvety flocking on fake roses for sale in the quinceañera boutiques. And at San Miguel, the second location of a restaurant born in the Mission, those dessert plantains smoldering in caramel-colored mole seemed to radiate a burr of heat every bit as evocative as Agustin Gaytan's recollection of the magical fires at night.
At first look, San Miguel's menu also smolders with promise, if only because it offers a bit of relief from the ordinary. The best dishes offer relief from Fruitvale's familiar tacos and tortas, its Jalisco set-pieces such as birria and pozole. As far as unusual goes, you could do worse than a bowl of San Miguel's weekend-only cak-ick, a Mayan soup-stew (in Mayan dialect, no less) that eats like a lesson in the pre-Colombian kitchen. It's a boiled turkey leg bristling spiky tendons and clad with pale, bumpy skin, in a copious pumpkin-seed broth studded with whole, wilted mint leaves. In fact, it was less brothy and more viscous than that probably sounds, a diluted rendering of pipian, the nut-and-seed-thickened sauce that's one of Central America's great gifts to the sauce world. I suspect the core pipian contained ground sesame along with pumpkin seeds a trace of bitterness shadowed the taste, much like the deliciously chalky bitterness shadowing sesame halvah. The broth may have gotten an extra hit of silky smoothness from an addition of corn masa.
Okay, so I wanted to love cak-ick more than I did. If only the turkey had been braised to a succulent mass of meaty goodness, or if the broth included a vegetable element to make its seedy depths seem less one-dimensional, the execution might have matched the dish's anthro-culinary pedigree.
It was nice to discover, then, that the pipian (the menu spells it "pepian") corrected most of the cak-ick's shortcomings. This dish's meaty center, a chicken leg and thigh, were stewed to sufficient softness. The sauce had the same warmth and bitterness of the diluted turkey version, only more concentrated, and with an effect that seemed a tad more lush. There were actual vegetables in the sauce, too: chayote hunks, longish planks of sweet carrot, and green beans.
Call it the kitchen's dedication to doing things right, or merely the strictures of re-creating a cuisine in an alien context, but you have to hand it to the cooks for ditching expediency. That's true with the Guatemalan sausages called longanizas, which the kitchen makes from scratch. Cut into irregular pieces and heavily browned with onions on the griddle, they were as pale and plump as bratwurst, but more like brats from some whacked-out universe where Germans crave the burn of chiles. In cross-section, the house links were a mosaic of minced pork and fresh chiles faded pale green. Not bad, if you forgave the kitchen for grinding the meat with less than sharp blades, or for working it too hard in the grinding, both factors that render sausages less than juicy.
Perhaps the cold salpicon spooned onto crispy tostaditas was overworked, too, but the hashed beef had so much vivid flavor it'd be impossible not to notice. Mixed with lime juice and plenty of chopped mint, the grayish fibers felt nubbly between the teeth, sweet contrast to the welter of minced radish on top. That salpicon turned out to be a better boquita appetizer than tostaditas de ceviche, which suffered from a hash of flavor-deficient boiled shrimp.
And even though tamales de chipilin had flavor so reticent I found myself straining to catch it, the irregular little things were so delicate in texture that their elusive flavor didn't spoil them a bit. In Central American style, the vaguely cone-shaped tamales were made from masa strained to a fine paste the ones here had starch that morphed to silk, just as it does in well-made gnocchi. The fine masa was mixed with chopped leaves of chipilin, a leafy vegetable with a delicacy to match the texture of San Miguel's tamales. Sadly, the leaves, eaten in Central America as far north as Oaxaca, are only available frozen here, and freezing pretty much washes out their already-tenuous flavor.
Too bad. But here on the mean streets of Oakland, some things like the glow of molten lava above ruined colonial monasteries at night just have to remain in the realm of the semimythical.