If you don't know just how beautiful Guatemala is, the owners of Chapinlandia are determined to dispel your ignorance.
The tiny, well-scrubbed restaurant is just big enough to fit 25 diners, yet it contains endless vistas: One wall-length mural looks out through palm fronds onto a sinuous coastline, sky and ocean mirroring each other's hue. Across the room is a mosaic of prints depicting the volcano Ixtepeque, cobbled streets, and Mayan pyramids. When they decide that's not enough, the owners slip a DVD into the television at the back for you to watch a succession of images -- surfers, nightclubs -- market-tested to appeal to tourists. Really, all they had to do was set out the menu.
The corner of Fruitvale and Foothill is the center of Oakland's minuscule Guatemalan corridor, where that country's day laborers congregate to wait for work. (The name of the restaurant refers to an affectionate insider's name for Guatemala; Guatemalans are chapines.) Chapinlandia, the eight-month-old restaurant, is connected to Chapinlandia, the two-year-old panaderia on International Boulevard, by marriage. Eladio and Elizabeth Aguirre own both, but Eladio runs the bakery and Elizabeth runs the restaurant, with the help of family members. When the younger kids are in school, no one on staff speaks English confidently, but by launching into pidgin versions of each other's languages you and the good-natured servers can usually make do.
Not as spicy or complex as many Mexican regional cuisines, Guatemalan food aims at your gut, not your brain. Its simple variations on corn, beans, rice, and meat aren't so different from the cuisines of neighboring El Salvador or Honduras. The distinctions are all in the shape of a tamal, the herbs in a tomato salsa. Fried plantains served with cream and refried black beans, for example, appear on menus throughout Central America. But Chapinlandia's smooth refried black beans, as stiff as cream cheese, taste of nutty, long-fried onions, not just lard. Even its "Salvadoran style" pupusas don't quite taste like Salvadoran pupusas -- the stuffed cornmeal cakes are thinner, for one, and more thoroughly crisped.
If you're curious to explore the subtle signs of terroir, come to the restaurant on a Saturday or Sunday. The sleepy restaurant wakes up, or at least begins to snore, as the soundtrack from the tourist video competes with a jukebox and a few babies. Their parents have come in for the weekend specials, written either on a whiteboard or noted in the "antojitos chapines -- Guatemalan typical food" section of the menu.
Other than the addition of pork fat, the tamalitos de chipilin probably differ little from the tamales the Mayans made a millennium ago: The egg-shaped bundles of masa (corn cooked with slaked lime and then ground), slightly drier than I prefer, were shot through with chipilin, a local green with a faint, grassy flavor. More flavorful was the green-tinted pache de papa, a square tamal steamed in a banana leaf. The masa here was mixed with roast pork and falling-apart potatoes, and for once the tuber assumed the alpha flavor.
On the Saturday I visited, most of the other diners had ordered soup. Tasting the caldo de gallina, I began to understand how, in a poor country, soup could be a feast-day dish. Described as "hen soup," the caldo is the kind of meal you make for guests you're willing to spare one of your laying hens for. You kill the bird -- so flavorful, so tough -- and then stew it with onions, carrots, and celery long enough to tenderize the meat and transmute water into broth. Then you remove the meat, fry it until the skin turns golden and crackly, and serve the two parts separately -- the chicken on a plate with refritos, rice, and a mild tomato salsa; the clear broth and vegetables spruced up with bowtie pasta. One order feeds three.
The other soup, the caldo de pata, was our waitress' strongest recommendation -- after she came back to the table a second time to make sure we liked it she admitted the soup was her favorite, too. Yes, pata means "paw." An entire cow's foot, sans hoof, floats in the bowl, streaks of meat to be picked out of tendon and fat. But its gelatin melts into the broth, which is flavored with aromatics and just enough chiles to tint it red, and gives the stock an almost satiny texture. You must -- promise me you will -- sprinkle all the accompaniments into the soup. The grated white onion, chopped cilantro, and lemon juice provide the dish with all its peaks, sharp and fragrant, that float on top of the succulent base.
Most of the permanent entrées on the menu are as plain as the food at Denny's, dishes like steak with sautéed onions and pork chops -- going-out food for people used to eating at home. The most distinctive offer unsuspecting tweaks on standard dishes we think of as Mexican: The poblano pepper in Chapinlandia's chiles rellenos was stuffed with ground pork, vegetables, and fearsome chiles, instead of cheese, making it at once lighter and more substantial than other versions I've tried. The "pepian de pollo" was stewed in a thick brown pumpkin-seed sauce with a soothing, nutty richness free of the chile heat northern cooks usually build into it.
I returned for lunch several weeks later with a group of co-workers. We made quite a meal of the entire antojitos chapines section of the menu, covering the table with plates and spending considerably more -- about $10 a person -- than the typical diner.
As with Mexican cuisine, Guatemalan antojitos, or snacks, center on corn. Chapinlandia's chuchitos were stubby, tear-shaped dumplings, constructed of a loose masa potent with nutty home-rendered lard. Big chunks of chicken studded the cornmeal, with a slightly acidic, unspiced tomato sauce spooned overtop. The taquitos -- tortillas rolled around chicken meat and deep fried -- were as dry and bland as every other taquito I've ever tasted, but Chapinlandia's enchiladas chapinas resembled nothing I'd ever seen before. Most of us, in fact, would call these "enchiladas" tostadas. A big, leafy lettuce leaf blanketed each toasted tortilla round. It was mounded high with a fuchsia-colored salad of pickled beets and green beans. A little stewed beef and tomato sauce was on top, and it was capped with a jauntily perched slice of hard-boiled egg. The enchilada tasted as bright as it looked.
Then there was the mixta, one of the odder cultural combinations I've tasted. The menu described it as "corn tortillas with guacamole and sausage." What the menu didn't mention was that the sausage was a butterflied hot dog, set on a small, thick tortilla spread thick with guacamole. Yes, that dollop of red sauce on top was ketchup, and the white sauce squiggled around wasn't sour cream -- it was mayonnaise. The discovery made us all blanch, but I finished my portion, expecting with each bite that it would finally hit me that this thing was inedible.
The mixta is clearly only for the nostalgic chapin. Chapinlandia's warm drinks, however, evoke a deeper, more universal nostalgia. A thick drink of stewed, puréed plantains, the atol de platano is slightly tart, very sweet, and powerfully banana. And Guatemalan arroz con leche is a liquid rice pudding served in a steaming mug. Frothy and warm, the drink made everyone who tried it sigh. With each sip, memories of childhood bloomed, and we melted into the embrace of beautiful Chapinlandia.
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